The FAIRMormon Conference: Dealing with Data on the Language of the Book of Mormon

FAIRMormon had its annual conference recently. Transcripts of some of the talks will be available soon, but I recommend watching the presentations by paying for video access. I got up ridiculously early on a Saturday morning here in Shanghai to watch linguist Brian Stubbs talk about the Uto-Aztecan language group and its surprisingly strong connections to Near Eastern languages, a finding that was driven by data, not apologetics, but one that opens some important doors for understanding the ancient influence of the Near East on some ancient New World peoples. I will discuss this more in the near future and will be reviewing his outstanding new book on the topic, Changes in Languages from Nephi to Now.

Another presentation dealing with surprising finds in language related to the Book of Mormon came from Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack, “Finishing up the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project: An Introduction to The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon.” A large portion of this reviewed some of the very large body of evidence pointing to Early Modern English influence in the dictated text of the Book of Mormon, something that supports tight control (and possibly divine control) in at least some major aspects of the translation process. This, again, is not something being driven by apologetics because there is no reason why we need such a finding to defend the Book of Mormon. It is driven by the data, and the data form a very strong argument that contradicts many simple assumptions about the translation process and the authorship of the Book of Mormon.

There were many other great presentations on other topics unrelated to language issues.  The transcripts for most of them should be posted shortly. Enjoy!

Author: Jeff Lindsay

25 thoughts on “The FAIRMormon Conference: Dealing with Data on the Language of the Book of Mormon

  1. Stubbs had great data but he tried to present too much and his slides were too full of words. His book is solid, but it is unprofessionally done, which is too bad.

    Skousen and Carmack were substantive, and McGuire's presentation was curious, since he appeared to disagree with them, until he didn't. It was confusing and theory-driven without substantive analysis. He even took a lame shot at chiasmus, and I watched Jack Welch sitting calmly a few chairs from me while he did it. It was lame because his counter-example was weak, since it forced chiasmus by its very nature. Still, DCP thought it was good.

    Hardy ventured into territory that is the province of prophets. He needs to curb his enthusiasm, but he received a standing O for his performance, which tells you something about the preferences of attendees and possibly about the evolving position of FairMormon.

    Hardy praised some of the recent work by the Maxwell Institute (and still DCP thought highly of it ! — I guess he's a big-tent guy.), including mentioning Blair Hodges by name two or three times. Then when Hancock quoted Hodges, making a point and disagreeing with him, Hodges showed himself to be thin-skinned, angrily moving toward an exit, and Scott Gordon rushed over, saying "I'm so sorry", while putting an arm around him. I was a chance eyewitness to that little episode, and it occurred within earshot.

    It was an interesting conference.

  2. I think there is no basis for criticizing Blair for stepping out. If it were me being so directly critiqued in that forum with no chance to defend myself and perhaps without advance warning, I would have been uncomfortable and might have headed for the door as well. I liked Brother Hancock's presentation overall, but felt it could have dealt with the arguments Blair and others have made without naming them directly, especially when the targets can be in the audience. But this is a tough call. Not sure how best to deal with the debate without citing specific arguments from specifi people.

  3. And yes, I agree than Daniel is a big-tent person. His respect for Islam is one of many examples of this.

  4. The important comparison is right there in the above commentary. McGuire quoted and critiqued notions put forward by Welch, Skousen, and Carmack. I didn't see them angrily head for a door during his presentation. My guess is that they were comfortable enough with evidence they have presented, so being quoted didn't bother them. Not the case with the other fellow. And Dan can't properly confront the desperate need for an Islamic reformation since it would put him and his family in danger.

  5. I confess I don't understand why someone would get upset at their argument being critiqued. That's what we should want. I love it when people critique my arguments. If I'm wrong I'm wrong. Heaven knows I'm wrong regularly.

  6. The whole reason for publication and scholarly review is for others to evaluate your evidence and arguments and point out where you are right and wrong.

  7. It's all so intellectually disingenuous though. If any of these dudes opened their eyes and admitted the "evidence" they find is being stretched far beyond the limits of logic, they'd see what so many of us are seeing: the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction made up by Joseph and likely others. Set aside the account reported by Joseph and his cohorts and examine it truly dispassionately in the spirit of intellectual curiosity rather than defending the faith, and the house of cards will come crumbling down, and fast.

  8. Actually, Anon 159, you're the one overreaching. It is extremely unlikely that Joseph and others made up a work of fiction. It is extremely likely that it was beyond the human capacity of anyone living in the 1820s to craft the BofM.

  9. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

    That phrase above is used by Alma to make a point. However, that phrase is a combination of two Bible passages, one in Ecclesiastes and one in Isaiah. Who first put the two verses together? No one seems to know for sure, but in the last 1700's there was a French restaurant with the two verses conflated and scratched into the establishment's walls.

    Also, the phrase shows up in at least two Christian sources in the very early 1800's in English.

    There is no way Alma ate at that French restaurant, so why is Alma putting those verses together?

    This is just one of so very many examples of common expressions used in Western Christian culture during the time Smith was growing up appearing in the Book of Mormon.

