On Early Modern English and the Book of Mormon

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[1] and the influence of Clarke’s Bible Commentary on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible[2]. 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.[3] 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[4], 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[5] 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.[6] 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.

22 comments for “On Early Modern English and the Book of Mormon

  1. March 28, 2019 at 10:57 pm

    Very interesting. Though I think the title should be something like “Older English” or “Early Modern English” since there’s not real “Old English” in your discussion (unless I missed the parts about Beowulf and the Dream of the Rood).

  2. Clark Goble
    March 28, 2019 at 11:26 pm

    Fixed. I’d fixed it all throughout the body text and then forgot to fix the title. Doh!

  3. ReTx
    March 29, 2019 at 12:53 am

    Interesting. But what are the theories of where this language came from? We wouldn’t expect Moroni to write this way.

  4. JR
    March 29, 2019 at 8:00 am

    ReTx, For a fun hypothesis (and, with the first* in the 2-part series, an analysis of some of the language issues) see:

    “Perhaps the book was indeed translated by a postmortal (but not yet divine) being. Do we know of anyone who was proficient in reading and writing the reformed Egyptian characters recorded on the plates, who also spoke English, and who tended to quote passages from the Bible with deviations from the King James text? Yes, we do: Moroni.” Roger Terry, “Archaic Pronouns and Verbs in the Book of Mormon: What Inconsistent Usage Tells Us about Translation Theories” 62 DIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, 47, no. 3 (Fall 2014).

    (Roger elaborates the hypothesis further — including why one might expect Moroni to write this way. But don’t hold Roger to the Moroni-as-translator theory. Instead, see his “concluding thoughts”. BTW, Roger’s footnote 18 reports others with the same hypothesis.)

    *“What Shall We Do with Thou? Modern Mormonism’s Unruly Usage of Archaic English Pronouns.” DIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, 47, no. 2 (Summer 2014)

  5. March 29, 2019 at 10:52 am

    Clark, thanks for the overview of the problem. It’s quite helpful.

    My one complaint is not with you, but with the pernicious idea that LDS scholars can’t be trusted when it comes to anything related to Mormon topics. While it’s fine to recognize limitations of a particular work of scholarship, I don’t think that kind of blanket dismissal would be tolerated in other corners of religion-related studies. (I also think Carmack’s work is methodologically mainstream enough that finding fair reviewers and a mainstream ublication outlet would be possible, although he’s closer to his target audience at the Interpreter.)

  6. Clark Goble
    March 29, 2019 at 10:53 am

    JR, I believe Carmack has argued most of those grammatical issues are archaic usage and not mere random moving back and forth. However it also seems likely to me that some phrases are 19th century. Carmack commenting on Terry’s article noted that the “has/hath variation in the BoM (9.5% has) matches the variation found in the textual record of the late 1600s (Shakespeare employed has 16.5% of the time)…” So a lot depends upon what you’re comparing things with.

    One that some critics bring up is “slippery treasures.” Using the flawed Google Books corpus I show that appearing first in 1816. Critics and some historians believe it comes out of the treasure seeking tradition that Joseph was part of when young. However there are similar phrases that go back earlier. So in 1720 you have an exposition on the Sermon on the Mount that reads

    And our Saviour warns us, that treasures upon earth are slippery and uncertain, vain, and easily lost and because they are so, not worth a wise man’s laying up. But there are other treasures that cannot rail us, and are not subject to any such contingencies

    This gets us back to that debate of narrow vs. broad in terms of what we look for. After all an exact phrase may not appear but a similar one might. How much effort is it for an unconscious mind to slightly modify an existing phrase? That’s why these types of studies sometimes are not quite as solid as they might appear at first glance. Although the more examples one finds, the better.

    I should also note I’m deeply skeptical of Moroni as translator. (Ignoring the obvious skeptical questions, why not Mormon?) Joe Spencer’s blog post “On Translation Theories and the Interpretation of the Book of Mormon” discusses the issue a bit. Although his concern is just focusing in on the finished product, more or less akin to a just look at Isaiah as presented and ignore questions of date and authorship. I’ve not heard Moroni as translator much of late, although I heard it a lot 10 years ago. That said, I think any model we create should take seriously the likelihood that God utilizes humans in the process. His standard operating procedure does tend to involving delegating things where ever possible.

