Another Surprise in the Dictated Language of the Book of Mormon

For those of you following the surprising findings regarding the language of the Book of Mormon as originally dictated by Joseph Smith, there’s a new set of data to consider that shatters some common assumptions.

For many decades, Latter-day Saints naturally assumed that Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon in his own language. Exactly how was always unclear: was he given precise information in his own dialect, or just general concepts that he had to express in his own language with a KJV twist, or was there some other route? From what we learned through Royal Skousen’s detailed work on the Book of Mormon manuscripts about the text that Joseph’s scribes recorded language directly from his dictation, some of us felt rather embarrassed at just how awkward that dialect was, loaded with objectionable “hick” grammar. Awkward!

Then came further surprising findings from Royal Skousen that many of the things we took as bad grammar are actually acceptable grammar from the Early Modern English era, but with features that cannot simply be obtained by imitating the King James Version of the Bible. This has been expanded with detailed work from Stanford Carmack showing that many features correspond with Early Modern English from a couple of decades or so before the KJV. So strange! But that’s what the data demonstrate.

In response, proposals for a non-miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon then included the idea that this non-standard patterns from Early Modern English represented artifacts that persisted in Joseph’s dialect while becoming extinct in standard English. For example, the awkward “in them days” found in the dictated text is still found in places like York, England (at least among some of its educated people). So in light of the newly discovered Early Modern English content in the Book of Mormon, it is natural to assume that all those awkward expressions in the dictated Book of Mormon represented fossilized archaic forms in Joseph’s dialect, mingled with scripture and scriptural language from the KJV.

However, this latest assumption that all these Early Modern English forms were just part of Joseph’s odd dialect can be tested in several ways. The most direct way is to look at Joseph’s own language in a time frame close to the Book of Mormon project and see if those fossils of Early Modern English actually exist. This is what Stanford Carmack has done in his latest contribution, “How Joseph Smith’s Grammar Differed from Book of Mormon Grammar: Evidence from the 1832 History,” in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 25 (2017): 239-259. Here is an abstract:

Some of the grammar of Joseph Smith’s 1832 History is examined.
Three archaic, extra-biblical features that occur quite frequently in
the Book of Mormon are not present in the history, even though there was
ample opportunity for use. Relevant usage in the 1832 History is
typical of modern English, in line with independent linguistic studies.
This leads to the conclusion that Joseph’s grammar was not archaizing in
these three types of morphosyntax which are prominent in the earliest
text of the Book of Mormon. This corroborating evidence also indicates
that English words were transmitted to Joseph throughout the dictation
of the Book of Mormon.

I previously attempted something similar using the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, where I was actually surprised at just how different that language was from the Book of Mormon (and also from other scholarship on early New England dialects). See “Did You Notice? What the Doctrine and Covenants Tells Us About the Earliest Text of the Book of Mormon” and “Another
Test: The 1835 Doctrine and Covenants Use of Command Syntax and What It
Tells Us About the Language in the Book of Mormon
,” both from Aug. 2015.

The intricate details of the language in the dictated text suggest that its origins were not merely from Joseph’s mind and tongue. Something else was going on. There is a fingerprint in the text that has been before us all these years, only know being brought out through detailed forensics. Call it miraculous or just a perplexingly clever fraud aided by unknown experts in Early Modern English, or maybe something else? In any case, the data compels reconsidering our lazy assumptions about how and what Joseph dictated.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

88 thoughts on “Another Surprise in the Dictated Language of the Book of Mormon

  1. …its origins were not merely from Joseph's mind and tongue.
    Eliminate all evidence of his contemporaries who could have plausibly helped him author the book FIRST! Oliver, Sidney, and a whole cadre of others obviously COULD HAVE played a part in the creation of this book. This notion is MORE BELIEVABLE than the miraculous, and therefore MORE LIKELY to be true.
    The miraculous must always be considered last, as that is the very definition of a miracle: the least likely thing to have happened.

  2. Anon,
    How could Sidney Rigdon have "played a part in the creation?" He didn't even meet Joseph Smith until after the Book of Mormon was published.

  3. The Doctrine & Covenants comparison is not a fair one to make. Most D&C revelations went through a pretty detailed revision and perfection process before being published. Also, Oliver was no longer the main scribe. If we are to believe the stories, Joseph dictated the BoM in a steady stream without taking time for much revision. I think between this process and the publication of the BoM, Joseph realized there were some issues with his attempt to imitate a standardized King James English. This in turn lead him to take more time with his revelations, and seek input from others in an attempt to get it right before heading to publication.

  4. "acceptable grammar from the Early Modern English era"

    Any grammar is acceptable grammar if there is no grammatical standard.

    The BoM is not an Early Modern English text. It has grammatical usages that were also present in Early Modern English times, but it also has King James usages and modern usages. Also, the EmodE usages are from different times within the linguistic period. That would be like a teenager of today using the term "groovy." It fits within the overall linguistic period, but is anachronistic with the current, accepted vernacular.

