In some ways new discoveries about our modern scriptures have become much rarer of late. There was a burst of information and discoveries when I was young but that has definitely tapered off the past decade or so. Recent work that has pushed our knowledge forward includes discoveries about some of the content on the lost 116 pages of the Book of Mormon and the influence of Clarke’s Bible Commentary on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. A more controversial discovery involves the grammar of early modern English (EmodE) in the text of the Book of Mormon. Some of these elements arise out of quotations or paraphrases of passages from the KJV Bible. However far more interesting are the many structures that aren’t in the KJV nor in texts from the late 18th or 19th centuries. Stanford Carmack published several papers on these structures including many at the Interpreter Foundation.
By the time the KJV translation of the Bible was completed in 1611, the text was already becoming archaic. It’s important to realize that the KJV itself makes use of earlier translations so some its language goes back to the beginning of the 16th century. Further the translators themselves tried to make the text seem majestic and important. Even at the time it was first published people didn’t speak that way in day to day life. It was an attempt to take Renaissance English and bring it to the Bible for royal political aims. Yet English was in a period of rapid change. What is called the great vowel shift was well underway changing how many words were spoken. (And since spelling was becoming standardized at this time, making it so spelling didn’t match pronunciation unlike most languages. For example the ‘k’ in ‘knight’ became silent.) Words fell out of use and pronouns were simplified. The second person singular pronouns (thou, thee) were dropped and merged with second person plural pronouns (you, ye). Some forms of the pronouns became dropped. (ye merges into you) Verb conjugations also change (seeketh becomes seeks for example) Many words are dropped from speech or change their meaning. By the 18th century spoken English simply does not match the language of the KJV. Even Shakespeare, who was 46 when the KJV was completed, becomes somewhat alien. It’s not just that the KJV is alien to the 18th century. It’s alien in many ways even to the 17th century. During the period of its translation English simply becomes a very different language.
With the rise of cheap Bibles, even most poor families have a copy. These Bibles were regularly read resulting in a resurgence in a more archaic language in 19th century America. Most people read not just the KJV but also classic works like Shakespeare. Religious language became so endued with the text of the KJV that it came to have an archaic sense to it. When preachers gave sermons in tent revival meetings in the early 19th century they adopted a pseudo-Elizabethan speech because that was what was expected of religious language. Many of these preachers, such as Dwight Moody, had poor grammar yet their sermons made extensive use of language dependent upon the KJV. Even translations of works indirectly tied to the Bible, such as Richard Laurence’s translation of 1 Enoch in 1821, used language inspired by the KJV. It’s unsurprising that the Book of Mormon, translated into this era of religious language, also used KJV language extensively. Even when not quoting passages from the Bible.
What Stanford Carmack found in the Book of Mormon that was so surprising was grammar characteristic of early modern English from the 16th and 17th centuries that was not in the KJV, Shakespeare or other popular 19th century publications. Further these linguistic structures were also not found in any other 19th century text including transcripts of sermons by preachers using KJV like language. There are extensive corpuses that one can search using computers that can tell when the language was used. Elements of the Book of Mormon simply don’t match post-KJV English yet do match these earlier ways of speaking. I won’t here go through all the archaic structures that Carmack found in the Book of Mormon. A good list of them can be found in his papers at The Interpreter. The corpuses he used can easily be downloaded although you can also try and look for the structures using Google Books and specifying a date of before 1830. That’s what I initially did and I went from skeptic to fairly convinced that most of these structures were indeed archaic. Google’s corpus isn’t that great so you really should check on some of the corpuses that Carmack lists in his papers.
The big question is the significance of these structures.
Carmack believes that these structures are strong evidence that Joseph Smith did not write the text of the Book of Mormon. Further he, along with Royal Skousen, have argued for what is called tight control of the process of Joseph translating the Book of Mormon. Tight control implies that Joseph did not have the freedom during the initial process of translation to choose the words he dictated to his scribe. (Usually Oliver Cowdery) In other words the theory is that these language elements couldn’t have come from Joseph Smith so that Joseph Smith was not the author. Tight control of the translation should be distinguished from tight or loose translation in terms of the text. That is to what degree do the words in our English Book of Mormon match the underlying Hebrew that was behind the gold plates. Many apologists, such as Brant Gardner, think the Book of Mormon is a loose translation in terms of the words in our translation. However one can accept a loose translation while simultaneously believing in tight control.
I personally don’t really think EmoE in the Book of Mormon has the apologetic use some believe. From early on in the history of attacks on the Book of Mormon critics saw Joseph Smith plagiarizing the text. A View of the Hebrews and the “Spaulding Manuscript” were appealed to in the 19th century as the source for the Book of Mormon. While historians today typically dismiss those texts as influence on the Book of Mormon, the thesis of plagiarism was a common one. At best if the EmoE thesis is correct critics who assert a fraudulent origin to the Book of Mormon will simply say that Joseph was making use of unknown texts with an origin hundreds of years earlier. What the EmoE thesis would at best do is invalidate the idea that Joseph composed the Book of Mormon as he dictated it. Unfortunately that does not entail that the text is what we believers think it to be.
