Stanford Carmack’s series of four articles at the Mormon Interpreter provide a large body of detailed data pointing to something strange, increasingly strange, in the Book of Mormon: the grammatical patterns of the original Book of Mormon firmly rooted in Early Modern English (EmodE), giving it a grammatical signature earlier than the KJV Bible. Explaining the Book of Mormon as a crude imitation of the KJV is now more problematic. But understanding the Book of Mormon is much more interesting now. It may still take much more analysis and study to come up with theories that stick for the origins of the Book of Mormon language. Why EModE? How was it provided? Was there a pre-translation?
In Carmack’s latest article, “Why the Oxford English Dictionary (and not Webster’s 1828),” he adds to the data by exploring several additional patterns, the most interesting of which I felt is his examination of “it supposeth me,” a rare inverted syntax pattern that occurs four times in the Book of Mormon, each consistent with language much earlier than the KJV in ways that make it highly unlikely for Joseph to have picked this up on his own. Interesting.
Could Joseph Smith have known about this inverted syntax? I suppose he could have seen it, had he spent time reading Middle English poetry. Was it accessible to him? No. This grammatical structure is exceedingly rare, the embodiment of obsolete usage. Had he ever seen it, he hardly would have recognized it and been able to transform it…. Yet the text employs inverted syntax with suppose appropriately and consistently four times.
Along the way, Carmack points out just how complex and interesting the Book of Mormon text is:
Let me also say at this point that it is wrongheaded to propose Moroni as translator in order to account for “errors” in the text. He may have been involved in the divine translation effort, but to employ him as an explanatory device in order to account for putative errors is misguided. The English-language text is too complex, diverse, and even well-formed to ascribe it to a non-native translation effort. Again, as I have stated in an earlier paper, the BofM is not full of grammatical errors. Rather, it is full of EModE — some of it is typical and pedestrian, some of it is elegant and sophisticated, and some of it is, to our limited or uninformed way of thinking, objectionable and ungrammatical. The BofM also contains touches of modern English and late Middle English. It is not a monolithic text, and we are just beginning to learn about its English language…. I have certainly come to realize that it is not the text of the BofM that is full of errors, but rather our judgments in relation to its grammar.
For those wanting certainty, that’s disturbing language. But this smells like an adventure that will lead somewhere. Critics and fans alike should find this challenge worth digging into. Will new insights about Book of Mormon cause it to go down in flames? Critics may hope so. Carmack already offers a strongly worded thesis, feeling that whatever the details are that led to EModE in the Book of Mormon, the complex pre-KJV content of the Book of Mormon implies that the Lord “revealed a concrete form of expression (words) to Joseph Smith” and that the text itself is of divine origin.
I think the devil is not in these details, but something is, and further work is needed.
In the middle of his latest paper, after summarizing some of the many interesting findings so far, Carmack makes an even stronger series of assertions/conclusions that I’m not quite comfortable with, though I think I understand his excitement:
- The BofM is full of King James English whose meaning obligatorily derives from the 1500s (since much kjb language derives from 16th-century translations, especially Tyndale’s).
- The BofM has quite a few instances of older, nonbiblical meaning, including:
counsel = ‘ask counsel of, consult,’ used in Alma 37:37; 39:10; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1547.
depart = ‘divide,’ used intransitively in Helaman 8:11; this sense is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1577.
scatter = ‘separate from the main
body (without dispersal),’ as used in the BofM’s title page; this sense
is not in Webster’s 1828, and the last OED quote is dated 1661.
choice = ‘sound judgment’ or ‘discernment,’ used as an abstract noun in 1 Nephi 7:15.
- Past-tense syntax with did matches only mid to late 1500s usage.
- Complementation with the verbs command, cause, suffer matches only the late 1400s and the 1500s.
- Syntax like Nephi’s brethren rebelleth (in the prefaces to 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi) corresponds to 1500s usage; it is not in the kjb and was obsolete in the 1800s.
In view of the foregoing observations and evidence, I assert the following:
- There is undeniably substantial evidence in the BofM of EModE meaning and syntax that was inaccessible to Smith and scribe.
- Smith could not have known the obsolete meaning of some of these
words except from context because semantic shifts are unpredictable and
unknowable to anyone in the absence of specific philological study.
- The pervasive EModE syntax as well as the existence
of obsolete, inaccessible (nonbiblical) meaning in the text mean that
Smith must have received specific words from the Lord throughout the translation.
- Therefore, the wording of the BofM did not come from Smith’s mind; he dictated specific words that were given to him.
- God was in charge of the translation of the English-language text of the BofM; no mortal translated it.
- Smith translated the BofM in the sense of being the person on earth integrally involved in conveying Christ’s words from the divine realm to our earthly sphere; Smith was not the translator in the conventional sense of the term.
My discomfort lies in extrapolating the data to determine what did or did not happen in Joseph’s mind. Yes, if EModE points to tight control, then specific words or grammatical patterns would seem to have been provided somehow. But as Carmack has noted, the text of the Book of Mormon is not monolithic, and the way Joseph responded to whatever was provided to him may not have been monolithic for every sentence, verse, and chapter. I believe God was in charge of the whole project, but being in charge did not stop Him from allowing Oliver to hear and write words incorrectly, nor did it stop the printer from introducing errors, nor did it stop Joseph from making corrections and changes, including many fixes of obviously bad grammar (to our ears) that we have just learned was typically good grammar from a much earlier era. If the hands and minds of men could play a role in all those stages, was Joseph left out at the earliest phase when he dictated text to his scribes? Is it not possible that a base translation was available in some way, but it could still be modified at times as it went through Joseph’s mind and lips? Was there still some flexibility at play in how Joseph conveyed whatever came to his mind or eyes? I don’t know, but think it is possible, and perhaps even needed to deal with instances of apparent loose control in the text (all of which may need to be reconsidered as we move forward with the data from Carmack, Skousen, and hopefully many more contributors in this area).
I don’t know what Joseph saw and experienced, but am deeply intrigued by this new mystery of sound Early Modern English infused into the text. To me, it does seem to defy the theories offered so far by those who see Joseph as the author of what is merely a modern text dressed up in KJV language with some embarrassing hick grammar that had to be cleansed. It does seem to support the possibility of divine origins. But I think we need to be cautious of inferring too much. The implications of EModE content need to be explored patiently and tentatively to see where they lead as the details are more fully fleshed out.