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 : 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, almost humorous gem to bless and strengthen those willing to pay
that is, a
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 Now the difficulty of
real joke is on those who cry plagiarism.
explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon text
is far may be greater than we imagined.