One of the most interesting puzzles about the Book of Mormon is the recent discovery that much of the language is archaic in ways not easily explained by imitating the King James Version. We’ve previously discussed work from Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack showing apparent influence from Early Modern English in the words dictated by Joseph Smith. Why that is the case is still a subject for debate, but there is solid data and careful scholarship behind that observation. Part of the scholarship has included looking at specific words that appear to have archaic meanings that predate Joseph Smith’s era.
In The Nature of the Original Language, parts 3 and 4 of volume 3 of the massive Book of Mormon critical text project, Skousen and Carmack compiled evidence from searches of Early Modern English texts that showed many aspects of the Book of Mormon (meanings of certain words, the use of specific phrases, and many aspects of grammar) had fallen out of use by the 1740s. Their findings at that time were limited by the challenges in searching the databases of Early Modern English texts. Since then, better search abilities and access to more data has made it possible to more fully test their published work, and over the past year, the authors have been carefully reviewing the data to more fully evaluate their prior findings. As a result, they have found a need to issue an update since a few of the archaic words and phrases turn out to have persisted longer than initially thought, while many remain solid examples of archaic language in the Book of Mormon. This is a great example of strong scholarship, reflecting a willingness to continue learning and to correct and revise one’s findings in the ever tentative quest for knowledge.
To rapidly facilitate Book of Mormon scholarship and to make further review and feedback from others possible, a preliminary version of their update was just published by the Interpreter Foundation. See “Pre-print of ‘Revisions in the Analysis of Archaic Language in the Book of Mormon’” by Stanford Carmack and Royal Skousen. The document is a pre-print of what will be published part 8 of Volume III: The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon in the critical text project. It is meant to be viewed only, not printed or saved.
21 thoughts on “An Update in the Scholarship Regarding the Archaic Language in the Book of Mormon”
I just want to point out the quality of the scholarship that continues to be perpetrated by these two (Carmack & Skousen). Take this as an example:
“The NOL discussion under Mar argues that the Ether passage here refers to breaking the progress of people, not ships. Here the co-occurring archaic mar means ‘hinder, stop’, and it too refers to hindering or stopping these people in their sea journey. Some might be tempted to interpret break here as Early Modern English (and biblical) usage describing ships as being broken, as in Jonah 1:4 “so that the ship was like to be broken”. The OED refers to this usage as obsolete (see definition 2d under break: to wreck (a ship), obsolete). However, this meaning for break is not what Ether 6:10 intends to say, especially given its co-occurrence with the verb mar. Thus far we have not been able to find break and mar used this way in English after the 1600s.”
They put on intentional blinders so they can continue to pretend archaic usage. As they point out, it’s not just a temptation “to interpret break here as Early Modern English (and biblical) usage describing ships as being broken,” it is the most sensible interpretation “given its co-occurrence with the verb mar.” Just as it’s not just a temptation to believe in the theory of relativity or the existence of gravity. The text is clearly referring to the physical state of the ships, not their progress*. The verse begins with a reference to the ships’ motility, goes on to reference the state of their well-being, then ends with commentary about the ships being lit. They are obviously three separate statements within the same verse. The best reading is the simplest. One can rely on the obvious meaning of the word break “separate or cause to separate into pieces as a result of a blow, shock, or strain,” and the definition of the word mar “impair the appearance of; disfigure” —we need not go searching for archaic usage. Intentionally misreading the text to further the “mystery” of their argument is only one example in which Carmack and Skousen are abusing scholarship to further their agenda.
*for reference, here is the verse in its entirety:
10 And thus they were driven forth; and no monster of the sea could break them, neither whale that could mar them; and they did have light continually, whether it was above the water or under the water.
Anon 1:03, good catch. Skousen and Carmack ask us to consider the co-occurrence of “break” with “mar,” but we should also consider the co-occurrence of both those terms with “monsters” and “whales.” Ask yourself: what is it that whales and sea-monsters more likely to do to ships, delay them, or destroy them? Hinder their progress, or break them into pieces? Clearly the latter. It’s hard even to imagine how a whale might impede the progress of a ship, short of physically damaging it. Skousen and Carmack’s argument here is laughable.
