Respectful Characters

Back in the year 2000 when I first started going to Catholic mass in China, I discovered some interesting interplay between the Church and the Chinese language. I’ll mention just one such example here.

Traditionally, God’s name has been capitalized in English, even in pronoun form. Hence you will find, “for He is our salvation,” “Follow Him,” “Do His will,” etc. The pronoun capitalization is intended to show respect.

An obvious problem appears when one attempts to continue this tradition in Chinese translations of the Bible. Chinese does not lend itself to the “capitalization” of just any character (though there may be an exception or two). I found the Chinese solution to be quite interesting.

To understand the solution, however, you need to first understand a few things about Chinese pronouns. The basic pronouns are (I), (you), (he), (she), and (it). You’ll notice that the characters 你 (you) and 他 (he) have the same radical on the left side: 亻. This radical is derived from the character and means “person.” Notice, too, that it is swapped out for a to convert “he” (他) to “she” (她). Although it’s not done on the Mainland so much, the Taiwanese also sometimes like to make a female version of “you” (你) in the same way: .

While the pronoun “you” (你/妳) is directly related to 尔 etymologically, “he/she” (他/她) is not directly linked to 也. Nevertheless, what the above usages seem to establish is that “you” and “he” each have a “core element” (尔 and 也, respectively) which, when combined with the appropriate radical, produce a gender-specific pronoun. (Interestingly, the use of 亻 — derived from 人, which means “person” — for the male element seems to be the reverse of the West’s former use of the word “Man” or “mankind” to mean “humans” or “humankind.” 人 is normally a very inclusive term, used even in the words for “alien” (外星人) and “robot” (机器人), where the English terms “person” or “human” would not apply. Perhaps the Chinese 人, at its core, means something more like “humanoid.”)

What the Chinese have done is make use of these “core pronoun elements” and . Rather than using either a “male” or “female” radical, an entirely different one is chosen (which seems to be in better keeping with a genderless understanding of God). The radical chosen was 礻.

礻 is derived from the character , which is generally understood to depict an altar. Karlgren states that 示 “occurs as a signific in characters bearing on religion, rites, etc.” (Wenlin). It seems the perfect choice. The pronoun characters you will see in the Chinese Bible when referring to God, therefore, are and .

[Note: 祢 is already claimed as a surname pronounced Mí rather than Nǐ, but the Church seems to ignore this discrepancy. It’s also interesting that the Church rejected the use of for God, which is the standard polite form of 你. I guess “polite” isn’t good enough. To me, at least, 祢 seems to simultaneously convey reverance (by radical) as well as intimacy (by pronunciation), but I have no idea how the Chinese feel about it.]

I also wondered what had been done with the pronoun “I.” True, God doesn’t speak in first person much in the Bible, but it does happen. Exodus is a good example. The issuing of the Ten Commandments contains a liberal sprinkling of God pronouns “I” and “me”. Just one example:

> I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. (Ex 20:2-3)

So I checked this verse in an online Chinese Bible. No luck. It’s just 我. [Not sure if there could be Chinese Bible version issues here…] I was kinda hoping for 礻+ 我 for consistency. I suppose we don’t see this for two reasons. The main reason is that the character apparently doesn’t exist, and never has, even as a variant form. The other reason is that 我 contains no swappable element such as 亻 or 女. Like the English first person pronoun “I,” which comes capitalized right out of the package, it seems to need no dressing up.

Note: Christianity was almost certainly not the first organized religion to make use of “god pronouns” in Chinese. A Google search turns up examples of it in Buddhist literature as well. Being Christian and not Buddhist, I simply discovered their usage in the Bible first.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. How do you type those? Unless I’m doing something wrong, the Microsoft IME doesn’t give those as options when I enter the pinyin…

  2. I agree that the pronoun for God should be capitalized. It seems to be slipping from use. From what I’ve seen, the primary offenders are Catholics.

  3. John B,

    Yes, you’re doing something wrong… you’re relying solely on Microsoft IME. 🙂

    There are two main ways to get these lesser-used characters.

    One is two go into Microsoft Word, Insert / Symbol… / Font: (Asian text), then scroll down. They’re oeganized by radical, and you’ll find lots of insane characters in there.

    The other way is to use alternate input methods. I just copied and pasted from Wenlin.

