Archaic English verb endings and the Book of Mormon

« previous post | next post »

Arnold’s discussion of the use and misuse of the archaic English verbal endings -est and -eth calls to mind an earlier and perhaps more significant case, namely the misuse of these endings in the original text of the Book of Mormon, the fundamental sacred text of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

The view of Latter Day Saints is that the Book of Mormon consists of a historical record beginning in Biblical times and continuing with the immigration circa 600 BCE of two groups, known as Lamanites and Nephites, from Israel to the New World. The Nephites fell into wickedness and were eventually exterminated by the Lamanites, who were the ancestors of Native Americans. The last prophet of the Nephites, known as Moroni, is said to have hidden this record, engraved on golden plates in “Reformed Egyptian”, on a hillside in upstate New York around 400 CE.

On September 21, 1823 the angel Moroni revealed the location of the golden plates to Joseph Smith, a semi-literate farm boy who was to become the founder of the Mormon Church. On September 22, 1827 Smith was allowed to take possession of the golden plates, together with two stones in bowls known as the Urim and Thummim. Using these seer’s stones, Joseph Smith received the English translation of the golden plates, which he dictated, line-by-line, to a scribe. The first edition of the Book of Mormon was published at Palmyra, New York in 1830 by “Joseph Smith, Junior, Author and Proprietor”, as he identified himself on the title page.

The authenticity of the Book of Mormon is a matter of dispute. Believers consider it to be an authentic divine text and an accurate historical account, a sequel to the New Testament. Just about everyone else considers it either to have been composed by Joseph Smith or to be a plagiarism by Smith of an earlier contemporary work, such as the Reverend Solomon Spalding’s The Manuscript Found, a parodic romance on the Old Testament.

There are many reasons for doubting the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, including the peculiar circumstances of its origin, the fact that the golden plates of which it is allegedly a translation are not available for study, the fact that the “Reformed Egyptian” in which it was allegedly written is unknown to linguists, the fact that portions allegedly written prior to 600 BCE contain excerpts from the Sermon on the Mount, and the inconsistency of the prehistory of the Americas that it presents with the findings of archaeology, genetics, and historical linguistics.

The authenticity of the Book of Mormon has also been challenged on linguistic grounds. Perry Benjamin Pierce adduced the evidence of the language of the Book of Mormon in a paper entitled “The Origin of the ‘Book of Mormon’”, which appeared in the American Anthropologist N.S. 1.4.675-694 in October of 1899. Much of the article is devoted to a detailed account of the procedure followed by Smith, which is described in a number of writings by witnesses, reported by members of Smith’s family and Mormon authorities.

These accounts emphasize that Smith did not read or translate the text himself. Rather, he looked at the seer’s stones, upon which the English translation appeared, and read the English translation aloud to his scribe. Only when the scribe had correctly transcribed the line would it disappear from the seer’s stones and a new line of translation appear. As a result, neither the translation that Smith read out nor what the scribe recorded could be in any way erroneous. Smith neither read nor translated the “Reformed Egyptian” text and therefore could not be the source of any error. Moreover, while the scribe may have misunderstood what Smith read out, or written it down incorrectly, any such errors would have been detected and corrected due to the fact that the translation that Smith saw would not move on to the next line until the scribe had written it down correctly. The original manuscript of the Book of Mormon is therefore claimed to be a perfect English rendering of the original “Reformed Egyptian” text.

The compositor of the first edition of the Book of Mormon testified that he did not edit or correct the text in any way. It was published exactly as in the manuscript, save for the fact that the printer added punctuation, which was absent from the manuscript.

Pierce then turns to his main point, which is that the original edition contained thousands of errors of English usage:

And that the Urim and Thummim breastplate did not aid the grammarless translator, or his uninspired amanuensis, or even his village printer, is evident from such eccentric irregularities and bold departures from the “well of English undefiled” as:

thou remembereth” (page 27); “and I have not written but a small part of the things I saw” (page 35); “therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they had ought” (ibid.);…”and this he done” (page 225); “and the words of Amulek which was declared unto the people” (page 245); “now the object of these lawyers were to get gain” (page 251);…

I pause out of breath, with this result of a most cursory inspection of the inspired pages under examination.

