“A Look at Some ‘Non-Standard’ Book of Mormon Grammar”

 

Tyndale window, Oxford

Stained glass window of the great Bible translator William Tyndale, in Oxford, England

 

It being that day of the week, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture has published another article:

 

http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/a-look-at-some-nonstandard-book-of-mormon-grammar/

 

I think this now represents one hundred and seven [107] consecutive weeks of publication.

 

I’m not alone in regarding this week’s article as exceptionally significant.  My friend and colleague Professor Royal Skousen, professor of linguistics and unequalled expert on the textual history of the Book of Mormon, prepared a statement concerning this article that he has sent out to many of his faculty colleagues at Brigham Young University and that he has also kindly permitted me to reproduce here, in part:

 

Dear colleagues,

 

One of the biggest issues in Mormonism has been the language of the original Book of Mormon. From the very beginning, 184 years ago with the publication of the 1830 edition, the text has been criticized for its bad grammar and poor vocabulary. And apparently the Church has been sensitive to this issue, especially in light of Joseph Smith’s extensive grammatical editing for the 1837 and 1840 editions, as well as later editing by, for instance, James Talmage in the 1920 LDS edition. And there have been been the complaints of Mormons and anti-Mormons alike that the language could not have come from God himself since God speaks only correct English. Mormon church leader B. H. Roberts had a lot to say on this issue, even declaring that it was blasphemy to think that God was responsible for the bad grammar. Many LDS scholars have also argued that the bad grammar shows Joseph got ideas when he translated and that he put those ideas into his own upstate New York English; he could not have gotten actual words since they are so nonstandard.

 

From the very beginning of my work on the Book of Mormon (from 1988 on), the evidence has been amassing that this view of the Book of Mormon language is largely wrong. In the late 1990s, I began to find evidence that the vocabulary derives from the 1500s and the 1600s, not from the 1800s. More recent work on volume 3 of the critical text has shown that the vocabulary and meanings of the words date from the 1540s up to about 1740. I am currently studying the phraseology of the original text, and with improved data bases, I am finding virtually all of these phrases within that same time period. About a year ago, I decided to look at the bad grammar and almost immediately found evidence that “howlers” like “in them days” actually occurred in academic and scholarly writing in the early 1600s. And now we have a very important paper from Stanford Carmack, just published online on Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, that basically goes through much of the bad grammar of the original text of the Book of Mormon and shows that it occurred in Early Modern English and was not considered bad grammar. For the most part, this nonstandard language is not found in the King James Bible, but it did occur in Early Modern English. And some of it did not occur in Joseph Smith’s American dialectal speech. Stan’s paper can be found here:

 

http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/a-look-at-some-nonstandard-book-of-mormon-grammar/

 

In this paper, he considers dozens of grammatical issues, including these:

 

“thou saidest” versus “thou saidst”

“in them days” versus “in those days”

“I had smote” versus “I had smitten”

“they was yet wroth” versus “they were yet wroth”

“and hid up unto the Lord” versus “and hidden up unto the Lord”

“had spake” versus “had spoke” versus “had spoken”

“there was beasts” versus “there were beasts”

“there were no chance” versus “there was no chance”

“the arms of mercy was extended” versus “the arms of mercy were extended”

“thou received” versus “thou receivedst”

“thou had” versus “thou hadst”

“remember thou” versus “rememberest thou”

“did thou” versus “didst thou”

“so great was the blessings” versus “so great were the blessings”

“they dieth” versus “they die”

“faith on the Lord” versus “faith in the Lord”

“if it so be” versus “if it be so”

dative impersonal constructions, such as “it whispereth me”

“had arriven” versus “had arrived” versus “was arrived”

“the more part of the people”

nominative absolute constructions, such as “the people having loved Nephi exceedingly”

“beseech of you” versus “beseech you”

that-constructions, such as “he besought that Alma should pray unto God”

subjunctive versus indicative: “if he go” versus “if he goeth”

conjoined mixtures of mood in if-clauses: “if he confess … and repenteth”

conjoined mixtures of person marking: “for thou didst forsake … and did go”

“much horses” versus “many horses”

“in the which things”

“all your whole soul”

“by the way of Gentile” versus “by way of the Gentile”

 

Carmack concludes his article with this summarizing statement:

 

In view of the totality of the evidence adduced here, I would assert that it is no longer possible to argue that the Earliest Text of the Book of Mormon is defective and substandard in its grammar. And that follows in large part because we would then have to call Early Modern English defective and substandard, since so much of what we see in the book is like that stage of the English language. And it was a human language like any other, fraught with variation and exhibiting diverse forms of expression. My hope is that this article has managed to disabuse us of the idea that the Book of Mormon is full of “errors of grammar and diction” and appreciate the text for what it is: a richly embroidered linguistic work that demonstrates natural language variation appropriately and whose forms and patterns of use are strikingly like those found in the Early Modern English period.

 

I highly recommend this seminal work to you.

 

Posted from Cedar City, Utah

 


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