  4. Todd,

    My (printed) version of the Bible is the New American Bible (St. Joseph personal size edition), and it doesn’t seem to like pronoun capitalization. Note in my quote from Exodus the final “me” is not capitalized. (Should the “who” be capitalized as well, since it also refers to God?)

    Maybe it’s a Catholic tendency (the NAB is a Catholic version), as Tim P. suggested. If that’s the case, I would think it’s a result of trying to be more faithful to the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek (as opposed to just trying to be reverent.)

  5. Rather interesting postings. If I recall correctly, and I may not, Hebrew used Adonai, which is usually translated as Lord or lord, depending if the recipient is God or an individual, in place of the Tetragram. The Tetragram being rather special and ought not be spoken too often unless one loses respect for God. Therefore, from the Hebrew, Lord=Adonai, which is used in place of Yahweh. Elohim is a plural form and used in the early part of Genesis.

    Hebrew does not capitalize letters. I do not have the Greek testament available to me and I really forget whether the Greek also capitalizes or not. Again, I may be wrong, but I suspect that the capitalization is an English orthographic convention, but it could be derived from Latin forms (which I do not remember they being present though). There is probably no reason for the making such changes in the Chinese printed material except to imitate English traditions.

  6. I’m no expert, but i am a jew so i have some input on the biblical hebrew.

    yhvh (yod heh vav heh) (interesting that people pronounce it Jehovah) is what g-d calls himself in the torah and is commonly translated as Lord in English in most Jewish translations.

    Elohim translates as G-d or G-ds and is used in Genisis but also in terms of posession. So we say ” Baruch atah adonai ELOHEINU melech haolam..”, which means Blessed are you adonai OUR G-D, ruler of the universe… Eloheinu is the third person plural possessive of elohim.

    Adonai is used as a way to pronouce yhvh, since we don’t actually sound out or write it’s real pronunciation, and is only used during prayers on the sabbath in most circles

    HaShem which literally means “the name” is also used as a replacement for yhvh..used in everyday conversation about g-d.

    I don’t know if this even helps…hope i could at least add to the conversation.

  7. John~ This truly is interesting. I studied Hebrew in school (another Eastern language) and found similar issues w/ capitalization. Guess it’s a Western thing.

    BTW, I have a new blog now. I’m @ typepad instead of blogspot.

  8. Welcome back! Was afraid your server got wiped and you were gone for good.

  9. Um, if the SURNAME was actually identical to the simplified form before simplification, then I was wrong.-Allen

  10. It ate my comment!

    Anyway, this is fascinating — I had noticed the different use of characters but never really thought about it too much.

    I recently got a new bible (protestant — English Standard Version) after using a Catholic (NRSV) one for years, and was disappointed that it didn’t have capitalised pronouns for God. I wonder why its going out? Does it reflect our more (post)modern “Jesus is my best mate” kind of attitude, rather than the old evangelical hellfire and brimstone what-if-I’m-going-to-hell-I-sure-fear-God attitude? The emphasis on Jesus’s humanity rather than divinity? Who knows.

  11. Da Xiangchang Says: April 20, 2005 at 12:59 pm

    Being a total agnostic, I always found the practice of capitalizing “he” when referring to God to be very annoying. I’ve always felt the same annoyance whenever someone writes “e. e. cummings” when writing about that poet who doesn’t use capitals. There should be a uniform way of capitalizing English words, whether it’s God Almighty or some inscrutable poet!!!

  12. schtickyrice Says: April 21, 2005 at 10:57 am

    Being a total atheist, I find “God” extremely annoying. Just leave it alone and let it be.

  13. schtickyrice,

    If you’re hoping people are ever going to stop discussing God, brace yourself for disappointment.

  14. schtickyrice Says: April 22, 2005 at 9:32 am

    I’m not disappointed, just annoyed. Maybe the relentless coverage of Ratzinger & co. in the western media as of late had something to do with it. To each his own. You certainly are not subjected to the same saturation point in China so perhaps you are in a better frame of mind to discuss away, as you should on your own blog. Peace.

  15. What is with the non-capitalisation of the name thing? I’ve come across another writer bell hooks and its so odd — no explanation — is it just to be cool, like the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince?