Hi, Jeff, would you be willing to look at how Biblical and Book of Mormon prophecies, along with the Word of Wisdom, mention the sea as a path to salvation and talk about the blessings of the Lord on the isles of the seas? For instance, there are all kinds of trace minerals avaiable in fish and seaweed that are factors in human health–molybdenum (element 42), tellurium (element 52), and ruthenium (element 44), for instance. There is fertile ground for textual analysis there. Joseph Smith said that fish weren't "meat" as far as D&C 89 goes. In fact, he praised it as a food.
According to the larger, preceding context of Ether 6:10, they and them refer to persons not ships. Still, break could convey a biblical meaning of wreck, since wreck could take a personal direct object, through transference. But mar is probably archaic, with a meaning of hinder. And if break conveys the same meaning, the it would be a case of synonymy conveyed by different verbs.
The bigger picture is that persistent usage for most of the 26 candidates in this preprint isn't in the OED or shown yet. Analysts are free to write up papers showing how the OED has things wrong, and that there was persistent usage of all these proposed archaisms up to 1830. Dialogue or Sunstone would gladly publish serious studies.
“But mar is probably archaic, with a meaning of hinder.”
What reasoning is there for this assertion?
The chapter uses they and their to refer to both people and vessels almost interchangeably:
“thus they were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind”
“they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them”
“when they were buried in the deep there was no water that could hurt them, their vessels being tight like unto a dish, and also they were tight like unto the ark of Noah; therefore when they were encompassed about by many waters they did cry unto the Lord, and he did bring them forth again upon the top of the waters”
“the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters; and thus they were driven forth before the wind”
“And they did sing praises unto the Lord; yea, the brother of Jared did sing praises unto the Lord, and he did thank and praise the Lord all the day long; and when the night came, they did not cease to praise the Lord.
And thus they were driven forth; and no monster of the sea could break them, neither whale that could mar them”
It is often clear by context whether they and their is referring to ships or people, but sometimes not. Based on the context of verse 10, them appears to be referring to the ships, especially considering people generally aren’t broken in this sense. The fact that Carmack and Skousen “have not been able to find break and mar used this way in English after the 1600s” seems to show that it would be more reasonable to give the win to the ships and not the people in this instance. At the very least, one would expect responsible scholars to acknowledge that there is some question to their assumption.
“The bigger picture is that persistent usage for most of the 26 candidates in this preprint isn't in the OED or shown yet.”
This sounded like a challenge, so here we go.
The next usage that was classified as “still archaic” is another one in which there is some question as to whether or not the authors’ reading of the text is the correct one. They cite a line from Jacob 7:19 which reads (according to them) “I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful but I confess unto God.” Sounds like a weird construction—using the word but in place of except. What they fail to show is the context of the quote as well as acknowledging that the current print version contains punctuation which clarifies the statement and makes the usage not-so-archaic:
“And because I have thus lied unto God I greatly fear lest my case shall be awful; but I confess unto God.”
Note how the inclusion of “And because I have thus lied unto God” as well as that pesky semicolon, provide us with a very different phrase. Making “I confess unto God” an independent clause instead of a subordinate clause makes all the difference. It also makes more sense in the context of the rest of the verse. Earlier in the verse Sherem makes a parallel statement “I fear lest I have committed the unpardonable sin, for I have lied unto God.” Thus we see his “case being awful” is a result of his having lied to God, not conditional on his ability or not to confess.
But unless, except = archaic. But as a conjunction = not so much.
To be continued. . .
Anon 12:02, another great catch. I think we can also reject the notion that but meaning “unless” or “except” is archaic. I’m not sure what the OED says about that usage ca. 1830, but it’s totally acceptable today, as my ear tells me (to me, the line “my case shall be awful but I confess unto God” sounds unusual but not archaic) and as the dictionary will attest.
… and here:
I am puzzled by the claims in the first couple of comments that deride the scholarship of Carmack and Skousen. The first questionable claim is "The text is clearly referring to the physical state of the ships, not their progress." This is true if you only look at one clause and also assume that "break" and "mar" only have their current modern meanings. But if you read that passage in context, there's a problem, for in context there is nothing requiring a change in reference to the ships. There is a change in the meaning of "they" in verse 7, but it is clearly signaled by first mentioning the ships again, before again referring to humans.
Below is the context from Ether 2, but with"break" and "mar" replaced with a marker for an unknown verb. Then tell me how you would divine that "them" suddenly shifts to the ships?
