Joseph Smith’s Hick Language in the Original Book of Mormon Manuscript: Divine Irony?

Executive Summary

Skousen’s study of the first Book of Mormon manuscripts found evidence that the awkward grammar often displayed Semitic influence or, in some cases, came from Early Modern English, predating the English of the KJV. This theory is developed much more fully in a recent Mormon Interpreter article, “A Look at Some ‘Nonstandard’ Book of Mormon Grammar” by
Stanford Carmack. Carmack argues that a close look at the initial language of the translated Book of Mormon reveals that much of the seemingly nonstandard grammar is actually acceptable Early Modern English that is frequently independent of and earlier than the King James Bible, seriously challenging the notion that the Book of Mormon is based on plagiarism from and imitation of the Bible.

However, I felt a weakness in Carmack’s paper was neglect of a nonstandard form that to me was particularly annoying: the use of “a” before many verbs, as in Alma 10:8 in the Original Manuscript: “…as I was a going thither….” Isn’t that just “hick language”? After posting my question at Mormon Interpreter, I did more digging and found, to my surprise, that this is an important and standard form of the English progressive in Early Modern English, again consistent with Carmack’s thesis. Brother Carmack later responded to my query, confirming what I had found and also noting that there are some instances of the “a” + verb form in the KJV, though so far I only know of two and never consciously noticed them in my reading.

But what does this all mean and why would pre-KJV language be used? A hypothesis I offer below is that this is an example of one of God’s little ironies jokes, but a meaningful and helpful one.  

Update, Sept. 10: “Joke” in this post was a poor word choice, as a couple readers took offense at the idea of joking God who would therefore seem to not be adequately concerned about the problems of the world. I do not have trouble with a God who embraces humor in addition to all forms of joy even while also fully feeling and knowing our pains, but suggest that “irony” might be better for my post.

If the strange evidence for pre-KJV language is
real and did not from Joseph and his environment, then perhaps it will serve as
one of the evidences that overthrow some common attacks on the Book of Mormon. If so,  it would be ironic that all these years the hick language we
had to correct and apologize for might  actually support the miraculous origins of the book. Ironic. Almost humorous.
Not a callous prank, but a hidden little gem that could strengthen faith while
still raising many questions for further research and debate. Or maybe all just a human mistake to be eradicated with further research. Stay tuned

God’s Little Joke? Divine Irony? Thoughts on the Bad Grammar in the Original Book of Mormon

One of the first anti-Mormon challenges I encountered as a teenager shortly after my own serious study of the Book of Mormon was the claim that 3,913 changes had been made in the Book of Mormon. (That’s actually a very poor estimate–way too low!) Looking at the changes and understanding the reasons for them gave a little appreciation for how different the original Book of Mormon was from the way I would put a book together. The lack of punctuation, verses, etc., naturally necessitated a great many changes to prepare the text for a readable edition.

There were other problems, including many typos or other errors due to both the dictated nature of the text and the errors that arose in copying from the original manuscript to the printer’s manuscript and then preparing the printed text. Those are understandable. But then comes the problem that makes it easy for critics to poke fun of the book and its miraculous origins: the original text, as dictated by a prophet of God to his scribes, is loaded with bad grammar. Numerous changes would be needed to fix awkward, non-standard phrases that just sounded bad. Why couldn’t the Spirit help Joseph dictate proper English?

We’ve had a plausible answer: the inspired meaning still came out of Joseph’s lips in his language, and his own bad, farmboy grammar with a strong dose of “hick language” had to be cleaned up into more proper standard English, but in King James Style. Fair enough. Being a prophet doesn’t make one a grammarian.

Some scholars discovered that some of the corrections made over the years in the text were fixing odd patterns that were actually perfectly good constructions in Hebrew. That passage with Moroni impossibly waving the rent of his garment–later scandalously changed to the rent part of his garment to cover up that gaping hole in the grammatical fabric of the book–turns out to make perfect sense in Hebrew. Many other structures that are good Hebrew but bad English have been identified that were in the original text but typically later cleaned up. (Say, if all those Hebraisms were some clever attempt to add credibility to the Book of Mormon, why quietly clean them up and never point them out in Joseph’s day? It was only in recent decades that scholars began to observe the abundance of Hebraic forms in the Book of Mormon.)

Then came Royal Skousen, the scholar who has done so much to help us appreciate the granular details of the original and printers manuscripts. In 2005, he published a short article for the Maxwell Institute’s Insight publication with a shocking statement. In summarizing his findings through studying the early Book of Mormon manuscripts, he begins by listing the following:

1. The original manuscript supports the hypothesis that the text
was given to Joseph Smith word for word and that he could see the
spelling of at least the Book of Mormon names (in support of what
witnesses of the translation process claimed about Joseph’s

2. The original text is much more consistent and systematic in expression than has ever been realized.

3. The original text includes unique kinds of expression that
appear to be uncharacteristic of English in any time and place; some of
these expressions are Hebraistic in nature.

So far so good. Then comes what I would call a shocker:

Over the past two years, I have discovered evidence for a fourth significant conclusion about the original text:

4. The original vocabulary of the Book of Mormon appears to derive from the 1500s and 1600s, not from the 1800s.

This last finding is quite remarkable. Lexical evidence suggests that
the original text contained a number of expressions and words with
meanings that were lost from the English language by 1700. On the other
hand, I have not been able thus far to find word meanings and
expressions in the text that are known to have entered the English
language after the early 1700s.  [emphasis added]

He then lists some plausible examples. So strange. So unexpected.

