Introduction and Overview
For those of us puzzled over the fascinating and fairly strong occurrence (so it seems, tentatively) of Early Modern English (EModE) in the Book of Mormon, the way it got there is a subject of debate and speculation. One hypothesis is that Joseph’s natural dialect (New England?) coupled with his attempt to sound scriptural, imitating archaic forms in the KJV, might have produced the results we see. The challenge is that the KJV doesn’t provide the knowledge he would need to do much of what he did in dictating the Book of Mormon text with so many EModE elements. Did his natural speech provide the rest? It’s hard to say, but one suggestion has been to compare his original form of the Doctrine and Covenants, the 1835 version, for clues. So here are my initial observations.
Using the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (available online at Josephsmithpapers.org), I have considered how the word did was used in light of Stanford Carmack’s article, “The Implications of Past-Tense Syntax in the Book of Mormon,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015).
My hypothesis before I dug into the text was that Joseph, whether he was a prophet or a fraud, would likely have maintained many subtle aspects of the linguistic fingerprint of the Book of Mormon that he translated/authored, so I would not expect the two texts to be extremely different. For us believers in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, we may hypothesize that Joseph’s dictation of the Book of Mormon text was largely a reflection of his own language and dialect, coupled with KJV language, or we might hypothesize that there was often tight control of the dictated text and that the language he uttered to his scribes was largely given by inspiration. Either way, I would expect the scriptural language of the Doctrine and Covenants to preserve some Book of Mormon elements, probably including some of the subtle ones with EModE flavor, though I would also expect the EModE influence to be somewhat weaker. If it suddenly became much stronger as modern scripture was generated, that would be a surprise. If it was nearly as strong, perhaps that would suggest that it was still his natural language with surprising EMoDE remnants or that the language of revelation was, for Joseph at least, somehow “dialed in” to an EModE-heavy dialect.
If a significant part of the EModE in the Book of Mormon was largely foreign to Joseph’s language and seemingly the result of a puzzling miraculous transmission of translated text somewhat predating KJV language, as Carmack and Skousen argue, then I would expect that he surely would have learned from his dictation and subsequent study of the text, and would have naturally applied similar conventions and style to some degree, but to a lesser degree, as he penned the Doctrine and Covenants or even as he gave religious lectures. Again, I’d expect the EModE to be toned down somewhat.
My surprise is just how different the Book of Mormon is from the Doctrine and Covenants. Though the language of the Doctrine and Covenants has a KJV feel, the subtle things that reveal EModE influence in the Book of Mormon are much different in the Doctrine and Covenants (based on my brief explorations so far). It’s as if the EModE signal has been almost wiped out. It’s that way when I look at the subtle use of did to express past events. It’s that way when I look at characteristic non-KJV phrases with EModE flavor like “if it so be.” The Doctrine and Covenants has a touch of those things, but just a touch. A surprisingly light touch that points to something really remarkable taking place in the language of the Book of Mormon, something that appears to be surprisingly independent of Joseph’s personal writing style.
These are tentative observations that will require further study. Maybe I’m missing a lot. But I think when it comes to the language of the Book of Mormon, we’ve all been missing a lot for a long time. There’s an fascinating story waiting to be revealed. It may not be what we are expecting nor what we are comfortable with. But I’m anxious to see where it will lead in the end. The Book of Mormon invites, even demands scrutiny. It’s time we dig in more.
By way of background, Carmack examines the Book of Mormon’s heavy use of did in ways that are archaic for modern English. What’s interesting is that the way did is used in the Book of Mormon was already somewhat archaic when the KJV text was prepared, but statistically fits well with its usage in the mid to late 1500s. Carmack looks at a particular form of did, the affirmative declaratory periphrastic did (“ADP did“), in which an affirmative sentence expresses the past tense by using did plus a verb, as in “Moroni did arrive with his army.” ADP usage is not intended to be emphatic (“actually, I must confess that I did eat that donut”) nor is it used in questions (“Did you eat it?” is not ADP).
ADP did has several variants. Did can be adjacent the verb (that’s adjacency) or separated by one or more words (ellipsis). It can occur in inverted order with the subject after did (inversion, e.g., “thus did Alma and Amulek go forth”). It can also have an adverb or an adverbial phrase between did and the infinitive (intervening adverbial use, as in “I Nephi did again with my brethren go forth into the wilderness”).