 And it came to pass that when they were buried in the deep there was no water that could hurt them [here "them" refers to humans who can be hurt by water entering a vessel], their vessels ["their" still refers to the humans, owners of the vessels] being tight like unto a dish, and also they [the vessels were just mentioned, and now "they" refers to the vessels] were tight like unto the ark of Noah; therefore when they were encompassed about by many waters they [clearly humans now, for ships don't pray] did cry unto the Lord, and he did bring them forth again upon the top of the waters.
 And it came to pass that the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters; and thus they were driven forth before the wind.
 And they did sing praises unto the Lord; yea, the brother of Jared did sing praises unto the Lord, and he did thank and praise the Lord all the day long; and when the night came, they did not cease to praise the Lord.
 And thus they were driven forth; and no monster of the sea could [VERB#1] them, neither whale that could [VERB#2] them; and they did have light continually, whether it was above the water or under the water.
 And thus they were driven forth, three hundred and forty and four days upon the water.
 And they did land upon the shore of the promised land. And when they had set their feet upon the shores of the promised land they bowed themselves down upon the face of the land, and did humble themselves before the Lord, and did shed tears of joy before the Lord, because of the multitude of his tender mercies over them.
 And it came to pass that they went forth upon the face of the land, and began to till the earth.
Cont. in next comment….
“In the context of the entire verse and especially in the context of the adjacent verses and, frankly, all of Ether 2, there is no reason to see ‘they’ and ‘them’ as anything else but the persistent human subjects of the plural third person pronouns used”
Verse 5: “thus they were tossed upon the waves of the sea before the wind” human or boat? Are humans generally tossed by the sea or are boats?
Verse 6: “And it came to pass that they were many times buried in the depths of the sea, because of the mountain waves which broke upon them” human or boat? Do humans generally get buried in the depths of the sea and survive? Do waves break upon a person at sea?
We have certain key words that provide context for the pronouns. Obviously the person who constructed these phrases did not have educational training enough to consistently provide referents for the pronouns used, so we must rely on context. If a person is generally not referred to as being “tight like a dish,” we should infer the author is referring to ships. If he mentions that “mountain waves . . . broke upon them,” we should infer ships. If he writes that “no monster of the sea could break them, neither whale that could mar them” we should infer ships. To do otherwise is nonsensical.
What I have shown already in two instances (and I’m certain I’m yet to find more) is Carmack and Skousen manufacturing archaic usage for no other reason than to bolster their insane argument. If someone like me with an inferior degree outside of C&S’s specialty can point out these flaws, imagine what errors their colleagues will find in their methodology. Is it any wonder why they haven’t published this work in an academic journal?
In verse 10, the humans, who were just praising the Lord in verse 9, continue to be the subject of "they" and "them" as (A) they are driven forth and (B) as they have light continually on the journey. In between (A) and (B) is another clause that even without knowing which verbs are used, logically refers to their safe progress in spite of the terrors of the sea: "and no monster of the sea could [VERB#1] them, neither whale that could [VERB#2] them. In the context of the entire verse and especially in the context of the adjacent verses and, frankly, all of Ether 2, there is no reason to see "they" and "them" as anything else but the persistent human subjects of the plural third person pronouns used, in spite of vs. 7's temporary switch to the vessels after explicit reference to such.
But the English becomes confusing when we read "break" and "mar," for according to their modern usage, those words seem to require a change of reference to the ships. OK, yes, you can "break" people (breaking the body or the bones) and also "mar" people, and "mar" is used in Isaiah to reference maltreatment of a human, for example. But it's not the natural way to describe trouble on a journey, so it's confusing. The confusion may be resolved by understanding the older meanings these words carried, and then it can suggest that they were able to progress without being hindered or held back by the dangers of the deep.
This is a poetic expression from an epic journey and is parallel to vs. 7, where "there was no water that could hurt them." It is not meant to reveal accurate physical knowledge of what an encounter with a whale or monster is like. But on the other hand, it's not impossible to imagine that a harsh encounter with a large sea creature could impede the trip or cause delay. The story of Jonah tells of some large creature (called a whale in Matthew) that certainly delayed his journey for three days. But more practically, there could be damage to the vessel needing repair or other measures. Those on the journey had no idea what kind of problems could be faced, but apparently felt blessed that they were not harassed, broken, or marred (whatever meanings you assign to those verbs) by terrifying creatures of the deep.