That theme is taken up in force in a recent article at the Mormon Interpreter, Stanford Carmack’s “A Look at Some ‘Nonstandard’ Book of Mormon Grammar.” Carmack contends that so much of what were dismissing as Joseph’s bad grammar actually turns out to be acceptable grammar from Early Modern English, featuring many elements that were from decades before the English of the King James Bible, almost as if the translation given to Joseph by inspiration had been deliberately translated into that slightly earlier English. So strange. What is going on?

As interesting as it was, I immediately thought I saw a flaw in the analysis and posted this comment to Carmack’s article:

One of the criticisms the Tanners make
of the grammar of the original Book of Mormon when they discuss “the
3,913 changes” of the Book of Mormon is the use of “a” before many
verbs, such as “As I was a journeying to see a very near kindred …”
[Alma 10:7], “And as I was a going thither …” [Alma 10:8], “… the
foundation of the destruction of this people is a beginning to be laid
…” [Alma 10:27], “… he met with the sons of Mosiah, a journeying
towards the land …” [Alma 17:1], and “… the Lamanites a marching
towards them …” [Mormon 6:7].

I’ve heard this described as “Pittsburgh dialect” I think, with a
suggestion that it might have been Oliver’s language. But I also read
someone say or guess that this construction can be found in Chaucer.
Haven’t had time to check. What are your thoughts?

What I didn’t say was that this “a going” and “a marching” pattern really annoyed me, for it sounded like “hick language” to my ears. Why no mention of that in the article? I suspected it must be because it didn’t fit the Early Modern English hypothesis. After all, Carmack is not claiming that every case of awkward grammar is squarely from standard Early Modern English. But this form isn’t Hebraic either, as far as I know–it’s just bad, even embarrassing grammar.

Turn out I was wrong.  After posting my comment, I poked around for more information about this verb form. It’s very hard to search for since the key term “a” is ignored or obscured in many of the search strings one might try. But I did stumble upon some articles that led me to look up the history of the English progressive form, and that’s where I found interesting material.

The best source I found was  The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. III, ed. by Roger Lass, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 217:

Some earlier scholars (e.g. Jesperson MEG IV: 168-9) espouse the theory that be + -ing goes back to the combination of the preposition on > a + the verbal noun ending in -ing (I am a-reading > I am reading). The available evidence makes it more likely, however, that the verbal type without a preposition and the nominal type with one represent two separate constructions which lived side by side from Old English on. In the course of the Modern English period, the verbal type superseded the nominal one. In the seventeenth century the nominal type can be found even in formal and educated writing, but it becomes non-standard in the course of the eighteenth (Nehls 1974: 169-70). There are only half a dozen Helsinki Corpus instances of the nominal type dating from 1640-1710, all of them in fiction, private correspondence or comedies. Lowth (1775 [1979]: 65) gives the following comment on the principles preceded by a: ‘The phrases with a… are out of use in the solemn style; but still prevail in familiar discourse . . . there seems to be no reason, why they should be utterly rejected.’

The full form of the preposition on is much less common than the weakened a in Early Modern English. Also other prepositions are possible; instances with upon can be found as late as the eighteenth century (159)….

So yes, that annoying verb form is also good Early Modern English. Carmack’s thesis still works on that issue as well. I’m surprised, though pleasantly.

By the way, for an interesting theory of the development of the “on” construction in Middle English and Early Modern English, see Casper de Groot, “The king is on huntunge: on the relation between progressive and absentive in Old and Early Modern English” in M. Hannay and G. Steen eds., The English Clause: Usage and Structure, 175-190, Amsterdam: Benjamins 2007).

Carmack would later respond to my comment by confirming that it is an Early Modern English form, and one that can even be found in the Bible. He mentioned Luke 8:42 and 9:42. Sure enough, there’s “a dying” and “a coming.” Never noticed that, and haven’t found other examples of this in the Bible yet. Do you know of any? Seems like a rare occurrence to me. 

So yes, much of the awkward grammar of the original Book of Mormon
appears to reflect language that is not typical of the KJV, being
earlier than the KJV era and earlier than Joseph’s dialect, though
remnants persisted in his day and in ours as nonstandard forms in modern
grammar. Carmack sees this as evidence against a modern, fraudulent
origin and evidence for divine translation–but why would a divine
process result in English forms predating the KJV? Was some sort of
Celestial Translator Device set the wrong century by a clumsy angel?
However the divine translation process worked, however the language was
selected or “seasoned” for delivery to Joseph’s mind, what came out can
no longer be explained as mere imitation of the KJV or as a modern
fabrication that Joseph and his friends or family were capable of.

one hypothesis: The translation into language actually predating the
KJV is an example of one of God’s little ironies jokes. A helpful little joke,
that is, a
almost humorous gem to bless and strengthen those willing to pay
attention, offering surprising evidence that there is far more to this
text than meets the eye. Yes, it is quiet and easy-to-overlook evidence
that the Book of Mormon is not a modern translation, is not merely drawn
from the KJV or any other modern source. It’s a little joke, but the
real joke is on those who cry plagiarism.
Now the difficulty of
explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon text is far may be greater than we imagined.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

72 thoughts on “Joseph Smith’s Hick Language in the Original Book of Mormon Manuscript: Divine Irony?

