12 Questions for Royal Skousen

October 1, 2004 | 14 comments
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Royal Skousen, Professor of Linguistics at BYU, is important for at least two reasons. First, he has developed a unique theory of language learning and use based on analogy (see his Analogical Modeling of Language, Analogy and Structure, and Analogical Modeling: An exemplar-based approach to language). Skousen’s work is important because it gives us a rigorous alternative to Chomskian linguistics.

Second, Professor Skousen is creating a critical text of the Book of Mormon, beginning with as much of the original manuscript as is available. The result of a more than 15-year project, the critical edition will show all changes in the text from then through the 1981 version.

Please suggest the questions that you would like to ask Professor Skousen. Based on your submissions and our own ideas, we will submit twelve questions to him and post his responses.

Perhaps the questions we have drafted will give you some ideas:

1. What is the Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon?

2. Is the work on the Critical Edition, and the work on the manuscripts in general, primarily meant to serve apologetic interests? Or is there, in your view, much that would benefit believing Latter-day Saints in their personal scripture study?

3. Speaking in broad strokes, what is the connection, if any, between your work on analogical modeling in language, and your work on the Book of Mormon manuscripts?

4. What has been one of the more surprising things you’ve come across in your work with the Book of Mormon manuscripts and Joseph Smith papers?

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14 Responses to 12 Questions for Royal Skousen

  1. Adam Greenwood on September 23, 2004 at 1:37 am

    1. I understand that your work on the critical edition of the Book of Mormon has led you to a model of how Joseph Smith translated it. In broad strokes, what is that model and how does the critical edition support it? (bonus inquiry, probably unrelated and possibly unanswerable at the present: why physical devices, like the Urim and Thummin, but only at first?)

    2. I’ve noticed that different theories of language use and learning seem to tie into different views of, for lack of a better phrase, human nature and meaning. Is that observation correct? If so, what view of human nature and meaning does your analogical theory suggest (and which came first, the chicken or the egg)?

    If someone thinks they can ask my question #2 better, please do. I’m not sure that I’ve expressed it clearly.

    3. What, if anything, do you make of the pure Adamic tongue? Does your analogical theory have anything to suggest about the nature of such a thing?

    4. What do you make of speaking in tongues? In your view of language use, would that spiritual gift have to consist of, essentially, divine speech using a human vocal apparatus, or is there room for the idea that the gift of speaking in tongues could consist of a person’s thoughts processed through a divinely-altered template?

    5. Any comments on the following?
    (a) the Father and the Son speaking to every man in his own tongue, according to his own understanding
    (b) the confusion of tongues at the tower of Babel
    (c) Moroni lamenting his inability to write with the same power as he spoke, and lauding Ether’s ability to write
    (d) D&C 50 on the teacher and the learner knowing that they’ve understood each other through means of the Spirit
    —actually, (a) and (d), taken in conjunction, suggest a question: do you think the Spirit communicates with us through the medium of language, or ‘directly’, i.e., outside of or prior to language, or both?

    6. Finally, a question for the benefit of all of the quasi-literary hangers-on that frequent the site (or, like me, post on it.) Does your analogical model of language use and learning have anything to say about the aesthetics of language?

    I note that I forgot to keep adding ‘in broad strokes’ as I added more questions, but I hope that will be understood.

  2. Clark Goble on September 23, 2004 at 3:28 am

    1. Initially your twin books on your theory of language was not well received. Has the critical reception improved? Has your model evolved at all?

    (BTW – I played around with his code for it before. It was pretty nice. The text is really interesting too. I keep meaning to purchase a copy. A lot of close analogies to thermodynamics)

    2. What do you think of stylometry studies (wordprint) and whether such features make sense for a text which purports to be not only a translation but a kind of joint-translation between God and Joseph Smith. Before his death Hilton was apparently working on studies to determine how stylometry information was affected by translation. (Necessary for the Book of Mormon) Further many critics question whether consciously writing in a different style can be compared to normal texts. Can your theoretical model contribute anything in this regard?

    3. Umberto Eco has made some interesting comments about translating the effect of a passage on an audience unfamiliar with other texts that might be alluded to. In one translation of his work the text was translated so that a poem a speaker uttered was changed to reflect a poem the English audience would have been familiar with. Do you think that the Book of Mormon might also reflect such textual changes on the basis of audience response?

    4. You moved your office out of the humanities building into the library at one time. It was rumored that it was to avoid the politics affecting the English department at BYU back in the early 90’s. Do you think the political situation at BYU has improved? Or is the department still fairly divided? (OK, controversial question he may not answer. But I’m still intrigued.)