Pierce points out that there are more than 700 instances in the Book of Mormon in which the relative pronoun which is used in reference to people in place of who, e.g. “Our brethren which were slain”. This is of course not acceptable in standard varieties of English, nor was it acceptable in the early 19th century. It was, however, normal usage in the seventeenth century, when the King James version of the Bible was composed.

Such evidence presents us with two choices. One is that the omnipotent and omniscient creator of the universe did not control the grammar of Early Modern English. The other is that the Book of Mormon was written by a semi-literate farm boy acquainted with the King James Bible, whose grammar and style he unsuccessfully attempted to emulate.



34 Comments

  1. Quinn McCoy said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 7:03 am

    the evidence also provides us with a third choice: the omnipotent and omniscient creator doesn’t care about grammar both descriptively or prescriptively.

  2. Sili said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 8:59 am

    Did you by any chance think you didn’t get enough flack for posting about politics?

    I appreciate the analysis (of course, I witnessed the birth of Scimormontology, so I’m obviously biased), but I predict that the angry comments will show up soon enough.

  3. Mark P said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 10:35 am

    ” … angry comments will show up …”

    Down in the South there is a saying: The hit dog howls.

  4. Roadrunner said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    No to defend the Mormon church, but…

    I believe the story is that the first translation of the Book of Mormon was lost (in a fire? Don’t quite remember), but Joseph Smith had already reburied the tablets and couldn’t find them again because God only allowed them to be found once. So he rewrote the whole thing from memory. Divinely inspired memory, of course, but it seems plausible that divinely inspired memory would include his native grammatical faults.

    Plenty of problems with the Book of Mormon, but I’m not convinced this is one.

  5. rpsms said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 11:31 am

    The story of Joseph Smith is God’s Ultimate Test of Gullabullity®. If you pass, you are then allowed to turn in your blank checks to the church.

  6. Greywizard said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

    I remember dimly having read a story in Time Magazine (in the 1960s?), that the Book of Mormon had been shown to have been cribbed from an early nineteenth century ‘novel’, or imaginary account of early American history. I never checked it out. It is, as I say, a dim memory.

    As to Roadrunner’s point: Well, this is hardly a defence. Indeed, this kind of story should lead anyone to question the authenticity of the writing. But, hey!, what is this really all about? No one is suggesting, are they, that this American Israelitism (similar to the variety believed in by William Blake, and expressed in the hymn “And did those feet in ancient time….”), has any historical warrant or credibility?

  7. Joe said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    No wonder that Mormon coworker I used to have tried to “correct” me. I wondered how he came to such wrong conclusions, but not having read the Book of Mormon, I didn’t realize that they misused it like this…

  8. Joe said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 2:40 pm

    Oh, and umm, there’s probably no good way to ask this, but does anyone know the origin of the name Moroni? I mean, does it occur elsewhere, or is it given a meaning in the Book of Mormon (I know _who_ it is, but nothing else)?

    Because it’s always seemed, well, strange to me. But maybe it’s because I automatically try to make an anagram out of it and it comes out similar to I Ching….

  9. McCoy said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 3:03 pm

    moroni is the capital city of comoros, the island to the east of africa. joseph smith, if you recall, found the book of mormon found the plates on a hill called cumorah, and was talked to by moroni

  10. Michael said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    The following maybe of interest to Language Log readers interested in this topic. In By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (Oxford University Press, 2002) Terryl L. Givens (professor of Religion and Literature at the University of Richmond, Virginia) wrote the following (pages 132-135):

    [(myl) You can find the quoted passage here. I’ve moved it due to its length, which is doesn’t fit very well in a comment.]

  11. Michael said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

    Although the comment preview seemed to allow <p>…</p> and <sup>…</sup> tags, they appear to have been removed by WordPress. I apologize; I intended the above comment to be more readable than it turned out to be…

  12. Adrian said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    I’ve given houseroom to Mormon “elders” (who were much younger than I am) and in the end their argument came down to “we agree that it makes no sense, but it’s worth promoting on the basis that our parents brought us up good.”

  13. LisaFla said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

    Michael, surely you jest, putting that extraordinarily long excerpt in as your comment. A brief summary and a link (or reference) would have sufficed. Readers not interested enough to click to another page are equally unlikely to read the tome you posted. Like me, they would have just skipped right past it.

    The HTML mark ups would not have convinced me to read it, either.