  16. wukaiyuan Says: April 12, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    I don’t see why the third row, “I” for God could not be written that way. After all, although it’s not consistent with “you” or “he/she,” there is a version of 我 written with a human radical next to it. 俄国’s 俄. But that’s just being argumentative since it has no common meaning. Just arguing for the sake of consistency, but I don’t see a problem with the new radical pairing you chose.

  17. Version issues don’t affect the first-person pronoun; but the standard Protestant version you linked to doesn’t use special second and third person pronouns for the godhead. Here’s the standard Catholic version (scroll down to chapter 20), which uses 我 as well (and which, it appears, doesn’t use reverential pronouns either).

    When are 祂 and 祢 used? It seems rather random. From a brief check over books at hand, the Missal (traditional) and the full Office books (simplified with lots of typos from traditional) both use them. Of pocket-size Office books, the traditional uses them, but the simplified does not. The Scotus Bible (also simplified from a traditional HK version) does not (but then, the traditional versions I’ve seen do not, either). A massive Catechism volume 《天主教教理》, retypeset in simplified form (and, according to the preface, contentiously debated in spots) from a Taiwan version, does. The small book of prayers 《圣教日课》 issued by the diocese has some sections with the special versions, others without, but the majority of the text is in classical language. And, um, Vatican II document translations, yep, special pronouns.

    I’d say it’s more akin to maintaining “thee’s and thou’s” as a sign of respect, rather than capitalization. This would explain the lack of a first-person pronoun, since respect is typically given to others and not to oneself (even in English God does not speak in the “royal we”).

    If used, the first-person pronoun would be 朕, naturally.

  18. zhwj,

    Thanks for the feedback! As always, you are a font of knowledge. I never do much research for my blog entries, even when I should. (This is a blog, not a research journal.) So I appreciate the info.

    I looked for an online Catholic version (my Chinese Bible is New Testament only, but you can’t trust those Protestants! hehe), but my brief Google search didn’t turn up anything.

    In my experience, 祂 and 祢 are always used in mass. I can’t say I’m always checking the pronouns, though.

    As for capitalization… I’m not saying these characters are a form of capitalization, I’m saying they are accomplishing the same purpose as capitalization in English: respect.

    Interesting you should bring up the “we” issue… There’s a famous case of God using “we” in the original version of Genesis.

  19. Two things: (1) Nothing wrong with MS IME. Newer versions (I’m using 2003 pinyin) do have these characters; there are three input settings: 简/繁/大 for simpl/trad/full. The full set has these characters, although I believe 祢 is under “mi”. Not the entire Unicode set, though, so for more obscure stuff you’ll need to do as John mentions above.

    (2) More on the issue of respect: there are actually two versions of the most common Protestant translation (Union 和合), one that uses 神 to refer to God, and one that uses 上帝 (Catholics use 天主, in one of the many confusing usage differences). The 神 version follows traditional formal Chinese usage in leaving a space before the character out of reverence. So you get things like:
    起初 神创造天地。
    You could say this is like capitalizing “God”, distinguishing it from a reference to other “gods”.

    Although I wonder whether this was merely a convenience so they could keep the same type setting and switch in 上帝…

    Oh, and one more book I just dug up – a book of musical Mass settings from a church in Guangzhou – they’ve photocopied stuff from different sources, so it has a combination of normal and special pronouns (I just happen to have all of this stuff lying around, so it’s not like I went out and did any special research, either).

  20. zhwj,

    (1) OK, you’re right… but it’s always good to have more than one reference for comparison. Don’t think I just hate all things Microsoft. To be honest, Microsoft’s excellent multilingual support was the sole reason I abandoned ICQ and AIM in favor of MSN Messenger. I had no idea Microsoft IME had been expanded upon in recent years; I’ll have to look into that!

    (2) Actually Catholics use 上帝 as well as 天主, corresponding to “God” and “the Lord,” respectively. You’re right that they don’t use 神.

    The photocopied stuff from different sources is typical of churches in China, it seems. I’ve seen quite a lot of that myself. You see not only mixtures of types of pronouns, but also mixtures of simplified and traditional characters.