The KJV definitely has ADP did, perhaps most famously in Genesis 3:6:
[Eve] took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
For critics not willing to read and consider the analysis of Carmack, that one bite of ADP did is all that’s needed to demonstrate how Joseph crafted past tense in the Book of Mormon. He just glommed onto Genesis 3:6 and used that pattern over and over. In fact, he way overdid did, just like he overdid “and it came to pass.” But just as subsequent analysis of the Book of Mormon annoying abundance of “and it came to pass” actually points to long-missed strengths in the text and authentic aspects of this usage that go beyond merely imitating the sparser use in the KJV (see Brant Gardner, “Does ‘And it came to pass’ Come to Pass Too Often?“, Meridian Magazine, July 2004; see also a relevant article FairMormon.org), so also Joseph’s seemingly clunky and annoying overuse of did points to something more sophisticated than mindless overuse of an infrequent KJV artifact.
What’s interesting is how widely the KJV text differs from the Book of Mormon in how did is used. Of the 6,797 past tense counts Carmack has found in the Book of Mormon, there are 4,951 occurrences of simple past tense and 1,846 occurrences of ADP did, giving a gargantuan ADP did rate of 27.2%. In the Bible, with only 515 occurrences of ADP did and nearly 30,000 cases of simple past tense, the ADP did is a meager 1.7%.
The differences go beyond just the magnitude of ADP did occurrences, but also in how they are broken down among variants, as shown in Table 1 from Carmack’s article.
When it comes to did and especially ADP did, the KJV text has quite a different flavor than the Book of Mormon.
Alvar Ellegård, a non-LDS scholar who dug into ADP did and its history in English, has shown that ADP did usage had a sharp peak in the mid-to-late 1500s, reaching an average rate of nearly 10%, while it was only around 2% in the 1520s when Tyndale’s Bible came out that heavily influenced the KJV text. When the KJV Bible was published, ADP did was plummeting sharply again, being around 3%, and would continue to taper off. Today we rarely use it.
From documents such as the Salem Witch Trials, we can see that ADP did persisted at relatively high level in New England speech into the 17th century, but not as high as during the peak era of EModE. After the 18th century, ADP did does not appear at high rates in a sustained way as it does in the Book of Mormon, based on Carmack’s searching so far: “Sustained high-rate use of ADP did has been found so far only in 16c and 17c texts. A good measure of this use seems to be past-tense expression consisting of at least 20% adjacency usage. The BofM has these high levels of use.”
The ties to EModE extend beyond the high overall rates alone. Statistics for adjacency, inversion, and intervening adverbial use also show rates consistent with EModE texts and removed from modern English and from other texts of Joseph’s day, including texts seeking to imitate KJV language.
The Bible use of ADP did is lopsided in the verbs it is applied to. Over 115 of its 500 counts (over 20%) involve “did(st) eat”, as in Genesis 3. In the Book of Mormon, the most common verb used in ADP did is go, with only 54 counts, less than 3%, pointing to a more relatively more uniform distribution. Analysis of ADP did with individual verbs also shows fairly good correspondences with EModE texts. For example, the Book of Mormon avoids “did die,” always using the simple past tense instead–a feature consistent with other early EModE texts. Analysis of other verbs gives mixed results, but generally consistent with EModE usage.
During the brief era of high ADP did usage in English, some religious texts had rates as high as 51%, even higher than what we have in the Book of Mormon. But did New England dialect maintain high ADP did rates? Carmack notes that evidence from the Salem Witch Trials points to rates as high as 3% among some New Englanders in the 1690s, when the rate in England was generally even lower. But this elevated rate in New England dialect doesn’t come close to accounting for the high rates in the Book of Mormon. ADP did rates were on the decline after the 1690s, and the low rate (1.7%) in the KJV Bible would be expected to exert a leveling effect on any dialects with high rates. As further evidence of how New Englanders used ADP did in Joseph’s day, Ethan Smith’s scant use of it in View of the Hebrews provides further evidence that the Book of Mormon’s verbiage is not a product of Joseph’s environment, an issue Carmack explores at length in his article. Others who wrote text with imitations of KJV language do not replicate these high rates of ADP did. High ADP did is a surprising and unexpected feature of the Book of Mormon’s dictated text.
Ellegård, the scholar who did the groundwork of analysis of ADP did in English, notes that it was heavily favored by preachers and other elites in English speaking society. Carmack builds on this to offer a possible reason for its preference in the translated Book of Mormon text:
[The ADP did form] may have been chosen to adopt a plain syntax that is more than appropriate for a formal religious text in light of its historical development. (The plainness of the syntax follows from its use of unmarked infinitival stems along with high frequency did and didst, as well as usage such as they did beat which is unambiguously past tense, as opposed to opaque they beat.)