  1. Hi Jeff,

    I'm a little surprised that this theory is gathering momentum. It seems a bit concerning that something so far-fetched is being given credibility.

    I first heard about Skousen's theory a year or so ago. I started going through the "dead phrases" in the list in the first article you linked to in your blog post.

    Most of his examples are not conclusive. Some are outright wrong.

    For example:

    Extinct, referring to an individual's death

    Alma 44:7 reads "and I will command my men that they shall fall upon you and inflict the wounds of death in your bodies that ye may become extinct." Such usage seems very odd today since, as the OED explains under definition 4 for this past participial adjective, we now use extinct to refer to a family, race, or species as having died out or come to an end. But in Early Modern English, extinct could refer to a person's death. The OED, under definition 3, lists citations from 1483 through 1675, the last one from an English translation of Machiavelli's The Prince: "The Pope being dead and Valentine extinct."

    This is not evidence of a 1500s origin. The sentence makes sense in the 1828 definition of the word:

    "and I will command my men that they shall fall upon you and inflict the wounds of death in your bodies that ye may become extinct."

    "Ye" is talking about a group (it's plural), not an individual as Skousen presumes ("thee" would be singular). So he warns a group of people that they will become extinct.

    A quick look at an 1828 dictionary confirms this is a fair choice of phrase:

    "and I will command my men that they shall fall upon you and inflict the wounds of death in your bodies that ye may…"

    (be out of force)
    (be abolished)
    (be at a stop)

    Dictionary of the English language by Samuel Johnson & John Walker (1828 edition)


    (be at an end)
    (have no survivor)

    Webster (1828 edition)

    This is one of several phrases that can be either found in 1800s or even still today. Others could easily be a dictation/transcription error.

    Having some of the church's defenders get excited about this undermines credibility of work elsewhere for me. I hope it dies a death soon.

  2. I very much like Brant Gardner's views as discussed in "The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon," where besides discussing literal translation vs. functional translation, he attributes the "pre-1800" language to the fact that rural, less educated communities often use older language than the kind you'll find in the high-brow encyclopedias. If there are any copies of the "Oxford Dictionary of Language Among the Rural and Poorly-Educated" out there, I think it would be a good source.

    Personally, I think Gardner pretty much demolishes the literal translation theory. Its proponents seem to ignore all the evidence people like Metcalfe have come up with showing the many instances where the Book of Mormon really is in the language of its day. The functional translation theory accounts for this and also does wonders for explaining away some of the anachronisms and absent archeology that people have criticized over the years.

    Jeff – Have you already reviewed Gardner's book "Translating the Book of Mormon…"? What are your views?

  3. As a professional translator myself, only two options hold any water in my mind at all (assuming a divine origin): translation into KJV language to create a consistent scriptural language or translation into the language of the day. Anything else would be stupid and pointless.

  4. Haven't read Gardner's book yet, but just bought the Kindle edition and will get to it. Thanks for the suggestion!

    Gideon, I shared the bewilderment when I first heard of the theory, but the evidence seems to point in that direction. Carmack and Skousen have significant credentials that should give us pause to look at what they are finding. This is not a hypothesis that is required by anything in our faith, not a natural thing that someone would like to find evidence to prop up, but a surprising, unexpected find that I think is being driven by the evidence, not a preconceived notion.

    When I looked up "extinct" in the back of my Book of Mormon during church today, after seeing your comment, the first thing I saw was its usage in Alma 36, where a single individual is discussing his extinction. Not a group. Not a race. It's definitely an example of an archaic usage.

    I reposted your question on M.I. to get Carmack's response, which you can see there. He makes the good point that Webster and Johnson do not distinguish between uses that were already extinct in their do and those that are current. OED is where to go to see that.

    Carmack notes that Welch's theory admits for both current and archaic usages to be found, as they are in the Book of Mormon. So we can read of a people going extinct, and of Alma wishing to be extinct. Not a problem – a range of usages was available in Early Middle English.

    I think even if literal words were given to Joseph, it would seem reasonable to recognize that he was still the translator and that he could rephrase things in dictating to his scribes.

    What of the possibility that the Book of Mormon translation was dominated by an Early Modern English language that predates the KJV English AND Joseph's dialect (if that is the case)? Is it really "stupid and pointless"? In differentiating the origins from the KJV, at least Carmack seems to find a point that may not be so stupid after all. I'm not sure he or Skousen or right, but I'm intrigued. When the gap I thought I found in their analysis ended up fitting it rather nicely, that added more a little more pizzazz to the theory in my mind. I'll read Gardner and will consider additional views as I ponder this puzzling issue. Perhaps the joke is on me after all, but let's see.

  5. Moses got a burning bush. The LDS apologists offer parsing antiquated syntax and renaming cureloms and cumoms.

    I wonder if anyone would invest money on the strength of similar "evidence".

