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Defending the Faith: The very surprising language of the Book of Mormon

Published: Thursday, Aug. 21 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

Seeming “errors in grammar and diction,” particularly in the earliest manuscripts and first printed edition of the English Book of Mormon, have provided merriment for mocking critics since at least 1830.

Recent scholarly study of the book’s textual history, however, suggests that such derisive criticism is fundamentally misguided. Indeed, it may even demonstrate that, here as elsewhere, apparently “weak things” can “become strong” for those who believe (see Ether 12:27).

The pioneering research of Royal Skousen, a professor of English language and linguistics at Brigham Young University, for example, extending now over nearly three decades, provides arresting evidence that significant portions of the vocabulary of the Book of Mormon derive from the 1500s and the 1600s, and not, as one might expect, from the 1800s. Further, his latest studies have refined those dates even more exactly, showing that the vocabulary and meanings of many words in the text date from the 1540s up to about 1740. To put it another way, some Book of Mormon vocabulary reflects a period not only prior to the birth of Joseph Smith but also prior to the publication of the King James Bible in 1611.

Arguing along parallel lines, an important new article entitled “A Look at Some ‘Nonstandard’ Book of Mormon Grammar” has just appeared in “Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture” (online at mormoninterpreter.com). Linguist Stanford Carmack builds upon Skousen’s work, and, indeed, bases his analysis upon Skousen’s 2009 Yale University Press edition of “The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text,” but focuses on grammar and syntax rather than on vocabulary.

Carmack shows that much of what has been dismissed as incorrect in the language of the Book of Mormon isn’t actually wrong. To the contrary (while considering dozens of such “obvious” grammatical “howlers” as “in them days,” “I had smote” versus “I had smitten” and “they was yet wroth”), he maintains that the book’s language is “excellent and even sophisticated.”

It simply isn’t the Modern English that we typically use today.

And this, for my present purposes, is the crucial point: “It’s important and helpful to bear in mind,” Carmack writes, “that the original Book of Mormon language is, generally speaking, only nonstandard from our standpoint, centuries after the Elizabethan era, which appears to be the epicenter of the book’s syntax.”

Now, think about that statement. Let it sink in, because its implications are stunning.

Carmack argues that, especially when the textual “corrections” of the past nearly two centuries have been stripped away — emendations and “improvements” intended to bring the published Book of Mormon into conformity with modern standards of usage — the grammar found in the book offers extensive evidence of its Early Modern English character. The original English Book of Mormon is, he says, “in large part” an Early Modern English text, “even reaching back in time to the transition period” from late Middle English into Early Modern English. “The correspondences are plentiful and plain.”

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