So ADP did may have served a useful role in creating a plain and simple but distinctly scriptural text. Whatever the reason, the data point to something interesting going on, something beyond a clumsy imitation of what Joseph might have seen in Genesis 3. But was this all just an accident, just his language, his style of writing when he was trying to sound scriptural? Further tests might be helpful.
Exploration of the occurrence of the word did in the 1835 Doctrine & Covenants
In searching the nearly 300 pages of the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, including the Lectures on Faith, I was quite surprised to find that the word did was not used much at all. It occurs just 72 times. It occurs nearly 2000 times in the Earliest Text of the Book of Mormon. This is a dramatic difference before we even consider the subtlety of ADP did.
Most of the 72 occurrences interrogatory or negatives. Many are buried in one section with a series of rather boring questions and answers taken from Genesis (“Q. In what year did Seth die? … Q. In what year did Enos die? … Q. In what year did Cainan die? etc. etc.”). As for ADP did, there are only around 11 cases, depending on how you count them, two of which come from simply quoting Genesis 3. So out of hundreds of past tense statements from Joseph in this volume, less than 10 are in ADP form. It’s a rate consistent with modern English and wildly unlike the Book of Mormon text, even though large parts of the document are in KJV-style English, laced with “thee” and “thou,” the obvious stuff in KJV language, but quite devoid of the subtlety of ADP did.
Here are the 9 relevant passages (I’ve excluded the two occurrences quoted from Genesis 3):
- For instance, Abel, before he received the assurance from heaven that his offerings were acceptable unto God, had received the important information of his father, that such a being did exist, who had created, and who did uphold all things.
- Neither can there be a doubt existing on the mind of any person, that Adam was the first who did communicate the knowledge of the existence of a God, to his posterity; and that the whole faith of the world, from that time down to the present, is in a certain degree, dependent on the knowledge first communicated to them by their common progenitor; and it has been handed down to the day and generation in which we live, as we shall show from the face of the sacred records.
- We have now shown how it was that the first thought ever existed in the mind of any individual, that there was such a being as a God, who had created and did uphold all things: that it was by reason of the manifestation which he first made to our father Adam, when he stood in his presence, and conversed with him face to face, at the time of his creation.
- Behold thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me, and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things, that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth; yea
- But behold I say unto you, that I the Lord God gave unto Adam and unto his seed, that they should not die as to the temporal death, until I the Lord God should send forth angels to declare unto them repentance and redemption, through faith on the name of mine only begotten Son: and thus did I the Lord God appoint unto man the days of his probation;
- Thou didst baptize by water unto repentance, but they received not the Holy Ghost; but now I give unto thee a commandment, that thou shalt baptize by water, and they shall receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, even as the apostles of old.
- Behold I say unto you, my son, that because you did not translate according to that which you desired of me and did commence again to write for my servant Joseph Smith, jr…
- Now this is not all, their faith in their prayers were, that this gospel should be made known also, if it were possible that other nations should possess this land; and thus they did leave a blessing upon this land in their prayers, that whosoever should believe in this gospel, in this land, might have eternal life; yea, that it might be free unto all of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue, or people, they may be.
- …and I have trampled them in my fury, and I did tread upon them in mine anger, and their blood have I sprinkled upon my garments, and stained all my raiment: for this was the day of vengeance which was in my heart.
What about other writings of Joseph Smith? Consider the famous Wentworth Letter penned by Joseph in 1842. It uses did once, and it’s not an ADP instance but an ordinary negative usage:
But in the summer of 1836 these threatenings began to assume a more serious form, from threats, public meetings were called, resolutions were passed, vengeance and destruction were threatened, and affairs again assumed a fearful attitude, Jackson county was a sufficient precedent, and as the authorities in that county did not interfere they boasted that they would not in this; which on application to the authorities we found to be too true, and after much privation and loss of property, we were again driven from our homes.
Doesn’t sound anything like the Book of Mormon, of course.
Incidentally, I also searched for the EModE phrase “if it so be” that is often used in the Book of Mormon. It does occur in the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, but only 3 times. The word if occurs about 800 times, compared to 656 times in the Book of Mormon, which has dozens of “if it so be” examples. The Doctrine and Covenants does use “if it be” 10 times.
Next up: the command syntax of the Doctrine and Covenants. Since it began as the Book of Commandments, there ought to be some good command syntax there, and perhaps plenty of cases similar to the Book of Mormon. Need more time to look at that issue, I hope it will be interesting.
So far I’m not seeing easy-to-find evidence that Joseph’s inherent language coupled with Bible imitation could account for the subtle use of ADP did in the Book of Mormon text. Something else must be going on.