  5. Ramer, simply do one ounce of researching on your own and you'll find the PLAUSIBILITY of Rigdon's involvement. If it's plausible he was involved, that means it's MORE LIKELY than a miracle.
    Seriously, you have access to the internet. Use it. Find out for YOURSELF. Just like I did.

  6. All of these arguments are basically Arguments from Ignorance . You can't explain how Smith did it, therfore it must be God! Alright you got me. I don't know how Smith did it. Demonstrate your God please.

  7. Mike, fair enough, but when people say, "God didn't do it because … theory x,y,z" we can respond to those alternative theories.

    I cannot demonstrate God for you except through my testimony and my good example (if I can). So I don't blame you for not believing God from that. But I do believe that He will reveal Himself to you if you seek Him sincerely.

    Anonymous,

    Maybe you would seem more authoritative about what is, or is not, Early Modern English, if you would reveal your identity. Right now, I am inclined to trust the PhD who has been working on this for 20 years more than an anonymous poster on the interwebs.

  8. Colin,

    My argument is one of logos, not ethos. A PhD who hasn't published his findings in a peer reviewed journal isn't producing PhD work. In other words, a Doctorate degree doesn't guarantee Doctorate-level material. Much like a prophet who isn't "speaking by the spirit" isn't speaking doctrine. . .

  9. Anonymous 10:45 PM June 22 –

    Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon hadn't even met until after the Book of Mormon was finished, so I can't see any plausibility of Rigdon being involved.

    And for the record, I DID use the Internet. That's how I found out they didn't meet until later.

    Also, as far as the miraculous possibility being considered last, normally I would agree, but considering that this is what Smith (and plenty of witnesses) said happened, I think this should be given more consideration. The only reason not to consider this would be if you're convinced beforehand Joseph was a liar/fraud/conman/whatever.

    1. Interestingly, many people throughout American history have claimed to have had miraculous contact with God. Mormons only believe one of these stories. Why? Are they convinced beforehand that the tellers of these stories are liars/frauds/conmen (& women)?

      I've been intrigued for a while about the Mormon attitude that everyone should believe their miraculous story, but so readily discount other, similar stories. Why is that?

  10. Anon 6:48:

    I can't speak for all Mormons, but I have no problem believing that others have had "miraculous contact with God." I would only doubt their stories if I read further on them and it feels like the visitations don't match with the God I know.

  11. I am curious why those who demand evidence of miracles are unwilling to give great weight to the convincing testimonies of Cowdery Whitney and Harris who never wavered in their emphatic affirmation that they saw and heard miracles. Ironically, because they testify of a miracle they are not believed. But Near Death Experiences are now largely accepted as facts as yet unexplained. William James catalogs religious experience in a famous book. Quantum Physics has observed spooky phenomenon and material behavior. The evidence of the miraculous regarding the production of the Book of Mormon is abundant. It takes some willful refusal to consider evidence to dismiss the Book of Mormon just because we don't understand how it came to be.

  12. I just finished reading Carmack's article comparing JS's 1832 history to BoM usage. Unfortunately, I didn't see myself cited as the impetus for preparing this treatment–I recommended this comparison months ago (see My response to Jeff's post of Jan. 10, 2017), when I made a word choice comparison between the texts and the Bible. Alas, anonymous posters on obscure blogs don't always get the credit they deserve.

    Two glaring omissions stood out in Carmack's essay:

    1. He doesn't address the fact (at least fact if we are to believe the accounts) that the BoM was transmitted verbally by JS. His history however, was written. Generally, verbal word choice and arrangement differ (sometimes very greatly) from written choices. As evidence of this, think about where prepositions start and end in your writing vs speaking, or if your subject/verb agreement always ends up correct when you are speaking. This is something I learned in my introductory linguistic class and is something that shouldn't be ignored.
    2. The 1832 history doesn't always attempt to imitate biblical language as the BoM does. In his writing of the history, Joseph lapses from time-to-time into what sounds like BoM prose (word choice and phraseology are similar–see my Jan 10 response), but it's not a good apples-to-apples comparison grammatically, especially since the BoM isn't grammatically consistent 100% of the time. With such a small sample size in the history I'm not sure how you can make a fair assessment.

    1. I just re-read my Jan response. I don't know how anyone can read the BoM intro and the 1832 JS history intro and not see the same author.

  13. You're in the weeds, Bryce. Do some research outside your comfort zone and see what comes up. You too, Ramer.
    If the stuff you believe is true, you have nothing to be afraid of when it comes to counter evidence, testimonies, and opinions.

  14. For example, the awkward "in them days" found in the dictated text is still found in places like York, England….

    One hardly needs to go to York, England to hear demonstrative them. It's still common in nonstandard American dialects today.

