Response to Carmack (2014) “A Look at Some ‘Nonstandard’ Book of Mormon Grammar”


KJV-King-James-Version-Bible-first-edition-title-page-1611.xcfThese are my brief thoughts while reading Stanford Carmack’s 2014 Interpreter article hypothesizing that Joseph did not translate the bible into mixture of pseudo King James Bible (KJV) and early 19th century American English, but rather it was translated into 16th century English.  A peculiar hypothesis. I do not summarize his views, you’ll have to read the article itself.

I think Carmack does a really good job arguing that there exists syntax in the 1829 BoM that also corresponds with syntax from early modern English (EModE).

How does this fit in with our understanding of the translation?  First, the Book of Mormon (BoM), itself.  Some components correspond to Standard Modern English (ModE).  “This is one of the areas where the BofM is a ModE text.” (Pg. 240).  The rest does not.  Of the portion that is not standard ModE, some would qualify as EModE.  But, is it the case that every deviation from Standard ModE is EModE?  Carmack never addresses this question.

He never addresses the changes to the BoM that Joseph Smith, himself, made during subsequent publications.  Did Joseph move away from EModE?  This merits some explanation, if Carmack’s theory is true.

There are a few other possibilities to explain his findings.  Since EModE was not standardized, there will be a larger variation of syntax available for EModE than for standard ModE. Thus increasing the pure random chance that any deviation from standard ModE will match with syntax common in EModE, especially given the range of sources Carmack cited (14th century through 17th century). In addition, is it possible that many of the cited phrases also existed in nonstandard 1800 English?  I believe I have heard the phrase “them days” spoken before.  It may be possible that the origins of these nonstandard phrases also originated in Elizabethan English.

To my understanding, the reigning theory for the prevalence of non-19th century English is that Joseph Smith, in translating scripture, chose to render it in the most scriptural language possible, i.e. King James English.  Since we do not presume any linguistic skill, we would expect this rendering to be imprecise and inconsistent.  The existence of non-KJV EModE is still explained by this theory.

Without being thorough, here are three examples that are completely explained by it: 1) received, rather than receivedst (pg. 228); 2) the third-person plural subjects found with archaic third-person singular inflection (Nephi’s brethren rebelleth) (pg. 234); and 3) the more clear use of the nominative absolute syntax (I Nephi having been born) (pg. 241). The third example is further supported by the fact that in translating the Bible, Joseph often only changed a verse from the KJ for the sake of grammatical clarity.

It was difficult to discern what version of KJV to which he compared the phrases. Do the results change depending on which version? To make the case for the language not being dependent on KJV style, we would have to show that these syntaxes are not present in whatever edition J.S. had access to in the late 1820s.

Many of the EModE examples spread over centuries. Some, such as, arriven, only have examples in the first half of the 1400s.  This “historical range of the book’s language” indicates, that if his theory holds, the book is not translated into one language, but into many.  Certainly the English of the 14th century was sufficiently different from the English of the 17th century that a single document containing phraseology unique to each century could not be considered a consistent language rendering. Thus, further emphasizing the idea of a plural-language text.

“There is now clear and convincing evidence that the BofM is, in large part, an independent, structurally sound EModE text.” (pg. 256) This hinges on the empirical claim of “large part”.  We would need some sort of percentage of how much of the text is EModE.

Lastly, my final thought, this being the largest hurdle for Carmack’s theory to gain traction. (Did you notice my 21st century employment of the nominative absolute syntax?)

Why would God inspire Joseph to translate into Early Modern English mixed with 19th Century English?

D&C 90:11
“…every man shall hear the fullness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in his own language”

D&C 1:24
“Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”

D&C 50:22
“Wherefore, he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together.”

Since God chose to reveal modern scripture in our own language, so that we can understand it, why reveal the Book of Mormon through extinct language varieties?
This question arises, especially in considering that “had another time and place been right for the publication of the BofM, or another style of language, then another language (variety) could have been chosen.” (pg. 214) What was it about 1829, upstate New York that justified the use of this particular language variety? Especially, in considering how many changes Joseph, himself, approved of during his life.

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