  6. As a linguist I have found so many correspondences between EModE and BofM language that it is impossible to honestly deny them. Some of these carried through to Joseph Smith's dialect but many others did not. Plus, analysis of more advanced syntax will show sophistication in arcane usage that was impossible for Smith to produce (to appear in near future). Gardner must provide dialect examples of things like "hearts delighteth" and "if it so be" to support his view. To my knowledge he has not. Most non-linguist discussions of BofM language have wrongly concluded that it is similar to KJB language, and that that is basically all there is to say about it. Yes, it is similar, but it is different too, in many concrete ways. My recent article begins to show that. Syntactic analysis that I am currently undertaking shows by extensive analysis of examples that it is very different in distinct ways and that inexpert composition or translation would not have produced the overall syntax of the BofM.

  7. Hi Jeff, thanks for your reply. Just to clarify, I referenced Alma 44:7 as a direct quote from Skousen's essay.

    You've also given the example of Alma 36:15 "Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds."

    You've suggested this is "…where a single individual is discussing his extinction. Not a group. Not a race. It's definitely an example of an archaic usage…"

    It's not archaic. I've found several examples of 'extinction' being used in early 1800s literature, specifically referring to the idea of both soul and body being destroyed.

    For example:

    (1828) "If God kills or destroys both soul and body, is there not a total extinction of the whole man?",%20is%20there%20not%20a%20total%20extinction&f=false

    The essay goes on to explore the idea that this extinction, destruction of soul and body, might put people beyond the reach of pain and affliction.

    The horror of Alma's sins means he has no desire to have to face God. This is so terrifying that he would prefer for God to destroy both his soul and body… to make him extinct, finished, extinguished, put out… so that he wouldn't have to face God, to be judged of my deeds.

    I'm not suggesting Joseph plagiarised the essay I quoted. But it does show that being "extinct both soul and body" was a phrase still in use in the 1820s.

    Can we agree that "extinct" in the Book of Mormon can not be considered one of Skousen's archaic phrases?

    I don't have time to work through each and every one of the archaic phrases he proposes. But given I've been able to eliminate one with a little amateur googling I can't help but wonder at the rigour that has been put into this.

    Here are a few more examples from early 1800s:

    (1834) "…in hell though the death of the body is the extinction of the soul yet man has a life capable of being killed after both body and soul is extinct…"

    (1821) "Death, therefore, which, at first sight, looks like an extinction of both soul and body at once…"
    (End of page 17)

    (1815) "We must consider too the nature and consequences of death. We are not to regard it as a total extinction of our being but only a temporary separation of soul and body…",%20is%20there%20not%20a%20total%20extinction&f=false

  8. it was back in the 1980's that i came to know that "hick speak" was a legitimate archaic form of English, and not a corruption.

    The fact that archaic English lived on in frontier America, and continues to live on in deep back-woods and rural areas ( even today in places like Kentucky and West Virginia and many places in the South) has been known a long time. It had to do with the classes or groups of British immigrants who spoke that archaic form and the fact that those groups tended to go to the frontier and back-woods instead of congregate in the cities with the more modernly educated classes of immigrants.

    The more refined immigrants who were educated in their contemporary grammar tended to stay closer to the coast in cities.

    it was perhaps lack of strong connections to more educated population centers that tended to keep those frontier/backwoods populations from beong raised with "proper"/modern education. it then became a "traditions of the fathers" kind of thing, which is exactly how dialects are propagated.

    I don't know what vernacular was spoken among the Smith family, what JS Jr or even JS Sr grew up with.

    Skousen and the Interpreter really aren't providing anything new here. if anything, it's really just a reminder that "hick talk" was at one time in British history the standard grammar of its time, that just happened to live on (and has been well documented outside of apologetic or critical circles for a long time) in pockets of rural and Southern America.

    Anti-Mormons are just going to say that the "a going" type of grammatical constructs were merely JS's vernacular, and evidence of his lack of formal education.

    Mockers who aren't aware of the historical grammar connections between England and the US are going to mock those BoM passages as "hick talk".

    Faithful defenders are going to point out that what is thought of today as "hick talk" does have a documented and well-accepted (outside of LDS circles, and outisde of any LDS related matter) anthropological connection to archaic English.

  9. And it's not just grammatical constructs, but pronunciations. Such as dropping Rs, where sugar becomes shu-gah, -ing becomes -in', and the th aound becomes "f", such as "Arthur" becomes "ah-fuh".

    So this is really much ado about nothing. At best it will educate some of the mockers who were unaware of the rural American connection to archaic English grammar. They will still be anti-Mormons. Joseph Smith and his family were rural-Americans.

    In sum this is no "score" for either side. it's just a history lesson.

    I do see one more lesson or example, but only for those who already believe: Faithful people will see this as another example of how the Lord uses simple, "low class" and uneducated people to bring about His purposes; and how the Lord uses the humbleness and plainness of His servants to confound and be stumbling blocks to proud and worldly people. We have to humble ourselves to "get" the gospel. Proud people can't "get it" even though it's in plain sight.

  10. Good grief, Jeff.

    Do you really believe this? — The translation into language actually predating the KJV is an example of one of God's little jokes. A helpful little joke, that is, a humorous gem to bless and strengthen those willing to pay attention, offering surprising evidence that there is far more to this text than meets the eye. Yes, it is quiet and easy-to-overlook evidence that the Book of Mormon is not a modern translation, is not merely drawn from the KJV or any other modern source. It's a little joke, but the real joke is on those who cry plagiarism. Now the difficulty of explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon text is far greater than we ever imagined."

