I don’t think the language usage patterns of the Book of Mormon require the participation of anyone besides Joseph Smith. (Read Clark’s overview if you haven’t already.)
The usage patterns that Stanford Carmack observes are quite real. The problem lies in the interpretation. Carmack sees similarities with early modern English usage as evidence that the translator of the Book of Mormon into modern English was not Joseph Smith, but a “first-rate, independent philologist — someone extremely knowledgeable in the linguistics and literature of earlier English” (231). I’m skeptical that this is the best explanation for a number of reasons. (While I’m an early modernist with some background in linguistics, English itself isn’t my field, so I have to apply the instincts and heuristics of an adjacent field with the appropriate level of caution.)
First, it’s hard to make the introduction of a “first-rate, independent philologist” work with what we know of the translation process. We have eyewitness descriptions and historical accounts, and there aren’t any philologists on the scene, or much space to introduce one. (Others have proposed a supernatural sixteenth-century interlocutor of some kind, but I don’t know if Carmack himself would welcome the suggestion, and in any case it’s hard to accept as the most parsimonious explanation a theory that requires additional angelic beings.)
Second, Carmack’s evidence is drawn from syntactic and morphosyntactic patterns (like use of –th as a verb conjugation, or use of particular prepositions following certain verbs or adjectives, such as ‘commanded of’ versus ‘commanded by’). Carmack sees these types of patterns as particularly resistant to conscious imitation and as stronger evidence for authorship (177), but I’m always a bit leery of arguments based on one kind of evidence. I’d be happier with a dose of semantic and phonetic and lexical supporting evidence.
Third, most of Carmack’s evidence is statistical. A typical example is his treatment of relative pronouns referring to people; possibilities include that, which, or who/whom (193-97). Carmack notes that the KJV strongly prefers that (83.5%), and the Book of Mormon (in the earliest manuscript, prior to revisions) prefers which (52.0%), while his sample pseudo-biblical texts (chosen not by Carmack himself, but instead suggested by critics of various kinds) prefer who/whom (52-90%) or that (58%), and use which infrequently (0.0-7.8%). Carmack notes use of which as a relative pronoun with personal antecedent with a frequency similar to the Book of Mormon (54-57%) outside the KJV in works of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (194 n. 28). Carmack’s argument is that if the Book of Mormon were a pseudo-archaic text inspired by the KJV, it would closely follow the KJV’s usage patterns (preferring that) or modern usage (preferring who/whom), rather than which (as found in some early modern English works).
We need to recognize that Carmack is making a statistical argument and note some cautions. There is an unlimited set of syntactic and morphosyntactic structures to examine. Are the ones Carmack focuses on representative? Are the modern pseudo-biblical texts representative of the genre? There’s no way to be sure. Carmack is not cherry-picking his evidence. The problem instead is that it’s inherently laborious to assemble this kind of data, and difficult to determine what a representative sample would look like.
Imagine a hypothetical faulty argument that goes, “Croatian women are on average taller than Indonesian women. Anna is 5’ 2”, so Anna is Indonesian.” We recognize this argument is faulty because Anna represents just one draw out of two distributions that both include 5’ 2” women with reasonable frequency. Not knowing the actual distribution of heights does not strengthen your argument.
Fourth, and similarly, early modern English is a very broad target. The language is not a unified entity, but differs considerably from the 15th to the 17th centuries, and from one region to another, and from author to author. Modern English, like the other languages of Europe, is the product of standardization processes that were just getting underway in the early modern period. Carmack’s parallels don’t seem to coalesce around a particular time or region or author, which is of some concern when the target space is so large.
None of this means that Carmack is definitely wrong. And I’m all in favor of discovering weird new things about the Book of Mormon. But if you want to discover something weird – and a possibly angelic philologist-translator is deeply weird – then you want stronger and more varied evidence and fewer question marks. So I’m skeptical. I suspect there’s a less complicated explanation.
* * *
What does it mean to learn a language? In the most basic sense, it means training a highly advanced neural network on a corpus of linguistic input while letting the network formulate, test, and revise rules through the process of communication. Knowing a language isn’t a matter of simply repeating the input back flawlessly, but instead of being able to generate new, comprehensible, and correct utterances that may never have been made before. The process requires a good amount of time and personal interaction, in the best case at least several months of immersion and usually more, even for neural networks that are immeasurably more sophisticated than anything computer science can yet contemplate.
If we think in these terms about Joseph Smith’s development of a language appropriate for representing a new scriptural text, a few things are clear. The KJV would have been the primary but not the sole training corpus. There would have been little opportunity for testing and refining rules through communication. Other people developing a scriptural language in a similar environment would not have developed precisely the same set of rules. Usage patterns that differ from the KJV are to be expected, since the goal is to generate new utterances, not to repeat existing ones. Especially with the limited possibility for refinement through communication, the KJV is too small of a corpus for perfect acquisition of the language of the KJV.
I suspect my basic disagreement with Carmack comes down to how language learning works. His argument relies on a language acquisition model of increasing imitation: The more heavily a modern English text was inspired by the KJV, the more closely its language would resemble the KJV; but if the text of the Book of Mormon differs substantially from both the KJV and modern English, and thus occupies a position nowhere on the transitional spectrum from modern English to KJV usage, then in this view, the text cannot have been inspired by the KJV. It’s a reasonable position. I think language acquisition is more individual, unpredictable, and chaotic, however. Rules get formulated based on partial evidence rather than careful sampling, while a disturbance in the emerging grammar might have consequences throughout the system.
Could Joseph Smith’s KJV-trained scriptural language resemble particular examples of early modern English even as it differs from the KJV? Yes, I think it could. Every so often, I will remark to the neural networks in my classroom that their inconsistent marking of umlaut, or preference for the unprefixed form of past participles, or use of infinite verbs in dependent clauses, or variable placement of adverbs and verbal complements, does not agree with modern standard usage, but does have ample precedent in the early modern era (whose literature they have had no contact with). Language learning often includes the creation of overly broad rules by generalizing on one exceptional but prominent case (“Our Father which art in heaven…”). Sometimes these rules are refined with further input and testing, and sometimes they remain in place as features of a particular dialect or personal style.
Even if Carmack’s work doesn’t demonstrate the involvement of a philologically-trained translator prior to Joseph Smith, his work holds value by refuting the idea that the language of the Book of Mormon is merely badly garbled KJV-speak. Carmack’s studies are opening up new insights into the mind of the prophet at the moment inspired scripture was rendered into English, and that, I think, is accomplishment enough.
Stanford Carmack. “Is the Book of Mormon a Pseudo-Archaic Text?” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 28 (2018): 177-232. https://www.mormoninterpreter.com/is-the-book-of-mormon-a-pseudo-archaic-text/