  21. If the english pronoun “I” was not usually capitalised, would the bible capitalise it when it was used by God? Or, for that matter, what if He was talking to himself, would He say: “Aren’t You a silly duffer, You’ve flooded the planet!” or would he say “Aren’t you a silly duffer, you’ve flooded the planet!”

    The biblical “He” is the capitalised form of the male third person pronoun, but the chinese 祂 is not directly derrived from the male 他…does this mean that in the chinese bible God is sexless?

  22. Oh, hang on, the silly duffer is me: if I recall correctly, the bible capitalises “me”, “my”, and “mine” when they refer to God, so my hypothetical questions are not needed after all. Conclusion: based on the conventions of the english bible, John’s 示+我 character is justified.

    How was this dealt with in Hebrew, does anybody know?

  23. zhwj,

    After doing some checking, I’m not so sure 上帝 and 天主 correspond so well to “God” and “the Lord,” as I originally thought. Both terms are definitely used by Catholics, though.

    In my understanding, “Lord” is a translation of the Hebrew Yahweh, whereas “God” is used for Elohim.

    A quick comparison of Genesis shows 天主 where my Bible uses “God” and 上主 where my Bible uses “the Lord.” Maybe 上帝 doesn’t appear in the Catholic translations of the Bible although it is still used in speech by Catholics?

  24. John: You’re correct in your investigation; the Catholic terms are 天主 for God and 上主 (rather than 上帝) for LORD (the all-caps English rendition of the tetragrammaton), although in more recent translations, 上主 is replaced by the phonetic 雅威. This is normally rendered 耶和华 in Protestant translations (as in your link to Exodus), echoing the Yaweh-Jehovah split in English. Exodus 20:2 in the linked version is “我是耶和华你的神”, while the Catholic version is “我是上主你的天主”, and the newer Pastoral version reads “我是雅威,你的天主”. (Here’s the KJV for reference, which incidentally doesn’t capitalize pronouns, although it does keep the italicized “translators’ additions”.)

    The history behind all these word choices is fascinating: 天主 was chosen (by Ricci) out of 《史记》, but he also found 上帝 in 《书经》 and 《诗经》, and another alternative, 天 in the works of 朱熹 where it was used to mean 圣言. Dominicans and Franciscans chose 天主 exclusively, and Pope Clement XI in 1704 and 1715 barred usage of any other form. But now I’m way off topic.

    Secular Chinese usage tends to follow Protestant terminology, as many dubbed movies will show (“我的上帝啊!”). So it is possible that Catholics might follow in situations where they are not merely repeating liturgy.

  25. John,
    Re your note in your blog entry (I’m not sure if you’ve resolved this, but in case you haven’t): Mí 祢 is the simplified form of 禰, the traditional form. As for it being a homogram with nĭ 祢, I think we can safely assume that when it was adopted, simp. mí 祢 (and all cuurently officially standardized simplified characters) didn’t exist because the PRC didn’t exist. So it would have been Chinese gov’t linguists in the 1950s who created this homogram–whether they chose to ignore the pre-existing use of nĭ in the Bible, or been unaware of it (unlikely?), or figured they would just do it anyway–not necessarily a terrible or nasty choice as the very specific context for the use of nĭ 祢 would, I think, be very unlikely to cause it to be confused with mí. Others in the same simplification category include 彌,獼 etc.
    Good to see you have Karlgren–invaluable. An excellent discussion site. Keep it up and thanks.

  26. Tim Bender Says: June 26, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Actually it always had a ni3 pronunciation in a few temple related uses (and even the surname had an alternate pronounciation of ni3 in the past), though certainly something creative about the use for 你. Best to consult an ancient chinese dictionary when trying to understand such issues – the modern ones omit too much.


    (一)(nǐ 你)①为亡父在宗庙中立主之称。《公羊传•隐公元年》“惠公者何,隐之考也”何休注:“生称父,死称考,入庙称祢。”《左传•襄公十二年》:“同族于祢庙。”杜预注:“父庙也。”②随行的神主。《礼记•文王世子》:“其在军,则守于公祢。”孔颖达疏:“公祢,谓迁主,载在齐车,随公行者也。”

    (二)(mí 糜,旧读nǐ 你)姓。汉代有祢衡。

  27. […] Finally, if you’d like to see the “god pronoun” (closely related to these) be sure to check out this article: Respectful Characters. […]

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