Yes, Jeff, monsters can break/mar humans in the archaic senses of those terms, but as long as more contemporary meanings are also plausible (indeed more likely), that mere possibility doesn’t justify identifying the terms as archaic. If I say I like some movie star for her “glamour,” I could be referring archaically to a literal magic spell, but that possibility alone is hardly enough to add the term to a list of supposed archaisms in my speech.
There’s another problem with this line of “archaisms” research. If the purpose of the Book of Mormon’s translation was to bring its message to the world, why would that translation use terms in a way that misleads its readers? If my goal is to clearly communication the idea that Helena Bonham Carter is literally a sorceress who has cast a literal magic spell on me, why would I describe her using the term “glamour,” which my readers would naturally understand to mean “exciting or mysterious attractiveness usually associated with striking physical beauty, luxury, or celebrity”?
Why would a divinely inspired translation make such a silly communicative mistake?
Finally, please note that in the Book of Jonah it is not the fish that threatens the ship, it is the storm. The fish doesn’t appear in the story until after Jonah has been thrown overboard and the storm has stopped. There’s no indication that the fish would have had anything whatsoever to do with any damage to or delaying of the ship. But the KJV version of this story does use the term “broken”—in reference to the ship, not the people on board. Just sayin’. 😉
As for archaic "but" in Jacob 7, you have a good point that the modern meaning works when taken as a conjunction. I think the authors see a more natural reading if Sherem means that he needs to confess unto God otherwise his state will be truly awful. If his state is awful and nothing can be done about it, why bother with confessing? So for these two possibilities, (1) "My state is awful and hopeless unless I confess" and (2) "My state is awful and hopeless, but I'll confess anyway even though it won't help," I can see the point that the former one would make the most sense given the purposes of the Book of Mormon, which encourages even very serious, awful sinners like Alma the younger to confess unto God for their eternal benefit. The archaic meaning of "but" leads to that arguably superior meaning. But it's not a clearcut case and you do have a point.
You're overlooking the indicators that the words them/they are referring to people in vs. 10 and adjacent verses. An indication of how careful readers understand this language in context may be suggested by how translators approach it for languages where 3rd person plural pronouns differ for objects vs people. Chinese is an example of such a language. In Ether 2:10 in the most recent Chinese (Mandarin) edition (simplified characters) is: "他们就这样被吹着前进；海中怪兽不能毁坏他们，鲸鱼也不能侵扰他们；他们无论在水面或在水底，一直都有亮光.
The word for non-human "them/they" is 它们, pronounced tamen, the same pronunciation as the word for humans, but the latter is written 他们. There is no occurrence of the non-human 它们 in this or adjacent verses. This verse, according to my fairly literal translation, says that the strange beasts/monsters of the ocean could not destroy/damage them (the humans), and that whales also could not harass (or invade & harass) them (the humans). Those doing this translation understood that all the 3rd party pronouns in Ether 2:10 are referring to people. It's the reference to people that creates the disconnect with our modern readings and suggests an older form for the verbs, once one realizes that the archaic forms seem to fit better, as they do in many other parts of the Book of Mormon.
The pre-nineteenth century non-KJV and apparently non-local-dialect archaic forms in the Book of Mormon is a genuine puzzle. The occasional confusion or possible misreading caused by such terms rarely has any real impact on understanding the accounts or the doctrine. The book remains highly readable and understandable both for those in the early nineteenth century to English speakers all over the world, though help may be needed on some details. In Ether 2:10, the modern and archaic meanings of break + mar don't change the thrust of the verse, but what seemed like a strange shift in the pronoun usage or odd verbs to apply to humans is perhaps more understandable in light of the archaic meaning.
But why? Why have any archaic non-KJV language in there at all? Right now we don't know. The work of Skousen and Carmack is driven by the data, not by an agenda, and is backed with serious scholarship involving not just words but extensive grammatical artifacts. It appears the English translation, however it was done, involves a mix of archaic pre-KJV English and later English (e.g., the use of the fairly modern huge improvement of "it" as a pronoun, which I think only occurs once in the KJV — it was just coming into use then). Some faithful LDS thinkers would object and say it must all be Joseph's dialect somehow, but the data doesn't seem to support that, IMO. There is much to unravel here and much we don't yet understand. But as far as we can tell, it's not how Joseph talked or wrote, and it's not the result of just imitating the KJV.
