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?