    Anyway, which is the more likely scenario? —

    (1) that Joseph Smith tried to imitate the Jacobean English of the KJV, and in the process of doing so, he inadvertently produced the features that have so excited the faithful linguists over at the Interpreter? or

    (2) that God and his prophets had some special reason for abandoning the eloquence of the Bible and expressing the putatively world-changing truths of the restoration in a clunky mixture of EModE and modern English?

    — OK

  15. Anon 1222: How do you know for sure that your 10 Jan 2017 comment led to Carmack's article? Do you have insider knowledge of this? If not, then your comments shouldn't be taken seriously, since you will have begun with a grandiose assumption.

  16. OK, your comment is heavily biased by animus and misleading as well. For every clunky thing you could cite, a non-clunky bit of extra-biblical, archaic usage could be cited. You really don't know what you're talking about, but it doesn't prevent you from making anti-Mormon comments that are inaccurate.

  17. Anon 3:14, what exactly was anti-Mormon in my comment? There are more than a few Mormons who agree with me that the writing in the Book of Mormon is clunky and that the book is not ancient. Taking issue with a certain strand of apologetics hardly makes one anti-Mormon.

    And which of my statements is inaccurate?

    — OK

  18. OK, you don't study the text systematically, so you throw out inaccuracies much of the time, and of course you know that a few of your word choices indicate a scornful and a sarcastic tone, that view supported by past anti-Mormon behavior.

  19. OK,

    Whether or not an event was likely or unlikely has no bearing on whether or not it actually happened; unlikely things can and do happen. Take the 2016 US Presidential election, for example – many people predicted Hillary Clinton would win, yet Donald Trump was the winner. (This is only used as an example, and is not meant to endorse or denounce either of the candidates.)

    And to demonstrate the bias of your "which scenario is more likely" comment, here's one of my own.

    Which is the more likely scenario?

    1) NASA spent a ton of money to send three people to explore the Moon – an empty, lifeless world that anyone can look at and observe with binoculars or a telescope (or their naked eyes, even) – for just two hours?
    OR
    2) They spent a lot less money to fake the landings in order to convince Russia that the US was superior in space exploration?

  20. Ramer, those astronauts really did land on the moon, and I'd be happy to show you incontrovertible proof of that fact, but gosh darn it, an angel took the proof away.

    On a more serious note: prior to the election, the best polling gurus (e.g., Nate Silver) were giving Trump something like a 36 percent of winning, which is to say, his win was not all that unlikely. One might still say that, polls aside, it was inherently highly unlikely that a TV star with no political experience could win high office, except that experience has taught us otherwise (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Al Franken).

    — OK

  21. OK,

    I have no doubt that astronauts landed on the moon. I never saw it myself, but those who would have been in on it continue to report that they really did land on the moon. Plenty of third party evidence has cropped up as well. All that adds up to: the Moon Landings were indeed real, just as NASA and the astronauts insist.

    Similarly, I have no doubt that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from an ancient record. I haven't seen the plates myself, but those who have continued to testify until their dying day – even those who left the Church and fell out of favor with Joseph Smith, for that matter – that the golden plates were real, and the Book of Mormon is a divinely translated book of scripture. Plenty of third party evidence has cropped up as well. Just as before, all this adds up to: the Book of Mormon is nonfictional scripture, and Joseph Smith is a true prophet of God.

  22. Hey Ramer, I'm not saying miracles don't happen, it's just not very likely that they do. And when there's lots of evidence that they probably didn't, then they probably didn't.
    Just a quick follow up: have you looked into anything regarding Rigdon's authorship connection, or are you happy to rest on what you think you know? I think you'll be surprised with the likelihoods that turn up. Same with Oliver and many others. It's LIKELY Joseph didn't act alone, and it's HIGHLY LIKELY he fabricated the origin story of the book, just as he fabricated the first vision story over time.

  23. Anon 4:25 PM:

    I have heard of lots of alternate authorship theories, including ones involving Sidney Rigdon. I've looked deep into both the pro-Mormon claims and the anti-Mormon claims. And to borrow a phrase from Anon @ 10:56 PM June 24 (different anon I assume?), reading the alternate authorship theories is when I most feel like I'm "in the weeds."

    For me, the pro-Mormon claims are the ones that make the most sense, as they match each other and make few assumptions. On the other hand, there are so many alternate authorship theories that at times it feels like critics are just throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Many of them contradict each other. I will admit that some seem more likely than others (i.e. it's more likely that Oliver was involved than Rigdon, given that they did know each other prior to the translation), but after investigating, something in them doesn't add up. It may contradict witness statements, it may make large leaps and assumptions, or it might merely be propaganda.

    I will say, however, looking into these claims have broadened and enriched my understanding of the events. I did not know, for example, that Joseph Smith used a seer stone for much of the translation process. Overall, I would say that this experience has been a net positive for me.