"Unto" vs. "to"

OK, hep me out here: I’ve never understood the fine distinction between “unto” and “to.” The KJV Bible is just chockablock with “unto’s”. Back in them days people did all sorts of things “unto” something else. In most cases, a simple “to” would suffice in today’s lexicon. But that word was available back then, so apparently there’s a fine distinction. And hardly anyone does anything “unto” anyone or thing nowadays.

For reference:
Just in the first three chapters of “Genesis,” there are over a dozen “unto’s”.

In “Moby Dick,” two. Guess what? Both of them are Biblical quotes.

Two distinction come (un)to mind immediately: You wouldn’t use “unto” in a geographic sense, as in “I’m going unto London.” Also, “unto” can (archaically) also mean “until,” as in “‘unto’ death do us part.”

Counterexample: “unto the ends of the earth.”

Genesis 10:19
And the border of the Canaanites was from Sidon, as thou comest to Gerar, unto Gaza; as thou goest, unto Sodom, and Gomorrah, and Admah, and Zeboim, even unto Lasha.

Ok, I stand corrected; I’m about as far as possible from being a Bible scholar. But was this a common non-Bible usage at the time of this translation?

Actually, the examples quoted by panache and KTK are a little bit different from your “I’m going unto London” example.

In both those examples, “unto” doesn’t really signify “to” in the sense of going “to” a destination, but rather “up to” or “as far as”.

Isn’t “unto” literally “up to,” with the /p/ assimilated to the following nasal consonant? (Checks dictionary.) No: Online Etymology Dictionary says it’s the same distinction as between “until” and “till,” which is, no distinction in meaning.

You’ve already repealed this, but… what nasal consonant follows /p/ in “up to”?

According to Webster’s, the un- prefix is inferred to have meant “as far as”, which agrees with some of the distinctions upthread. Another distinction would be that it is not used to form infinitives.

What I really want to point out is that the King James Version was written to be read aloud. Even today it is praised for the beauty of its language. The translators preferred a poetic, elevated sound, and tended to choose older words. (Note the usage of the word thereof instead of the posessive pronoun its.) Unto fits all of these criteria: it fits very nicely into an iambic pattern, seems more elevated (today, even pretentious) than the lowly to, and has existed since Old English (according to Webster’s, again).


It doesn’t. The idea was that the p was converted to an n. It would be similar to how adding the prefix in- to polite becomes impolite.

Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary, Gramercy Books, 1983:

Archaic. 1. to (in its various uses, except as the accompaniment of the infinitive). 2. until; till [ME; modeled on until]

Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 1986:

1: TO 2 --used as a function word to indicate reference or concern (they became a world ~ themselves --A.T. Fleming)

D’oh! Dental, not nasal. Sorry. And “assimilated” is the wrong word, anyway. Since it’s wrong, there’s no point in deconstructing whatever bizarre non-linguistics my brain was trying to create.

Which is a place assimilation because the ‘p’ in polite was bilabial. In the case of ‘up to’ I don’t see how this works, the ‘t’ in to is alveolar and and the ‘n’ is also alveolar so there’s no assimilation.

BTW there is no one “Webster’s.” It’s not a publisher or an author, it’s the royalty-free use of Daniel Webster’s name by anyone who wishes to do so.

Maybe he borrowed a copy from Emmanuel Lewis.

I was thinking that the (apparently false) hypothesis was that the bilabial ‘p’ from “up to” was assimilated into the alveolar ‘t’. I know I lift my tongue inside my mouth while I pronounce the ‘p’. If I am “lazy”, and don’t close my mouth all the way, and let my voice carry a bit past the schwa (‘u’), I wind up with something that sounds similar to ‘unto’.

Ah. Sorry. I’ve heard people say that before, so I thought it was correct. I was referring to the 1913 edition of Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. I have a hard copy, but it’s not in the best of shape, so I used the online version.

I don’t Noah 'bout that.

Just some more food for thought

In the first part of Psalms 5:3, David says, “My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee”

In Isaiah 66:1 we see that God is above man.

Thus saith the Lord,

“The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool”

David, in the Psalm, is saying he will direct his prayer ‘unto’ God. The end of verse 3 clarifies this by saying, “and will look up.”

However, when God is questioning Cain after he slew Abel, his brother, “…the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother?”.

Any thoughts?

This looks a lot like the use/utilize question. I say take them both out back and shoot them.