    Jonathan, whether it is a pernicious idea or not, it is a rather ubiquitous one especially among critics. I think the issue is whether an scholar commenting on something is an apologist or not and whether they can lay aside their biases. Part of the problem is something I’ve commented on before. A failing of some apologetics is that they tend to only lay out the most faithful presentation of the problem rather than noting all the different ways of seeing the data. Not all do this of course. I should hasten to add critics do that as well. However ideally what we should be doing is acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of a thesis and analyzing all of them. Although perhaps that’s just my hard sciences bias coming through again.

  7. rt
    March 29, 2019 at 11:16 am

    The evidence for EmoE in the Book of Mormon is interesting, but there are a few caveats.

    First, Skousen makes it very clear that the Book of Mormon is NOT an Early Modern English text. He supports this by explaining that when he and Stan Carmack sat down and read Early Modern English texts, they kept having to look up words. Early Modern English is difficult for a modern reader, and the earlier you go, the harder it is. Even Shakespeare is a challenge for most English speakers. But the Book of Mormon is not. It was easy for a mildly educated reader in Joseph Smith’s day to understand without a dictionary, and to a slightly lesser degree it still is. There are simply elements of EmoE in the text that are hard to explain.

    Second, Early Modern English is not a language. It refers to a time period from the late 15th century to the late 17th century during which the English language actually changed a great deal. A text from 1475 would be very different from a 1675 text. But Carmack doesn’t really care about this. He will use examples from all across this period as if they were somehow equal. He simply cannot nail down when in the Early Modern period the examples from the Book of Mormon came from. They are all over the board. One would expect that if God (or Moroni or whoever translated the text) chose a particular dialect, he would use it consistently and not bob and weave through centuries of linguistic development. The BoM is a hodge-podge.

    Third, the BoM contains a ton of KJV text that is skillfully woven into the narrative and sermons. See Skousen and Nick Frederick for multiple examples. And, of course, there are large quotations directly from the KJV. These were not simply quotations from the brass plates, translated by Mormon and Moroni into some ancient American dialect and then retranslated again by Joseph Smith (or whoever) into King James English. They are reliant on the King James translation. According to eye witnesses, Joseph did not use any reference books as he “translated.” But whoever did the actual translation work had access not only to the KJV but also to Protestant theological texts, which are also quoted now and then. And I’m not talking about someone who just knew the KJV well because he read it a lot. He worked from a physical text. The reliance on the KJV is obvious in, among other things, the attention paid by the translator to the italicized words in the KJV.

    As I’ve suggested before, the Book of Mormon is like a million-piece jigsaw puzzle, and we’re just getting started on the massive task of putting all the pieces together.

  8. rt
    March 29, 2019 at 11:24 am

    “Ignoring the obvious skeptical questions, why not Mormon?”

    Well, maybe we should ask why it wasn’t Mormon who visited Joseph Smith and spoke to him in English and quoted the King James Bible with slight variations. It is, after all, Mormon’s book. Was he too busy? Why Moroni? I don’t have a good answer. Maybe Moroni was his dad’s literary agent.

  9. JR
    March 29, 2019 at 11:45 am

    “One would expect that if … Moroni or whoever translated the text … chose a particular dialect, he would use it consistently …”

    Nope. Not if it were someone who learned it as a foreign language and hadn’t learned to distinguish particularly well among archaic language of various vintages and current usage in the chosen dialect. While the BoM translator shows much greater fluency with English (of various vintages) than do young LDS missionaries in languages foreign to them, those missionaries are a fair example of at least ht early stages of not using a particular dialect consistently.