There are several criticisms of Carmack’s thesis. The main one some bring up is simply that it has not been peer reviewed by non-Mormon scholars. I’m not sure I give that too much weight simply because of how politicized university departments are. Any linguist specializing in early modern English that was too supportive of Carmack’s work might find themselves in academic hot water. Recall that not long ago a survey at Nous showed nearly 1/3 of academic philosophers were not even willing to hire a Mormon. Even a linguist with the appropriate background who accepted EmoE in the Book of Mormon would likely be unwilling to make that public given the politicized nature of apologetics. It is interesting though that unlike many linguistic arguments in the past, such as Hebraisms or word print, I know of no critics engaging and criticizing Carmack’s work on linguistic grounds. That doesn’t mean there are no flaws, mind you. But typically critics are quick to point out major flaws in apologetics. We’re just not seeing that.
While I’m largely convinced by Carmack’s work, I have one criticism. While Carmack has done a good job comparing early modern English structures in printed works from the 1500’s through 1800’s, he’s really not engaged with spoken English except to the degree it was in those printed works. Now to be fair that is a difficult problem. There simply weren’t the types studies of spoken language in the 19th century that there have been in the past 100 years. However there is a corpus of legal transcripts from London from 1600 – 1900 that should contain a wide survey of spoken English. While there is a small chance that spoken English might appear in New York that wasn’t also in England, it is far less likely. Hopefully Carmack will check such data in the future.
An other criticism is that Carmack’s structures may be too narrow in breadth. Consider the structure “of the.” That’s fairly narrow since you could consider “of [definite article]” or even “of [article]” increasing the broadness of the structure. For any structure you can get quite narrow and specific or extremely broad. If you go too narrow then things are so specific that you’re really not showing too much. If you go too broad though then you’re simply including far too much. The question is always how broad should the structures one examines be to determine their significance. So in our example going narrow would just include “of the” while going broader we might include “of the” or “of a” or “of an.” It’s that issue of broadness that some question in Carmack’s work.
To be fair to Carmack here, he does attempt to use structures that other analysis of early modern English have used. In his papers, for example, you’ll see many references to the Oxford English Dictionary and the structures they use in their analysis. However it’s also the case that those of us who are not linguists with a background in the differences of early modern English from contemporary or 19th century American English can’t really know whether Carmack is being too narrow in his analysis. This is why many of us still hope that a non-Mormon linguist looks at Carmack’s work. Even if politics make it unlikely.
A final critique that I suspect will come relates to new linguistic creations that could arise from extensive use by the young of KJV language. That is there is always a nagging doubt that perhaps the spoken language around Joseph Smith just happened to result in unique grammatical forms not found in 19th century writing but that match some elements of early modern English. I confess I am very dubious this would happen. It’s true the odd mixture of influences could potentially produce new ways of speaking that aren’t in other areas. I would still expect with the widespread use of KJV in the early 19th century that such effects would manifest in the preaching of the region. Yet many early preachers had their sermons published. We’d thus expect that if there was a chance of recreating these early modern structures due to the use of the KJV that it would appear in those texts. Yet these structures simply aren’t in 19th century works except to the degree they directly quote much earlier texts.
Overall I find this an exciting bit of investigation. It’s not clear what the long term impact will be. As I said it is a bit orthogonal to the question of the nature of the Book of Mormon. It would suggest fairly strongly if confirmed that Joseph Smith wasn’t the author of the text. Although as I noted that is not to say he didn’t have an influence on the final form of the text.
1. Don Bradley has a forthcoming book on this topic. You can read some of what he has found in his LDS Perspectives interview. To some people’s surprise the temple is a major topic in those records.
2. Thomas Wayment has written about this and has a forthcoming chapter in a book on the Joseph Smith Translation. You can read about some of this in his LDS Perspectives Interview. We also had parts of an interview with him here at T&S that discussed the issue.
3. A great book on the history of the KJV is God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. The style of the text is wrapped up with the politics of the day.
4. Royal Skousen is responsible for the critical text of the Book of Mormon. This has been invaluable at getting as close to the original text of the Book of Mormon as possible. He’s also done a lot of work on scribal errors in the text and their significance. As a result of his work we have many corrections to text although not all are yet in the version the Church uses.
5. While Skousen and Carmack argue Joseph didn’t have freedom in word choice during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph did go back in the second printing and modify the text in some places. Some of this was to correct what he perceived as poor grammar and also to clarify some passages. However the tight control thesis just deals with the initial dictation to the scribe and not these later revisions either with the Printer’s Manuscript used for typesetting the text nor the revisions to the second edition.
6. Ann Taves theory of the Book of Mormon in terms of the cognitive science of unconscious writing would be one example of this. It’s worth noting that many critics who advocate a fraudulent model for Book of Mormon origins allow for Joseph composing the book prior to its translation. Even if Carmack’s thesis was false, critics have to explain the consistent geography of the Book of Mormon as well as references and quotations within the text to earlier portions of the book. Those are very difficult to explain if Joseph was composing the text as he dictated it.