    You introduce this little stinker by telling us it's just a hypothesis, but then immediately you switch to saying it provides "surprising evidence." (Of course it does nothing of the sort, and anyway, since when does a "hypothesis" constitute "evidence"?)

    I could just as easily argue that Joseph Smith and the eight witnesses were suffering from a temporary collective psychosis, induced by sharing some moldy bread, all under the direction of a God playing one of her "little jokes" with the purpose of warning us about human susceptibility to fake revelation — and then saying that this hypothesis turns the witnesses' testimony into "surprising evidence" against the BoM.

    I could do this, but I never would, if only as a matter of intellectual self-respect.

    I would classify this post in the same category as the creationist argument that God created a fossil record that looks like it supports evolution, not because evolution is true, but in order to test our faith. You really ought to retract this one, Jeff. Your enthusiasm has gotten the better of you.

  11. Sorry, no one has done in-depth linguistic analysis on the BofM, just vague literary stuff or phrasal work. Dismissive comments without real evidentiary work don't do much ultimately, although they may work on blogs. Command syntax, causative constructions, did syntax all point to the 1500s, and it's all markedly different from the KJB. And no one in the 1820s was speaking with did go, etc. 25% of the time or with heavy biclausal command syntax or with any biclausal causative constructions. That only happened in the mid-1500s. Things like "it supposeth me" are very old and not in the KJB or in the 1820s.

    The past-tense syntax in the book argues directly against characterizing Joseph Smith’s dictation as one of LOOSE CONTROL — ideas revealed, with Smith putting them into his own words. Under that theory, would there have been 25% usage of affirmative declarative periphrastic did in the text? No. Would there have been 10% usage? No. Would there have been 5% usage? No. Would there have been 2% usage? Perhaps. Under loose control we would expect either biblical patterns or usage of the syntax in a constrained 1820s way — for emphasis and contrast and with heavy doses of SUBJECT–did inversion. LOOSE CONTROL theorists must view Smith as so conversant with the King James Bible and its modes of expression that he was able to subconsciously mimic many of its structures in his dictation. But had Smith been using the biblical text, subconsciously, as a model for past-tense narration, then he would have certainly used the periphrasis only about 2% of the time, since that is the rate of use found in the biblical text. And if he had used his own language for past-tense verbal expression, then he would have used the periphrasis at an even lower rate. These are concrete, exemplar-driven conclusions with respect to loose control, not semi-valid, sometimes vague assertions that agree with preconceived notions and explanatory prejudices but which end up, however, lacking a basis in reality.

  12. Bookslinger,

    There's more to the Interpreter article than hick speech, much more. You may have read only part of it. And once the correspondences increase in number, where we have one dozen EModE correspondences without anything in ModE or the KJB then even skeptics must acknowledge it if they want to approach the data honestly, which I suppose you do.

  13. Champatsch –

    I'm genuinely confused. At one point, you say, "Sorry, no one has done in-depth linguistic analysis on the BofM." You then proceed to provide proof of the BOM through what seems to me (a confessed layman) to be that very thing – linguistic analysis.

    Also, would you mind listing a few of the key articles discussing the past-syntax theory you are discussing, as applied to the BOM? Or, if you are working towards publishing such an article, when might an interested person anticipate seeing it?

    Another general issue with all types of proof is that random statistical variation occurs with all evidence. One would need to have some statistical model of how these things arise, then show that the proof is one of statistical significance. But a 5% level probably wouldn't convince anyone, because of the huge publication bias in fields like this – people are literally scouring the Book of Mormon for any kind of scholarly support, and a huge number of potential ideas or studies simply get shelved because the evidence doesn't exist or support the desired outcome. To account for publication bias, some people in the medical sciences rely on a 1% cutoff, or even more stringent.

    So there's plenty of work to do before "proof" of tight control can be shown.

    Also, the benefit of the loose control model is that it accounts for so many of the archeological anomalies, which skeptics always point to for disproof of the BOM. It also accounts for all the correspondences between BOM phraseology and 19th century sermons that "anti-Mos" have pointed out.

    I submit, based on faith, that God will NEVER allow convincing PROOF of the BOM (which would eliminate the need for the fundamental principle of faith), but that He will allow people to show the FALSITY of DISPROOFS.

    Based on these premises, it is mind-boggling to me why people are trying to bolster the tight control model rather than the loos control model.

  14. Most of the discussion on this article, and much of Jeff's attention, is actually at the website of the article that Jeff linked-to.

    I'm slightly annoyed to try to discuss a subject on Jeff's blog, only to find Jeff making most of this comments elsewhere.

    I'm feeling very unloved.

  15. Sorry, Anon., I was unclear at the beginning of my last longer post.

    Why tight control rather than loose control?

    At the moment, I can think of three concrete reasons.

    First, let's assume there are 60 non-KJB linguistic elements that we find in the BofM — 5 found in EModE but not in ModE, 5 found in ModE but not in EModE, and 50 found in both.

    Tight control accounts for all 60.

    Loose control accounts for only 55. The 5 that is misses are not simple in nature — whether semantic or syntactic.

    Second, tight control aligns with consistent eyewitness testimony that says that Smith did not use any outside material when dictating — he did not dictate from the KJB.

    Third, tight control is consonant with 3 Nephi 21:11 and 2 Nephi 27:6,9,19,20,22,24. Loose control only fits these with a very strained interpretation of the language of the BofM text.

