When I first examined the published text from the Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, I was embarrassed at all the non-standard grammar. But now I find it to be a fascinating glimpse into the miracle of the translation process, looking at the raw language that was dictated, hour after hour, as Joseph sought inspiration as he shut out his surroundings and stared at some kind of tangible aid, a seerstone, held inside a hat.
The bad grammar issue is becoming a puzzling but fascinating topic for further research as we learn that almost everything that offends us as bad grammar, much of which Joseph and others edited out of the text later to be more standard English, turns out to be acceptable grammar in Early Modern English, especially in the years just before the KJV. That’s right: the English of the Book of Mormon shows a strong pre-KJV and non-KJV influence that, based on the data, cannot be easily explained by Joseph just imitating the KJV. The reasons for this and its implications are not the focus of this post, though I will mention that Stanford Carmack has just added two more strong article giving further evidence for the role of Early Modern English in the Book of Mormon. See “Joseph Smith Read the Words” and “The More Part of the Book of Mormon Is Early Modern English,” wherein Carmack examines another unusual English construct that distinguishes the Book of Mormon from both the Bible and apparently American dialects, as far as we know.
Still struggling to leave this tangent! But let me first mention that the case for strong Early Modern English influence in the original dictated language of the Book of Mormon is not driven by any kind of apologetic agenda, but by the data. Skousen and Carmack are examining surprising elements in the data and following the data through meticulous investigation. The data is pointing somewhere, somewhere interesting but perplexing. Let’s see where it leads. I was quite skeptical when I first heard the argument, but I’ve looked at the data and have examined other hypotheses, such as the possibility of Yankee dialect having artifacts that would give rise to the textual surprises pointing to EModE influence. I’ve also looked at other examples of Joseph Smith’s writing, such as in the 1835 Book of Commandments, to find evidence that EModE elements in the Book of Mormon was his natural language. You can roll your eyes all you want, but I challenge you to dig into the data and give me a better explanation for the network of evidence Carmack has been uncovering from many different angles. Something interesting is going on in the original text that Joseph dictated. Carmack sometimes states things more strongly or with more of an edge than I would, but I think his work is excellent and demands more careful, thoughtful consideration. Too often it is simply ignored as people say, “What? Why would God use Early Modern English? That makes no sense.” The most exciting discoveries in life come when the data points to something that makes no sense in light of our old paradigms. Shaking up old, inaccurate paradigms for more accurate ones can be disorienting and painful, but it’s also exciting. It’s progress. So let’s see where the data actually leads. If it eventually points to nothing more than Joseph’s own outlier dialect of English coupled with some lucky, natural deviations in grammar inspired by the KJV and other sources, it might actually be a relief. Easier to deal with, at least.
Now to today’s actual post. Exploring the words of the Original Manuscript and especially Skousen’s Earliest Text no longer embarrasses me. Instead, I am thrilled at the echo of Joseph’s voice as he dictated raw text not taken from a carefully prepared manuscript from some scholarly collaborator or committee of technical advisors and ghost writers, but from inspiration as he shut out the world and transmuted text from gold plates into ink and paper laden with a treasure in archaic English. Numerous witnesses of this rapid translation work, including at least one non-LDS witness, consistently described what happened and make it clear that the process involved oral dictation that was copied by a scribe.
Joseph was not using a manuscript. He dictated text and the scribe wrote it down. That became the Original Manuscript. It was then copied and delivered to the printer. Remnants of these manuscripts today clearly witness to the reality of these processes, with abundant evidence that the Original Manuscript was the result of scribes hearing words and writing them down, while the Printer’s Manuscript shows evidence of scribes seeing words (on the Original Manuscript) and copying them down. This evidence has been discussed in many of the works of Royal Skousen, such as his “How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript.” For example, there are many cases where we can see scribal mistakes due to mishearing the spoken text. One example from Skousen:
In 1 Nephi 13:29 of the original manuscript the scribe (not yet identified, but designated as scribe 2) wrote down the following:
& because of these things which are taken away out of the gosple of the Lamb & exceeding great many do stumble
Obviously, scribe 2 misheard “an exceeding great many” as “and exceeding great many”. The scribe’s use of the ampersand (&) shows that the error was not based on visual similarity. Hearing an, the scribe interpreted it as the casual speech form an’ for and.
Other interesting changes can be seen in the Appendix of The Earliest Text giving “Significant Textual Changes.” For example, when Nephi quoted Isaiah 14:19 in 2 Nephi 24:19, Isaiah’s “raiment of those that are slain” apparently was misheard and was written as the “remnant of those that are slain.” A natural aural mistake for someone writing oral diction. “I have removed the borders” in Isaiah 10:13 became “moved the borders” in Nephi’s quotation in 2 Nephi 20:13. “Found the kingdoms” in Isaiah 10:10 became “founded the kingdoms” in 2 Nephi 20:10. Likewise Ramah from Isaiah 10:29 became Ramath in 2 Nephi 20:29. These are examples of apparent errors that entered into the early Book of Mormon manuscripts that were or, in some cases, may still be in need of correction. These kind of errors from the aural and oral nature of the Book of Mormon translation process don’t just occur in quotations from the Bible, of course. They are found throughout the text, but I think their presence in the Isaiah passages are significant because it reminds us that even the Isaiah passages weren’t created by just dragging out a Bible and copying from it (related: “Did Joseph Use a Bible?“). Those passages were probably also dictated. And as far as we know, based on what multiple witnesses saw and based on the evidence we can see in the Original Manuscript and Printer’s Manuscript, the text was dictated and recorded by scribes. Nobody saw a manuscript that Joseph used. Nobody saw a Bible that he pulled out when it was time for Bible quotes. It looks like that oral dictation process was in use steadily.
If there was a time when a Bible was used to simplify the translation work, I would guess that it would be for Isaiah 4 through 9 quoted in 2 Nephi 14 through 19, where Skousen’s list of significant changes in the Appendix shows a gap, while there seem to be periodic changes in the chapters before and after due to possible scribal errors. That could be because a more careful and accurate scribe was used during those chapters, or for other reasons. (I also think this section probably isn’t covered in what we have left of the Original Manuscript, though I haven’t checked yet.)
On the other hand, whether there are scribal errors or not, there are numerous other apparently intentional changes in the Book of Mormon’s quotations from Isaiah and other parts of the Bible. Some are subtle, such as the recently discovered Hebraism in 2 Nephi 12:2 as it quotes Isaiah 2:2 One little word is changed as that becomes when, but in so doing, significant meaning is added in the process as an interesting Hebraism is introduced in a way that is relevant to the Restoration. Subtle, but cool. See Paul Hoskisson, “Was Joseph Smith Smarter Than the Average Fourth Year Hebrew Student? Finding a Restoration-Significant Hebraism in Book of Mormon Isaiah” at Mormon Interpreter.
And yet, of course, there are still problems. The text quoted seems to follow the KJV when it is good enough, and “good enough” includes errors (generally of no doctrinal significance) in the KJV that some folks insist should have been fixed if Joseph really was inspired. I’m all for total perfection, even in details that don’t really matter, and often demand it in others. Fortunately it’s not part of my set of expectations for the Book of Mormon. Human errors have not been completely excised, whether they are errors from Nephite writers, Joseph Smith, scribes, typesetters, or, whoever else had a hand in the Book of Mormon and its translation, including whoever is responsible for those puzzling Early Modern English elements. Stay tuned, and keep your paradigms ready to roll.