The Evolution of Language and the Book of Mormon

Friday, if all goes well, I’ll have an article published at The Interpreter that evaluates the current status of fascinating status Orson Scott card made about the Book of Mormon 25 years ago in a speech at BYU, available online as “The Book of Mormon — Artifact or Artifice?,” Nauvoo Times, February 1993. Today I’d like to share one minor aspect of that article regarding linguistic change. This issue came up in the process of evaluating Card’s comparison of the Book of Mormon to an apparently fraudulent ancient word of poetry, the poems allegedly written by Ossian and “translated” by the highly educated James Macpherson. One of Macpherson’s most serious blunders was the failure to consider how much language changes over time. It was a blunder also made in another poetical fraud, the Rowley papers.

Macpherson’s fraud could also be considered in light of a few other attempted forgeries, including Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley papers, purporting to be poems from a 15th-century monk named Rowley. The poems were initially accepted due to a general lack of attention at the time of publication to the details of the English language and its changes over the centuries. Chatterton used antique paper for his poems but was unable to properly reflect the language of the time he sought to mimic, ensuring that the fraud would be detected.

Failure to appreciate linguistic change over time was a key weakness in the Ossian fraud. Macpherson claimed that the Erse language (ancient Gaelic) of 300 ad had remained pure and unchanged over the centuries, allowing him to read and understand ancient Erse and translate Ossian’s poetry into English. In spite of Macpherson’s outstanding education, this was a monumental blunder, one easily picked up by critics in his day. Some observed that Gaelic in Scotland showed obvious variability just from one valley to the next. With such obvious change across short distances, how could the language remain unchanged over more than a thousand years?

On the other hand, the challenges of linguistic change over time is an area where the Book of Mormon shines and far surpasses what Macpherson and, presumably, Joseph knew. Linguistic change is implicit as a fact of life in the Book of Mormon narrative. Nephi’s scribal work may already be blurring the lines between Egyptian and Hebrew (1 Nephi 1:1–3 ). We see the Mulekites, immigrants without written records to help maintain their language, have lost much of their language (it had become “corrupted”) and need to be taught to understand the Nephite’s language after just a few hundred years of separation (Omni 1:17–18), with their rapid linguistic drift presumably accelerated by contact with local peoples in the New World. We see Nephites treasuring their written records as a means of helping them maintain their scriptural language system (Mosiah 1:2–6). We see the Lamanites losing their written language and later needing to be taught the Nephite writing system (Mosiah 24:1–7). And in spite of their written records, centuries later Mormon acknowledges that their Hebrew had been altered (Mormon 9:33) and that their script for recording scriptures, now called “reformed Egyptian,” had been altered over time and was unknown except to them (Mormon 9:32, 34). These are realistic views on linguistic change, in contrast to the much less reasonable claims from the highly educated Macpherson.

In light of the easy blunders educated people have made on this issue, I really appreciate the sophisticated understanding of linguistic change that is implicit in the Book of Mormon’s treatment of language across the centuries.

Linguistic change is also a fascinating consideration in understanding the English translation of the Book of Mormon and the many interesting remnants of Early Modern English in the translation that cannot be easily derived from imitating the KJV Bible. Reading the Book of Mormon and thinking about the grammar, the English, and its archaic flavor yet readily understandable modern meaning adds a little more fun to regular scripture study and can lead to a number of healthy explorations.

Do you have a favorite issue related to change in language from the Book of Mormon?

Author: Jeff Lindsay

19 thoughts on “The Evolution of Language and the Book of Mormon

  1. Joseph stated clearly in a letter published in Times and Seasons volume IV (google it before accusations of being presented "out of context" fly!):
    "There was no Greek or Latin upon the plates from which I, through the grace of the Lord, translated the Book of Mormon."
    Okay so how come it's chock full of Greek and Latin words, like Messiah and Christ and so many, many more? How can he make that claim? Here's how! He lied about it! Just like today's mormon leaders lie on a regular basis. It's nothing to them to dismiss a concern with a lie.

  2. Anonymous, If you will recall, Joseph said that there was no Greek of Latin on the plates. Christ is not a Latin word, but was derived from Latin which in turn was derived from Greek. Messiah also was derived from Latin. But the two words are actually English words. Whatever the words were in the reformed Egyptian of the plates, they were translated as Christ and Messiah.


  3. "Messiah" comes from Hebrew, actually. "Christ" is a variant of a Greek name that means the same thing. These aren't even the original forms of the names, they're the English transliterations. And anyway, what other names would Joseph Smith even have used when talking about Him?

    Joseph Smith said that there was no Greek or Latin on the golden plates. There probably wasn't any English either, yet the translation we have is chock full of English words, like "prophet" and "engrave," and so many, many, more. In fact, almost the entire volume consists of English words! How can this be? Here's how: because it is a TRANSLATION.

  4. Here’s one: the meaning of the word “grace”.

    When I look up the word “grace” in various dictionaries, the meanings of the word are multitudinous. Sometimes a dictionary will include archaic or obsolete definitions, and one of those that comes up occasionally is “ready willingness to help”.