    Anon 8:47…you should never claim anything is beyond the capabilities of human beings. Tejh cave paintings were originally considered beyond the capabilities of Paleolithic man, and the individual who discovered them was considered a hoax for many years, until explorers found more of the paintings in another cave.

    Paganini was said to have been possessed by the Devil because surely no human being could write violin music like he did.

    Besides, if the BoM is so wonderful, why have Mormons abandoned its doctrines for the later doctrines introduced into Mormonism in the mid-1840's?

  10. Ecclesiastes 8:15: "Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry."

    Isaiah 22:13, "Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die."

    How is adding "merry" from Ecclesiastes to Isaiah a problem for, say, someone familiar with both? Isaiah 22:13 is also in the context making merry in the first part of that verse: behold joy and gladness, … eating flesh and drinking wine". Yep, that's making merry. The challenge is knowing when the fusion of words and concepts from across the KJV is part of the style choices in translating or more literally the choices of the original writers. I cannot imagine any reason why Nephi could not have drawn upon Isaiah and added a word meaning something like making merry, which is pretty much what Isaiah is doing in that verse. So how does this make the Book of Mormon a fraud? It's not a problem for Nephi. It's not a problem to use KJV phrases in the translation. Either way, not a genuine problem.

    So what do you think about Brian Stubbs' discovery of significant ancient Near Eastern linguistic influence in the Uto-Aztecan language group? At least interesting, I hope.

  11. EBU, you're demonstrating a lack of reasoning ability. Specifically, the BofM having a bunch of stuff that could be from the 19c is incidental evidence compared with having a bunch of stuff that hadn't been found in books for hundreds of years. Also, the BofM contains many passages with a variety of biblical extracts. It's a virtuosic biblical digest. Look at Moroni 10:30ff for a good example of five or six short biblical extracts woven into the language.

  12. Hi EBU,

    Leibniz and Newton came up with a new kind of math at roughly the same time and independent of each other – calculus. Calculus is far more complex philosophically (let alone mathematically) than the phrase "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die." If someone can graffiti that phrase in a French restaurant's walls, then I would say that someone steeped in religious tradition (like Alma) can also come up with that phrase and maybe Alma got it from religious texts that he had.


  13. Gravity's Rainbow is such an amazing book, full of nuance and insight that there's no way Thomas Pynchon could have written it on his own. And the truth is he didn't! He culled material from his own experience and reading and thinking and talking and living! None of which happened in a vacuum.
    There's just enough nonsense in the Book of Mormon (adieu, the anachronistic names Sam and Timothy, trinitarian preaching, Joseph Smith Sr previously recorded "visions", convenient parallels to Joseph's life) that it's impossible to divorce its creation from the time and place it was written.

    1. There's more than nonsense as evidence. There are distinct parallels between Joseph's life and the stories of the BOM, as well as recurring 19th century American religious and secular themes. These combined with at least one first-hand account of Joseph telling "Book of Mormon stories" multiple times before even supposedly receiving the plates, combine to make some pretty convincing evidence that Joseph didn't just translate the book.

  14. Anon 128 doesn't know what s/he's talking about. Hasn't studied relevant research. Very sad. And it's Nephi, not Alma, EBU.

  15. There there, Anon @ 1139, there's no way Anon @ 613 could know about those things without leaving the bubble of Deseret/FAIR publications. You know, "relevant research."

  16. So what do you think about Brian Stubbs' discovery of significant ancient Near Eastern linguistic influence in the Uto-Aztecan language group?

    Ha. Good one. What I think about it is the same thing I think when the auto mechanic tells me I need a new widget arm or whatever. "Yea, right, but who am I to argue?" Neither you nor I is really qualified to think much of anything about it, but I'm sure there are secular scholars out there who are qualified, and I imagine they're enormously impressed.

    Given the FAIR explanation for lack of DNA evidence for Book of Mormon people (i.e. an ever shrinking population of Lehites was absorbed into a much larger population of Mesoamericans), I would actually expect the linguistic influence to go in the other direction: Mesoamerican linguistic influence on Book of Mormon language. Of the more than 300 proper nouns in the Book of Mormon, is any recognizably Mesoamerican?

  17. The preceding comments illustrate a point in which Grant Hardy goes wrong in his FairMormon presentation. These are certainly anti-Mormon statements, made for the purpose of destroying belief in a divinely produced Book of Mormon. So I think it's accurate to call these posters anti-Mormons.

    Stubbs mentioned that several non-Mormons thought his 1,500 correspondences between various Semitic languages and Uto-Aztecan languages were solid. Ten of the 14 he sent his work to chose not to comment. Of course that way they didn't risk compromising their standing in the academic community. It's understandable that they don't wish to comment on controversial literature. So several of these probably think it's solid but have decided to remain silent so as to avoid any possible damage to their careers. No one came out negatively on his work, when such a stance could not have hurt their standing. That's an interesting and important point. And this is actually how it will always be with the BofM. If there is solid evidence that tends to point to divine origins, most will choose to be silent.

    Of course linguistic evidence can have a different trajectory than DNA evidence.