  10. Clark Goble
    March 29, 2019 at 11:48 am

    RT, the “why not Mormon” bit was a joke. I recognize that Moroni is the popular choice simply because he was the figure Joseph interacts with the most at the time. I’m not sure that entails he’s behind the translation though. I’m not even sure we should assume a conscious translation process by a person. To the problem of inconsistency on grammar, I’d note that the thesis I’m quite skeptical of – the translated Moroni walking the earth then producing the translation – accounts for this by having Moroni learning English in the 1400s and then continue to live thus acquiring a range of linguistic tendencies. I’m not saying that’s particularly plausible, but it’s definitely something I’ve heard before.

    I definitely agree with you on how the KJV was used. Likewise I agree that theological and religious terms that are post-KJV appear to be in the text. Although again I’d note that narrow vs. broad issue I brought up relative to “slippery treasure.” My experience is that applies to most theological terms as well.

  11. AM
    March 29, 2019 at 11:53 am

    So, a “tight translation” is needed for this to have any reason to exist, correct?

  12. The Other Clark
    March 29, 2019 at 12:25 pm

    IIRC, Royal Skousen once argued that KJV English was the “lingua franca” of the Joseph Smith Sr. family. That is, they read so much of it that it became their day-to-day speech. If this is the case, then perhaps the archaisms originated in Joseph Smith’s (jr) native speech patterns, rather than try to shoehorn Moroni into the translation process somehow.

  13. Brant Gardner
    March 29, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    Let me start by saying (as I think Clark has noted) that there is no resolution to the question of the nature of the translation of the Book of Mormon. Still, there are some clarifications that can be made to help understand the issues.
    First, the loose/tight terminology that stems from Skousen has muddied the waters. He has always discussed the point at which Joseph read something in some way through/on the seer stone and spoke it to a scribe. That really isn’t translation. The transformation of information from Nephite to English is translation, and the evidence for that transition is that it would be “loose,” though I hesitate to use that term because it continues the terminological problem. I see most of the text (but not all) as a functional translation.

    Second, as with Clark, I can’t see a reason to doubt Carmack’s descriptive work. I disagree about the meaning of the data, but not on the data themselves. In particular, I see the problem of dating as one of using absence as a determinative. Many of the grammatical forms may not have survived in printed literature, but some did. Some forms date later, and one isn’t found until after the Book of Mormon. That suggests to me that the dating cannot tell us that Joseph couldn’t have done it. It is an argument from silence, where the data are not totally silent, just whispering from time to time.

    Third, whoever translated the Book of Mormon into English was fluent in western European culture (in which the US participated). We get agricultural concepts and idioms that are specific to that cultural inheritance, but which contrast to agricultural and historical practices anywhere in the Americas. That tells us that the translator knew a particular culture, and it wasn’t the original. Thus the translation shows evidence of the modern rather than the ancient in some of those particulars (flora and fauna are one example, but references to wheat culture is also significant). For me, that tells me that the suggestion that Moroni did the translation cannot be accurate. Regardless of fluency in English, Moroni would not have so easily misrepresented his native culture.

    Fourth, the unfortunate by-product of the analysis of Early Modern English in the Book of Mormon is to make the text even more inscrutable than it already is. Without Joseph as the translator, we now have to find someone else–and there is no one. In particular, the qualifications of that not-Joseph would have to look a lot like Joseph, but maybe a hundred years earlier–except sometimes not. We have to figure out why a divinely-assisted translation couldn’t find some better way of wording the text, and why the not-Joseph was a better source of a miracle that was Joseph. I’m all for the divine presence in the translation process, but pushing it into unknowable mystery goes beyond anything else that happened in the restoration.

  14. Clark Goble
    March 29, 2019 at 1:13 pm

    AM, I think Carmack thinks it requires tight control. I don’t think that myself, depending upon what one means by tight control. The issue of tight or loose control is ultimately a question about Joseph’s conscious involvement. There’s two approaches to this. First the accounts of witness. That’s a bit problematic because we really don’t have good descriptions. Further it’s not clear the process was the same across all the translation work. (Consider at minimum the shift from the spectacles to Joseph’s brown seer stone) Further some accounts are late or problematic. The second issue is the nature of the text. So Carmack and Skousen will note the types of “errors” and suggest that they don’t reflect deliberation on the part of Joseph Smith. I’m a bit more skeptical there. I think more has to be done here lest it end up like the mess that is stylometry. I’ve not yet seen a convincing argument although I’m open to one.