    This relates strongly to a theological concept that was a part of early separatist (Puritan) theology in the 1600s in England. David Clarkson (1622-1686), a well known separatist minister in England wrote and preached about this concept of God’s grace as a great willingness of the part of God “to do good freely, willing to help in time of need”, going on to discuss the throne of grace and the mercy-seat of God as description of a God full of both grace and mercy, writing “And what is mercy but a willingness to pity and relieve? And what is grace but a willingness to do it freely, a free willingness”.

    His writings were widely published and studied for the next two centuries, including during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. You can find this subject outlined in volume 3 of his works which was published by a group of Presbyterian scholars in 1865 in Edinburgh.
    (Works of David Clarkson, volume 3, p. 140-141)

    In our LDS Bible Dictionary, the focus of the definition of grace is on the “divine means of help or strength given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ”, and is portrayed as the means by which we receive divine assistance or as the enabling power we receive.

    However, by Clarkson’s definition, what that Bible Dictionary is describing as grace is actually the result of grace in a believer’s life, not the definition of grace, which, to him and others is God’s great willingness to extend that powerful help and strength.

    I think it likely that Joseph Smith would have been very familiar with that Presbyterian definition of grace, as he translated the book, considering his various family members who had been “proselyted to the Presbyterian church” and had joined it.

    I find that when I read the Book of Mormon with that archaic definition in mind, my understanding of God takes a slight change, and I read the passages of grace reflecting more in the very nature and willingness of God to help, instead of simply the majesty and power of that help which He bestows. It transforms my relationship with Him and my understanding of His approachability.

    And considering the huge plethora of situations described by writers in the Book of Mormon and their exhortations where good people faced very difficult and often fearful personal or community problems that they plead to God for help with, it seems fitting that this older definition and understanding of grace would be appropriate.

  5. Thanks for reminding Anon that the Book of Mormon is a translation. Not only does it have some words with Greek and Latin origins, and the shocking "Adieu" at the end of Jacob (and also in Webster's dictionary of 1828), it's loaded with words straight from English (!!) which should not have been on the plates. Proof of fraud? Or the natural result of translation?

  6. Except it's not a strict translation, per se. It's an inspired reading, just like the Book of Abraham. Keep an eye out for the church to change it's official stance on this now that it's clear Joseph rarely had plates in front of him during the process. Bank on it.

  7. According to those who worked with Joseph Smith, he did not "translate" the Book of Mormon. He buried his face in a hat, dictated the text, and rarely looked at the plates, if at all. Sometimes, the plates were not even in the same room where he was working. Our understanding of the word translate in the case of the Book of Mormon needs to be re-defined.

  8. Anonymous

    If you spoke another language besides English, then you might be able to comprehend translating from one language to another.

    This is one reason why the Navajo Code Talkers of WW II were so important.

    Navajo have no word for "tire", as in automobile tires. In Navajo the tires are called shoes… as in what we wear on our feet.

    You are being obtuse on purpose.

  9. I, for one, am not bothered by the question of how often or whether the plates may or may not have been in front of Joseph Smith as he translated. As I understand it the work of translation was basically revelation anyway, and certainly could have been accomplished either way.

  10. "As I understand it the work of translation was basically revelation anyway"

    Congratulations, now you are understanding what the critics have been saying … How the story changes … urim and thumin .. to just translating the plates beared eyed .. to same treasure hunting rock in a hat w no plates .. and now, as anon above said .. merely an inspired reading. Now you are getting it bearyb.

  11. Is the story actually changing, or are we simply learning more about different aspects of it?

    Besides, it doesn't change the fact of the Book's existence no matter how it was actually translated.

    Are the specific mechanics of what happened during the translation process all that important? There more weighty matters to consider, especially if it's true. Of course, if a person can convince themselves that there's no way it can be what it claims, they can also convince themselves that they don't need to worry about what it actually says.

    So, no, I'm afraid I don't understand the critics' fixation on this aspect of the Book's origins.

  12. "the critics' fixation" — ah, you mean the apologist fixation. But it is good that have critics to bring you simple learning.

    The Book's is merely another testament of Christ. 3rd Nephi merely clarify's aspects of the gospel that are already in the Bible. So even the LDS admit you don't need to worry about it. But the fact you feel the emotional impulse to dig at others with "they can also convince themselves that they don't need to worry" shows that your religion has only filed you with hate and anger, far from Christ.

  13. Bearyb –

    The fixation with the book and its origin has always been with the apologist. For example, it was the apologist who started by claiming the book proves anything, and then moving on to stylometry studies, etc. Apologist only exposed the critics for their disingenuous “research” and conclusions. The critics were successfully retorting the apologist bogus claims. So much so, that people like you get frustrated with the critics success and attempt to retort it by falsely accusing the critics of being the ones fixated. It is a deceitful claim to argue that there are “weighty matters to consider, especially if it’s true”, because “proper priesthood authority” is the theological differentiation of the religion.  Whether or not the book is a miracle, is irrelevant, after all Pharoah’s priests could turn a staff into a snake also.

    When apologist lie and say things like the book’s origin is “crucial in understanding and evaluating the claims of the Restoration” it is near complete deceit in order to trick people with smoke and mirrors and pull the wool over their eyes. It is awful and disgusting behavior by people who swore an oath to God not to behave that way. The “restoration” is all about rejecting the other’s Christians priesthood and has little to do with the book or its origin. 

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