Friday, March 6, 2015

Exploring complexities in the English language of the Book of Mormon

(by Daniel Peterson 3-5-15)

Recently, “Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture” published an article bearing the somewhat dry and intimidating title “The Implications of Past-Tense Syntax in the Book of Mormon." However, the implications of the evidence and analysis provided by linguist Stanford Carmack are anything but dry. They’re profoundly thought-provoking and, indeed, spectacular.

"In the middle of the 16th century," Carmack observes, there was a brief "surge in the use of the auxiliary verb 'did' to express the affirmative past tense in English, as in 'Moroni did arrive with his army at the land of Bountiful' (Alma 52:18)." The 1829 manuscript of the Book of Mormon contains nearly 2,000 instances of this particular verbal form, using it 27 percent of the time in past-tense contexts. By contrast, the 1611 King James Bible employs the form less than 2 percent of the time, Carmack wrote in the abstract.

Strikingly, "while the Book of Mormon’s rate is significantly higher than the Bible’s, it is close to what is found in English-language texts written mainly in the mid- to late 1500s," Carmack wrote.

"And the usage died out in the 1700s." So, in this linguistic feature as in others, "the Book of Mormon is unique for its time," Carmack wrote.

In fact, writes Carmack, "textual evidence and syntactic analysis argue strongly against" both the notion that the Book of Mormon is a 19th-century composition and the common assumption that its language is imitation King James English. The book’s past-tense syntax, he argues, "could have been achieved only by following the use of largely inaccessible 16th-century writings. But mimicry of lost syntax is difficult, if not impossible, and so later writers who consciously sought to imitate biblical style failed ... at a deep, systematic level."

This includes books such as Richard Snowden’s “The American Revolution” (1796), Gilbert Hunt’s “The Late War” (1814) and Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews” (1823). All three have been proposed as Joseph Smith’s supposed source for the Book of Mormon, Carmack wrote.

Carmack has published two previous articles with “Interpreter” making related arguments: “What Command Syntax Tells Us about Book of Mormon Authorship” and “A Look at Some ‘Nonstandard’ Book of Mormon Grammar." He’ll discuss his findings during the Exploring the Complexities in the English Language of the Book of Mormon conference on the Brigham Young University campus from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, March 14.

The conference, which is sponsored jointly by BYU Studies and the Interpreter Foundation, will discuss the latest investigations into the language of the English Book of Mormon, including expressions that don’t appear to have been in use in the 19th century.

Also speaking will be Royal Skousen, whose “Restoring the Original Text of the Book of Mormon” appeared in “Interpreter” the previous week. His 27 years of investigation have made him indisputably the premier authority on the subject, and he was the first to publicly call attention to linguistic features in the Book of Mormon that seem to derive from two or three generations prior to the King James Bible.

According to information about the conference posted on the website of "Interpreter," for which I serve as chairman, a common view regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon holds that as Joseph translated, ideas came to his mind that he expressed in his own language and phraseology; accordingly, the original English language of the Book of Mormon reflects Joseph’s upstate New York dialect, intermixed with imitation biblical English; and the Book of Mormon discusses the religious and political issues of Joseph’s own time. Skousen will argue that these views are misguided and based on a determination to stick with preconceived notions even in the face of the evidence.

Also at the conference, Jan Martin will discuss the Book of Mormon’s possible connection to a sharp debate between the two great enemies William Tyndale and Sir Thomas More. Although three centuries separate the Book of Mormon from More and Tyndale, she’ll analyze the Book of Mormon’s use of terms such as “charity,” “priest” and “church’ in the light of their 16th-century clash.

Nick Frederick will explore the complexities of the presence of New Testament language within the Book of Mormon. While it’s often been observed that the language of the English New Testament plays a key role in the text of the Book of Mormon as we have it today, exactly how such language functions hasn’t been thoroughly examined. Frederick will offer preliminary suggestions on how to adequately identify New Testament passages within the Book of Mormon and will examine the variety of ways in which New Testament language is woven into the Book of Mormon.


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