    Ultimately though I’m with Brant (above) on this. What matters to me is less conscious control than the nature of the Book of Mormon. After all the process might involve accessing Joseph brain, memories and skills, without Joseph being consciously involved. In a certain sense I think the question of tight control is irrelevant to the question of the text.

    I tend to agree with Brant’s other points, particularly his argument of the problem of Moroni as translator. Although one humorous approach to that is Moroni getting ahold of a KJV Bible and working backwards from the plates with no idea what all the references in Europe or the mideast were. Still his ultimate point seems dead on. A person familiar with both cultures probably wouldn’t give the aside on weights at the beginning of Alma 11 but leave out discussion of word shifts with things like plants or potentially even metals. What gets expanded upon seems a bit odd.

    Where things get more tricky is if we have something like the old Google Translate that is somehow uses Joseph’s memories and Moroni’s memories and then using those as corpuses to translate the plates. In that case such conscious concerns are irrelevant. Not saying that is what happened (I rather doubt it did) but just pointing out possibilities that tend to get neglected in the analysis.

  15. JR
    March 29, 2019 at 1:37 pm

    “Regardless of fluency in English, Moroni would not have so easily misrepresented his native culture.” Not that I’m anywhere near convinced of the Moroni hypothesis, but translation for an audience not of the original culture and for a particular purpose does sometimes misrepresent the translator’s native culture. I’ve seen it done by people fluent in the original language and by people fluent in the target language — particularly where trying to represent the original culture accurately would require lengthy explanations that are beside the point of the communication. Why should we suppose that Moroni (or another translator other than JS) would be consistently different from other translators? Why should one suppose that in centuries after his mortality Moroni (or another ancient translator) had not become knowledgeable in western European/American culture that was not his in mortality? To me those suppositions are no more persuasive than the suppositions that an ancient translator had not in successive centuries become knowledgeable in the target culture or had not directed his translation to the target audience at the expense of accuracy as to the original culture or had not become so fluent in the target language that he could translate consistently into a single dialect.

    I agree that when “Joseph read something in some way through/on the seer stone and spoke it to a scribe. That really isn’t translation” as the word is commonly understood. And it seems clear that “whoever translated the Book of Mormon into English was fluent in western European culture.” For some, the question then becomes whether there was a not-JS translator, or whether JS miraculously learned Nephite language and “reformed Egyptian” and translated the Book of Mormon mentally into his mixture of current culture and English of various sorts (including EmodE, KJV, 19th century American, whatever), without looking at the plates, and then read it off the seer stone, or whether there never was an original culture and book written in “reformed Egyptian.”

    I am only surprised by the confidence some express in their particular suppositions as supporting or disproving any particular speculation about how translation occurred or who did it.

  16. Rolf Torjesen
    March 29, 2019 at 2:48 pm

    “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. “
    This might be off topic, but are we getting any new Hugh Niblies, John Widtsoes, Leonard Arringtons and John Welches in the Church? I enjoy the writings of Terryl Givens, Grant Hardy and Adam Miller – are there others that could have the kind of influence on the church as the four first names?

  17. Clark Goble
    March 29, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    I think Nibley had the influence he did because he came in at a time when the Church was struggling between the first generation of Utahns who’d gone to college and come back fairly skeptical about most religious traditions on the one hand and then a fundamentalism tendency on the other. Nibley ended up in a middle ground when a middle ground wasn’t at all common. Further moreso than most of the skeptics, he brought an interesting analysis to Mormon scripture that did make use of scholarship while reconciling it with a view that took scripture seriously in a historical sense without dismissing it as ahistorical. Since then, especially since the 80’s, that kind of of middle ground by well educated people is just very common. So there won’t ever likely be an other Nibley. One could make a similar argument for Arrington.