  16. OK, suppose for a moment that a rigorous and independent linguistic analysis showed that significant parts of the Book of Mormon "came from Early Modern English, predating the English of the KJV" (to use Jeff's words), or (to use Stanford Carmack's words) that the BoM's "grammar presents extensive evidence of its Early Modern English character, independent in many cases from the King James Bible."*

    Suppose it were shown that these miscellaneous EModE-isms were somehow authentic and not random hits scored by a 19th-century writer striving to sound old-timey. Suppose we were all convinced "that the BofM is, in large part, an independent, structurally sound EModE text."

    What exactly would that suggest? What could possibly be the significance?

    Why would God choose Early Modern English as the linguistic vehicle for restoring his gospel to users of modern English in the 19th century? I know His ways are mysterious and all, but still.

    Carmack says "that this [EModE] character stems from [the BoM's] divine translation" and that "God chose the language variety…despite its archaic and obsolete character, consistent with his divine purposes."

    What could that "divine purpose" possibly be? I think it's pretty telling that so far the best suggestion is "God's little joke."

    This whole line of faux-linguistic-analysis-cum-apologetics is itself a joke.

    * See what I did there? I made a chiasmus!

  17. We need an apologist who can explain why God delights in making little jokes like this while watching people starve or be burned at the stake. Where's Blake Ostler when you need him?

    Blake – any suggestions? Jeff?

  18. Kolob et al., you ask why there would be non-KJB EModE in the BofM. The why of course is fraught with speculation. But here's a why. God wanted the language of the BofM to be similar to the dominant English-language Bible used in America in the 1820s, but not identical. And the way that it is different does not impede comprehension any more than the EModE that is in the KJB does. As I read it, the nonbiblical parts of the BofM are at least as plain as KJB language is. That Bible is a mixture of early 1500s English (Tyndale) with late 1500s English (the translation committees). The BofM, on the other hand, is a mixture of English language of a larger range, from the early 1500s (even perhaps late 1400s) to sometime in the 1700s. (The Lord had a greater range to work with in the 1820s.) But a lot of the framework syntax like past-tense usage and clause-relation largely follows structures whose usage peaked in the middle of the 1500s.

    Faux linguistics? Wrong. Actually what's faux is the speculation that many are interested in. Let's see, as someone without a degree in engineering I don't feel qualified or justified in off-handedly criticizing the substantive engineering analysis of someone with a doctorate in that field. I am right in allowing for some expertise in the analysis. By the same token I need to show a degree of respect for the linguistic work of someone with a PhD in that field.

    What is in the relevant article is exemplar-driven linguistics. That's actually less faux than the dominant formal approaches to linguistics that dominate the field globally. No intricate theory is used in the article. Did you read the article? Did you see how many examples are given throughout it, looking at the footnotes too? Yeah, the analysis could have pointed out more often that some of the structures might have carried through to 1820s ModE, but the author was trying to make the point that everyone has viewed the original language as nonstandard ModE but that it can be viewed as typical EModE. So he focused on the fact that the seemingly ungrammatical language was not just nonstandard ModE dialect but had roots in EModE when there wasn't a standard.

  19. Champatsch suggests that "God wanted the language of the BofM to be similar to the dominant English-language Bible used in America in the 1820s."

    But as the author of the BoM, Joseph Smith would have wanted the exact same thing! He would naturally have wanted his putatively ancient scripture to sound like the real ancient scripture with which he and his society were most familiar, which required the kind of mimicry we see wherever his text is not quoting the Bible outright.

    And guess what? Smith's motives in this regard are a lot more obvious than God's.

    Combining this kind of mimicry with certain features of Smith's native dialect would naturally produce features that look like EModE. This in turn sets up an opportunity for the cherry-picking* apologist to discover "evidence" of divine origin.

    This statement is worth some comment as well:

    … the author was trying to make the point that everyone has viewed the original language as nonstandard ModE but that it can be viewed as typical EModE. So he focused on the fact that the seemingly ungrammatical language was not just nonstandard ModE dialect but had roots in EModE when there wasn't a standard.

    First, it's not adequate to say simply "that everyone has viewed the original language as nonstandard ModE." This fails to distinguish between those who claim that Smith was too uneducated to use his contemporary standard, and those who (like me) claim he was engaging in mimicry.

    Second, if in fact the BoM "can be viewed as typical EModE," I suggest a simple exercise. Read a bunch of genuine EModE texts and compare to the BoM. In addition to Milton and Shakespeare, I've read Thomas More, Philip Sydney, Francis Bacon, William Bradford, Robert Burton, and many others, and when I compare their language to the BoM's, the latter is obviously…different, let's say.

    Finally, you should not trust an author's Ph.D. You should trust the peer-review process. You should ask yourself why Carmack hasn't submitted his article to a professional linguistics journal. Given the tremendous value of such a professional imprimatur to his apologetic efforts, he has every reason to submit his work to a "legitimate" journal. So why are we reading it in the Mormon Interpreter rather than the Journal of Linguistics? (Answer: because it's methodologically flawed and agenda-driven.)

    *Oh, sorry. I meant "exemplar-driven linguistics."