What weight do vv5&6 have relative to vv7-10? Very little. The later verses indicate the pronouns refer to persons in v10. Jeff laid it out nicely. Also, "but if" in Mos. 3:19 supports the Jacob 7 reading of but as unless. And the nearby archaism whereby in Ether 8:9, meaning why, supports break and mar as archaic in Ether 6. And so forth.
“In the context of the entire verse and especially in the context of the adjacent verses and, frankly, all of Ether 2“
“What weight do vv5&6 have relative to vv7-10?”
They are examples of how the author used similar pronouns for different referents throughout the entire chapter. If there is question as to who/what the referent is, the tie should go to the explanation that makes the most sense. It is more reasonable that the author was referring to ships, rather than inexplicably channeling EmodE constructs for no apparent reason.
To help explain why I find it so hard to take this research into Book of Mormon archaisms seriously, allow me to make a few observations about this post's opening claim that One of the most interesting puzzles about the Book of Mormon is the recent discovery that much of the language is archaic in ways not easily explained by imitating the King James Version.
(1) "Much of the language" is a pretty strange way of describing 26 examples (25 words and one phrase) out of a 500+ page book. This is not "much" of the BoM's language, no more than feeding the cat is "much" of my daily life. It's two minutes out of a 1,440-minute day. It would be more accurate to refer to the putative archaisms as "an exceedingly small portion of the language, even unto miniscule, on the order of one example every few dozen pages."
(2) "archaic in ways not easily explained by imitating the King James Version." This is only a "puzzle" to those who consider the KJV to have been Joseph Smith's only available linguistic and rhetorical resource for archaisms. It wasn't. Which brings me to–
(3) "archaic." This term means something like "no longer in common use"; it does not mean "inaccessible/unavailable because no longer in circulation." Archaisms continue to circulate, and literate people continue to be familiar with them, for the simple reason that people continue to read old texts. Just this morning I read the following sentence: "One, always weak and gentle, bended to the blast." "Bended," of course, is an archaic version of "bent," but that doesn't mean it has no contemporary circulation, as evidenced by the fact that I just read it this morning, in a novel written two centuries ago but still fairly popular today. "Bended" is archaic, but my encounter with it was contemporary and unremarkable. People read old books other than the Bible and encounter archaisms all the time, and while they don't use those archaisms in their ordinary speech and writing, they certainly have them lodged in their consciousness for specialized uses such as writing an old-timey sounding fiction.
All this is just another instance of a larger point that I've made repeatedly here on Mormanity, namely that Book of Mormon apologists presume a laughably simplistic view of how writers actually write–of how they use the linguistic and rhetorical resources available to them, of how they create novel utterances without having encountered them before, etc.
You really don't know what you're talking about, do you. The least you can do is get up to speed with the subject matter before spouting off.
I'm no expert, but at least I know that 25 vocabulary items isn't the total archaic lexical usage Skousen and Carmack go over in NOL. There are other sections with archaisms, under phrases and expressions and one other category whose name escapes me at the moment.
Also, since it was so likely for J. Smith, why don't you take a bunch of longer biblically imitative texts and show us a total of 25 of this kind of nonbiblical archaic usage.
Anon 3:33, the number of possible archaisms discussed in the preprint is 39, of which only 26 (not 25) survive this latest round of scrutiny. Even if one adds all the other putative archaisms discussed elsewhere as phrases etc., the total would still not constitute "much" of the Book of Mormon.
Your challenge re other biblically imitative texts is just knee-jerk apologetics that demonstrates my point about not understanding how writers actually write.
I guess weak minds can be fooled into thinking that a few dozen nonbiblical archaisms in the Book of Mormon are nothing of note. Until we find a dozen or so in a pseudobiblical text, however, there's no doubt that it's an important finding with obvious implications.
Also, it isn't valid to consider only a few potential instances and use those to write off all of them, including many that are clearer cases. It's misleading never to admit that there is actual nonbiblical archaism in the Book of Mormon and that those cases and other aspects of nonbiblical archaism support cases that might be less clear-cut. The latter are the ones that tend to be singled out by those whose intent is to mislead.
Anon 10:29, just what are the "obvious implications" of nonbiblical archaisms in the Book of Mormon?
Jeff once suggested that those archaisms were "God's little joke," then, backtracking a bit, that they were "God's little irony." Now he considers them an unsolved mystery.
But what do you think?
I too am curious to know the answer to this. If there are “actual nonbiblical archaism in the Book of Mormon,” what does that mean?