    To me what’s important now is moving beyond broad parallels to looking closely at the texts for elements people have missed over the last 100 years. I think there’s some of that going on but perhaps not enough. On the other hand sources are so easily available now that perhaps we’re on the cusp of an other big revolution in scholarship. We’ll see.

  18. JR
    March 29, 2019 at 5:58 pm

    “A person familiar with both cultures probably wouldn’t give the aside on weights at the beginning of Alma 11 but leave out discussion of word shifts with things like plants or potentially even metals. What gets expanded upon seems a bit odd.”

    Yes, it is odd. But a person familiar with both cultures and without a skilled, heavy-handed, mid-to-late 20th-21st century editor, might very well expand on some things that interest that person and not on other things of similar irrelevance to the purpose of the book. To me the apparent assumption of consistency and editing doesn’t seem warranted.

    Thanks to Clark, my new favorite theory (for entertainment, not belief) is “something like the old Google Translate that … somehow uses Joseph’s memories and Moroni’s memories and then [uses] those as corpuses to translate the plates.” That would solve a lot of problems! Though I think I might throw in a few more memory sources that Joseph’s and Moroni’s. Without them Moroni might have had to have the entire reformed Egyptian text memorized — unless he (or someone) was consciously involved enough to read the text remotely and propose it to the hypothetical old Google Translate for translation. Could that someone be the same person who texted the translation to Joseph’s seer stone? Who was the texter anyway, if he/she* was not the translator?

    Have we yet wandered far enough away from the simple “by the gift and power of God”? I’m satisfied with that, while finding the linguistic analyses interesting for whatever help they might be in discerning the meaning of the book.

    Incidentally, though Emma thought Joseph’s beginning “where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him” would have been improbable even for a “learned man,” I remember (who knows how accurately? perhaps not) that Hugh Nibley did just that with his elders quorum lessons in those months I attended Manavu Ward.

    *I don’t want to exclude from the possibilities Sariah or Abish or some unnamed woman of the original culture.

  19. Truckers Atlas
    March 29, 2019 at 6:22 pm

    I would be interested to read a scholar try and make the case that the Book of Mormon is an unremarkable text, as many (Hamer being a more recent one) argue. As of now, it seems both those who argue for a divine origin take it for granted that the book is masterfully complex (I’ve heard all I can take about the one topic of chiasmus) while those on the other side of the debate say the opposite without really making their case.

    To pose a question more related to the OP, could there examples of authors writing works of fiction using non-contempoeaneous language that is also not found in texts available to them? I’m not aware of any, though I would be skeptical of any blanket “no” answer to this question.

  20. Clark
    April 1, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    JR, just to reemphasize, that hypothesis was just to bring out a point of the phenomena many tend to neglect. It was not to entertain it as a real position anyone should take seriously.

  21. JR
    April 1, 2019 at 2:45 pm

    Right, Clark. My being entertained by it does not mean I’m seriously entertaining it. I take Jonathan’s analysis in his subsequent post far more seriously. It lines up well with my non-expert experience and observation of language learning. I was amused, however, at the comment over there about the “deduction” of the existence of an angelic translator. Has anyone actually claimed to have deduced the involvement of an angel in the translation rather than having merely hypothesized it for whatever explanatory value it might have?
    One of the entertaining translation questions is who made the English words appear on the seer stone to be read off by Joseph (assuming the accuracy of that report). Another is what connection did those English words have to whatever was written in reformed Egyptian on the plates. I don’t think we will find answers to those questions by analyzing the English of the Book of Mormon, but that doesn’t mean analyzing the English shouldn’t be done (with the caveats about conclusions that Jonathan and others have raised). Nor does it mean we shouldn’t be entertained by various hypotheses — even those we find insufficiently supported by evidence.
    Maybe science fiction and fantasy (of the “Lord of the Rings” variety) have warped my sense of entertainment.

  22. Cassandra Shepard
    April 2, 2019 at 3:41 am

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