  20. One thing that we don't know, and have no way of knowing, is what was happening on the other side of the Urim and Thummim or the seer stone. Was this device somewhat like a heavenly Google translator? Or more like an advanced text transmitter? Was the Book of Mormon translated on the other side of the veil and then just texted line by line to Joseph through the seer stone? If so, what version of English did the heavenly translator know (or learn, since he/she also had to know the Nephite language). Obviously, this is all speculation too and we will probably not know how this all works until we get classes at the post-mortal universities. But there may be a very simple reason why the Book of Mormon sounds like EModE with quite an undercurrent of Hebraisms.

  21. Duke,

    Speculation. The translation may have been attached to the plates somehow and transmitted to the stone, all this by miraculous means. Notice that the plates needed to be close by, but they weren't consulted directly; they were covered in linen. Was only short-distance transmission possible? Otherwise why couldn't they have been elsewhere, far away? Again, speculation.

  22. Kolob cherry-picked the first quote, leaving off "but not identical", meaning that the BofM is different linguistically from the KJB in significant ways — the evidence he has not confronted. I anticipate that eventually two dozen concrete non-KJB EModE linguistic elements will be substantiated as not carrying through to the 1820s but found in the text. Then those adhering to naturalistic explanations for the BofM text will ascribe every one of them to fortunate mimicry, but against astronomical statistical odds. Why astronomical, because each one will involve complex, unpredictable semantic shifts or complex syntactic structures and patterns that a non-native could never reproduce.

    Take Thomas More. Yeah, BofM content will be different from More, but some linguistic structure is not. For instance, "if it so be", found in More. That's just fortunate mimicry by Smith against biblical usage of "if so be".

    Take past-tense narrative syntax, 25% affirmative declarative did-usage in the BofM, 2% or less in the KJB, and 1% or so in 1820s America. So where's the biblical mimicry? Or mimicry of 1820s American English? Smith failed, utterly. But oddly enough he didn't fail at all like pseudobiblical authors did, like Snowden, Ethan Smith, and Gilbert Hunt. They failed to match biblical past-tense syntax in the other direction.

    Some will say, of course, that Joseph Smith used did-syntax 25% of the time because he just wanted to be different and he was enamored of the construction. He may have thought of it himself, against his own native-speaker intuitions. Okay, but he matches usage of a few authors in the mid-1500s: Boorde, Machyn, Elyot. Obscure authors he would have known nothing about. Just another lucky hit, I guess. Except there is not one English-language book from the year 1600 to 1829 that ever used past-tense syntax the way the BofM does. Only the above authors have been found to do so (maybe there are others in the 1500s as well). Another linguistic correspondence, and they will continue to add up.

  23. Orbiting K. said "Good grief, Jeff. Do you really believe this?"

    Undecided. What I believe is that the Book of Mormon is a genuine witness of Christ translated from an ancient record. How it was translated is open for debate and further research. But following the data leads to an unexpected find: that the language of the Book of Mormon cannot be readily explained as a mere derivation from the KJV.

    It's the data that I am interested in. I am intrigued by the careful work of Stanford Carmack which merits substantive responses rather than eye-rolling. I don't know why or how, but it appears that much of the bad grammar in the earliest version of the Book of Mormon translation is standard Early Modern English, and it does not appear likely at this stage that this is simply a case of Joseph's use of the dialect in his area. More research is needed. It's an area for data and discussion. But so far the data appear to present a factor that may be difficult to explain using old models of plagiarism and modern fabrication. Perhaps. I am interested in seeing where this leads and if it holds up.

    It would be fine, perhaps even comforting in the light of the puzzling questions raised by the work of Carmack and Skousen, to have the language prove to be merely the dialect of Joseph Smith and his neighbors. But I don't think there is evidence already that something else is required.

  24. I think the theory of BOM translation may need to allow for at least occasional tight control. Maybe "leaky" tight control.

    I see that in many translated texts involving Chinese and English: passages where you can see and feel that the original language has been somewhat closely followed (usually not word-for-word, but in structure and idiom) resulting in unnatural or awkward wording in the translation, and then there will be sections that read naturally in the translated language. Many times I can read an English passage and know right away that it came from Chinese, even when it has been translated with skill. Sometimes.

    In Chinese, especially in the formal Chinese of a proclamation or political speech, the way things are said are so different from the way we say and do things in the U.S. or Europe, that the if the translation does justice to the original, it will often sound foreign after translation. Then if someone is translating a classical Chinese passage, from what little I know, it gets much harder, and I think the poetical and most refined parts have to be completely reconstructed or sound hopelessly opaque.

  25. Champatch's comments add some significant linguistic data to this debate. Fascinating. Thanks!

    Brant Gardner's loose control theory for the translation seems to require that these older English structures be attributed to Joseph's dialect, but that doesn't appear to fit the data. His one instance of the "and = then" Hebraism that he said he found in Joseph's own writings turns out to be a type by the scribe that was crossed out, and is not relevant. Gardner does make a good point that tight control does not fit what we see in many passages. That's data to be considered as well. But Carmack's work does not require that every translated word and phrase be strictly tightly controlled. I think Gardner's theory is not all that different. Translation is a "leaky" process. Some sections can be tight, others loose. We don't escape the mind of the translator in the process.

  26. Anon, sorry you aren't feeling loved. I did look to M.I. and interaction with Stanford Carmack there as a way to better understand some of the issues. Still much to learn.