    Of course adieu is merely archaic language. It is more likely to be part of a tightly controlled divine translation transmitted to Joseph Smith than it is to be a bit of "nonsense", as posited by an anti-Mormon. This also points to the fact that anti-Mormons overreach as much or more than apologists do. Baleful antis make very strong statements at times, and when they are confronted with very strong statements backed by evidence supporting divine origins, they often become angry. Some of them resort to a transparent tactic of calling the apologist un-Christlike, when they haven't been Christlike from the start.

    To my mind, better apologetics starts with strong evidence, and ends by not overreaching. If there isn't strong evidence, the apologist should refrain. But the apologist should also not cater to another view simply in order to increase acceptance by a certain group. An example of this Hardy. He wants to get books published by Oxford and elsewhere, so he throws in things that he isn't sure about and that may be inaccurate, which tend to point to 19c origins. Take his recent statement in the Handbook of Mormonism about poor grammar in the BofM. He says that it's more easily accommodated from a 19c POV. That is inaccurate and sadly that statement will influence opinion into the future.

    1. Anon 10:18

      A silent endorsement is no endorsement at all. Just because no one came out against Stubbs' work very well could mean that they just didn't think it was worth their time to respond. Providing any response to a silly argument just proves you wasted your time. A seemingly credible, yet incorrect argument would deserve a negative response since it would raise valid points that must be refuted to prove its incredibility. Scholars jump at the chance to disprove a reasonable, well supported argument. If you get no response from the majority of your peers, it's not a good sign.

      Also, just because a person points out verifiable flaws in the Mormon narrative, doesn't automatically make him anti-Mormon Someone who wants to help you question your faith doesn't necessarily want your answer to be a negative one. The Church purports to want everyone to find out for themselves. You must take the good with the bad. If you've never questioned your religion, you've never truly been converted.

  18. The preceding comment illustrates a point which is being largely ignored here. It is certainly an anti-science statement, made for the purpose of destroying acceptance of the universally agreed upon methodology of scientifically examining evidence in order to support or confound a logical hypothesis. So I think it's accurate to call that poster anti-science.
    Beginning a hypothesis from a position of faith represents a conflict of interest. Foregone conclusions may be pro-Book of Mormon, but they are definitely anti-science. Good luck gaining any real traction with that sort of footing.
    Apologists should stick to the land of prayers and feelings. That's the only realm in which the Book of Mormon is of any use.

  19. Let us consider how the anti-Mormon can be anti-science wrt the BofM. Take Stubbs' 1,500 cognate correspondences between Semitic and UA. Anti-Mormons will deny their reality or ignore that several linguists thought the correspondences were solid or distort things or suggest that 1,500 correspondences would be a waste of time for linguists to consider (normally 200 are more than sufficient), etc.

    Consider also Skousen's work on archaic vocabulary. This emerged in the process of doing critical text work. I don't know what his presuppositions were about the text, but I do know that he didn't seek archaic vocabulary or expect to find it. He didn't publish anything about it till more than 15 years had passed from the start of the project. He has told people that he actually resisted the notion. In his FairMormon presentation he mentioned counsel, but if, and depart with archaic meanings. Carmack mentioned two or three more. They have found dozens of others. The anti-science anti-Mormon denies the reality of this concrete evidence or engages in distortions because the presence of archaic vocabulary in the BofM destroys their craft. We can note that it is important to the anti-science anti-Mormon that there be no archaic vocabulary. To Skousen it was incidental, but interesting to note as a linguist and textual critic who attempts to explicate the text.

  20. Actually, there were some substantive comments come back during the pre-publication peer review from a very well-known and respected non-LDS linguist. The linguist provided some minor recommendations as to some areas of methodology when attempting to make these types of comparisons in historical linguistics, which Brian incorporated. The requested reviews indicated that all comments would be held confidential unless the reviewer wanted to make their comments known. If any are interested in purchasing the larger extensive book on the topic by Brian Stubbs, the link to the amazon page can be found through my website at

  21. Before I click on your link, Jerry, what qualifies you to make the assertions and conclusions you have come to?

  22. My small company was the one that paid for and published the book, so was involved in the distribution of the transcript for pre-publication review. Many don't understand the process of peer review for many academic books, as there are varying approaches. The sheer size of this research made a journal article impossible. It is so very limited in scope that most large academic publishers will not publish a book of this nature (there are perhaps a dozen academics involved in Uto-Aztecan), and only a handful of universities, especially since Brian is retired and not attached to any university. The approach taken with this book was to seek as much peer review as we could get academics to respond, so circulated it to all Uto-Aztecanists (all non-LDS by the way) and some of the more prestigious historical linguists (some LDS, some non). All responses were reviewed by Brian, with some recommendations incorporated into the book. The second level of peer review is now proceeding in the form of book reviews through the various academic journals, which we are actively seeking and have gotten commitments for a couple so far.

  23. …the presence of archaic vocabulary in the BofM destroys their craft. We can note that it is important to the anti-science anti-Mormon that there be no archaic vocabulary.

    Why? Please explain.

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