  3. danithew on September 23, 2004 at 7:50 am

    Dr. Skousen,

    Years ago when I took your Textual Analysis of the Book of Mormon class, you told us that if we went through the entire critical edition of the Book of Mormon we would find out about an embarassing or unusual mistake/error that occurred somewhere in the text. Any chance you would divulge this to us now? It’s been years since I’ve been able to sleep properly and my wife would really appreciate it. Thanks. :)

    [I have purchased the critical editions of the text but haven’t managed to get through all the way through them and find out what you were talking about]

  4. danithew on September 23, 2004 at 9:57 am

    Dr. Skousen,

    Hope you won’t mind me submitting one more thought/query. One of the factors I most appreciated in your class was that you pointed out particular word changes in the Book of Mormon editions that had a significant effect on meaning. I’ve often wished that our editions of the Book of Mormon had “Skousen notes” or “Skousen footnotes” that would point these out.

    Perhaps you could provide a Top 5 or Top 10 word edits that would be most interesting and useful in our personal study of the most modern Book of Mormon edition? I know that’s a kind of pop approach to a very serious endeavor … but I think it would help to show some who might be unacquainted with your work what your research has to offer.

  5. Kevin Barney on September 23, 2004 at 11:13 am

    1. What factors led you to give up on your original intention of preparing a critical text of the BoM (i.e., an eclectic text with a critical apparatus at the bottom of the page) in favor of scholarly transcriptions of O and P and commentaries on the variants?

    2. I understand that your first volume of textual commentary is back from the press. Any estimate on when the entire project might be finished and available for purchase?

  6. jpatch on September 23, 2004 at 1:22 pm

    Obvious, non-academic question: Has Church leadership shown any interest in revising future editions of the BofM based on your work?

    (If so, are there any potential copyright problems?)

  7. Kaimi on October 1, 2004 at 11:50 am

    I’m not a linguist, and only tangentially familiar with the critical project. A few thoughts occurred to me, I hope they’re not too far off base:

    The church is becoming increasingly global, and more and more members are experiencing the Book of Mormon outside of its original English translation. What problems or opportunities does this globalization present? Are ideas like the critical edition equally important to, for example, Spanish-speaking members?

    Alternatively, is a Spanish-critical edition (tracking the differences throughout the different versions of the Spanish translations) a useful tool? Why or why not?

    Also, a prior question wonders whether the critical edition is meant to be mostly an apologetic tool. Would that be a good thing, in your opinion? To what extent is it desirable for use as a general doctrinal and teaching tool, rather than an apologetic work?

  8. Kaimi on October 1, 2004 at 11:58 am

    To what extent does it matter how one’s testimony, or the statement of a prophet, relies on an incorrect or changed portion of the Book? For example, to use a stylized example:

    Suppose that 1st Nephi 3:7 originally said “I will go and do the things which the _Spirit_ hath commanded . . .” (rather than “Lord”). Suppose again that a prophet or church leader gives a rousing, important, touching, or otherwise memorable talk about this verse. And then the verse is changed. How are church members to treat the prior talk referencing the verse in its prior form. (I suspect that you may have some real-life examples of this, rather than my clumsy stylized example).

    Does it matter if an original church leader received a testimony of one version of the Book of Mormon, and a later member received a testimony of another version? How can these be reconciled? What potential problems does this present? Is this an inevitable development of an organization with a lengthy history, as words change meanings and so forth? Is it possible to have a testimony of the church as Joseph Smith founded it, or is it only possible to have a testimony of it as now led by Gordon B. Hinckley?

  9. Ivan Wolfe on October 1, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    Dr. Skousen –

    I remember taking your class on the critical text of the BoM at BYU, and while you hinted at some of your “adventures” in tracking down the original manuscript of the BoM, I don’t recall many details.

    I was wondering if you could relate your favorite/oddest/most interesting experience in tracking down parts of the original manuscript.

  10. Ethesis (Stephen M) on October 1, 2004 at 9:18 pm

    see his Analogical Modeling of Language, Analogy and Structure, and Analogical Modeling: An exemplar-based approach to language)

    I’d love a link or two to more on this.

  11. Jim F. on October 2, 2004 at 2:55 am

    Ethesis, I don’t know how much you’ll find on the web. Google will give you a few book reviews, but I’m not sure you’ll find more than that.

  12. Ethesis (Stephen M) on October 2, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    Thanks Jim, I feel better about not finding things.

  13. Clark Goble on October 2, 2004 at 6:53 pm

    Stephen, as I recall, the two books weren’t terribly well received. Last time I checked they were still available at Amazon though. I’ve long thought about doing so as I never really studied the theoretical underpinnings that well. I more looked at the modeling in more pragmatic terms. (i.e. does it work? And it does quite well)

  14. Anonymous on October 23, 2004 at 12:57 pm