  27. Gideon, I'm not sure about the issues around extinct You raise excellent points. The world of Big Data and millions of books to search will raise new challenges and opportunities for the OED classifications. Archaic forms persist in various places. How many examples require reclassification from archaic to, say, dialectical? Not sure. But your evidence weakens the impact of Skousen's example of extinct, though it may still be part of the overall case for EMOE forms persisting in the Book of Mormon. I'm interested in understanding how that word was used in Joseph's environment. Thanks for the detective work and interest.

  28. My guess is that no non-Mormon linguist would buy any of this, which is why Carmack has not submitted his work to a real journal — just as no non-Mormon Egyptologist accepts the ancient origins of the Book of Abraham. (Doesn't this last fact tell you folks anything? How do you explain it — are we to believe that the whole non-Mormon world is somehow blind to all the "evidences" that are so obvious to the believer?)

    Taking my own advice, I went to the shelf and re-read some passages from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and Bacon's New Atlantis. The latter begins with a description of a landing on a strange coast after a long voyage, which inspired me to revisit 1 Nephi 18; what impressed me most in the comparison is Smith's limited vocabulary. A close second is his lack of narrative skill, and third is his puerility (e.g., the obvious psychological projection seen in Nephi's obsession with his status vis-a-vis his brothers).

    Smith was indisputably great as a church-builder, but he was a terrible writer. "Not mighty in writing," indeed, and certainly undeserving of the praises heaped upon it. It's bad enough that your zeal corrupts your logic; even worse is the way it degrades your taste.

  29. Vocabulary and narrative skill are inconsequential; the projection view is laughable: Nephi had older brothers who hated him and wanted to kill him; Smith had older brothers who loved him and supported him.

    It is understandable that a journal would not accept apologetic arguments for divine provenance. That’s not what journals do. But they will accept data stripped of that. So what, you can see the same data in the apologetic paper and draw your own conclusions. You can reject correspondence after correspondence, or not.

    Bias and agendas are found in all peer-reviewed journals – I know you know that. If you espouse a theory that an editor holds dear your chances of publication are much higher. The paper might be strong or it might be weak but it will likely get published. The fact that it got published doesn’t mean the analysis or data were weak. It could be a very strong paper, or not.

  30. You show puerility by your scorn of chiasmus. Don’t you acknowledge the objective existence of the blasphemer chiasm in Leviticus 24 or the transgression chiasm in Mosiah 5? Surely you’ve seen the rigorous statistical treatment given a number of well-defined chiasms in the Book of Mormon by two researchers, something this blog referenced 10 years. If you have then it supposeth me that thou art a child of obfuscation and denial.

  31. Champatsch,

    I posted these questions over at the Interpreter. Hopefully Stanford will respond, but I would be very interested in your take on them.

    1) In the book “The Gift and Power: Translating the Book of Mormon,” the author makes the point that in rural communities with less education, it would not be surprising to find older, non-standard variants of English being used. Why should the non-standard forms identified here be attributed to the divine translation process, rather than as a by-product of less educated, rural 19th century America?

    2) Is it true or false that rural or less educated communities will tend to use older variants of English? Are there scholarly articles discussing this? Doesn’t the type of grammar that one uses depend heavily on the community one is in, the amount of contact that community has with other communities, the diffusion of language, etc.?

    3) How do you respond to the idea that any scholarly authorities that define what constitutes “Early Modern English” would have largely been based more on language used in cities and the better-educated (i.e. derived from those who write books, rather than oral language)–and that you are inappropriately applying these results to a language of a person from an entirely different community? (i.e., applying a result applicable to A inappropriately to population B).

    4) Have other studies (outside of mormon scholarship) used English textual variants to date a text composed at an unknown date?

    5) What would falsify this theory? For example, if one were to find a different 19th century book that included Early Modern English in similar quantities to the Book of Mormon (but presumably with no divine intervention), would that falsify it? Are there any other ways the theory be falsified?

    6) Is there a statistical model for showing that the evidence is not due to chance? For example, in the biomedical sciences, a p<0.05 is often used. But to account for publication bias, many people really hope to see p<0.01 or less. How do we get a "p value" from your work? And since simple statistical tests are based on the assumption of the normal distribution, is there any reason to expect a normal distribution in these linguistic studies? (As opposed to a "power law" / "Zipf's law" distribution, for example)?

    7) Should't case controls on these methods be applied to other texts from the 19th century?

    8) It seems like a decent methodology for doing a study like this would be to assume that the date of authorship is unknown, and then to classify ALL the linguistic evidence by time period (so, for example, you might end up with some evidence in the 1500s, some in the 1600s, 1700s, some in the 1800s, etc.). I would expect you would find some evidence of 19th century English in the Book of Mormon. Is this the process that was undertaken? Quickly scanning the article, it looks like most of what you discuss relates to evidence for Early Modern English. But surely there must also be evidence for 19th century English. How much? How does the quantity of 19th century English compare to Early Modern English? The BOM has about 250,000 words, so even if there are dozens of examples of Early Modern English, it still accounts for only a minute fraction of the text.

    9) Some authors (I believe Brent Metcalfe) have shown many similarities between language used in the Book of Mormon and the language used in sermons of the early 19th century. I personally interpeted this as evidence that Joseph used the language of his day during the translation process. How does this theory account for evidence by people like Metcalfe?

    10) Who are a few non-mormon scholars who would be qualified to critique this work?