    I love the blog. I just discovered it today via a link in a NYT article about “measuring the drapes” which I personally consider a Bush-ism. It should be “measuring for the drapes”.

  14. Kevin Iga said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

    Another possibility is that early 19th century Frontier American (read: Appalachian, down the Ohio river) speakers had a special register for religious language which, though based on their local frontier dialect, was strongly influenced by their reading of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Then, if the Almighty were going to go through the trouble of making the text of the Golden Plates available to the American public by translating it into English, it would not be unreasonable that He might choose to use the register many people would have thought most appropriate for it at the same time. I would be more surprised if God were to choose the King’s English, for example.

    I’m reminded of some translations of the Bible from the 1890s to the 1960s that used “thou” only when referring to God. I don’t doubt that for many speakers in this time period, the word “thou” really did have this meaning, probably because the only context in which the word was used was in prayers or in reading the KJV.

    I wonder if the popularization of Bible translations without such archaisms (the New International Version, The Message, etc.) will negatively affect recruitment for the LDS church: I’ve met some converts to the LDS church who claim they believe the Book of Mormon to be divinely inspired because it “sounds like” it’s divinely inspired, and I wonder to what extent this sound is due to its superficial similarity in grammar to the KJV. As KJV becomes less and less associated with the Bible, the effect of the “sound” might diminish. It should be noted that the KJV is still commonly used in the LDS church, whereas it is becoming more and more common for other churches to use other translations.

  15. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

    I’m surprised no one has brought up Mark Twain’s withering critique of the Book of Mormon in Roughing It:

    The book seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel — half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern — which was about every sentence or two — he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.

  16. JW said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

    Many years ago as an undergrad, I worked with Royal Skousen on the Critical Text of the Book of Mormon. Your analysis isn’t bad, but it does boil down to absolutes: either God dictated the book or else Joseph Smith made it up. The more nuanced approach, one that’s better described by Givens, is that Joseph Smith translated the book and, as translator, had to use the tools he had at his disposal: farmboy KJV-ese.

    But the evidence is even more complex still. Joseph Smith never explained publicly nor in writing exactly the mechanics of translating a text “by the power of God.” Many people at te time, both believers and non-believers, jumped to conclusions based on what he said, and all those conclusions are somewhat absurd. But hey, it’s religion, right?

    First person accounts from scribes indicate that Smith would occasionally be very specific, even down to the spelling of proper nouns, and at other times would be much more loose and sloppy. When we take into consideration the hebraisms (in the long selection from Givens (now happily moved from Michael’s post above)), it leads to a complex picture: sometimes God would let Joseph Smith put things in a language that tried to mimic the scripture language he was accustomed to hearing in the Bible, and at other times God moved in to provide word-for-word English translations.

    Interesting that Joseph Smith himself made a number of corrections in the 1832 edition of the Book of Mormon, a point at which he no longer had possession of the golden plates. Those corrections were attempts to remove some of the usage errors (most famously, removal of the “armies were a-marching”) that, if we take Smith’s claim to be a prophet at face value, would indicate that the godliness of the text is not determined by the correctness of the usage.

    But this is a game that can’t be won by either believers nor opponents to Mormonism. The Book of Mormon has never claimed to be a good history (though it does claim to be historical), but only to be a religious history. It claims to be the word of God, but not necessarily the language of God. Believers, like myself, do think that God doesn’t want the source to be found because that will simply distract from the task the book was designed to fulfill: to testify of Christ.

    There are plenty of other controversies about Joseph Smith’s translation: why, for instance, are passages from Smith’s translation of the Bible (without any source material in this case, by the way) differ from the passages in the Book of Mormon that purport to be copied from original sources in 600BC? As much as I try myself to avoid unnecessary rationalization for my faith, this is a point where I simply must rely upon faith. Those with faith will understand; those who have no faith will think that sounds irredeemably absurd. It isn’t, I assure you, because my parents said it must be so.

  17. JW said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

    Upon more thought, I think I can put it more succinctly: the third option is that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Translating scripture is like translating poetry, and as Smith tried to keep it sounding like scripture as best he could, sometimes his lack of mad hot translating skillz shined through.

    Surely, those of us who have done translations before can recognize the difficulty. Did “God control the grammar”? Obviously not. Does that necessarily mean that God wasn’t involved? Well, that’s a question of faith, not usage.

  18. Mark P said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

    Most of the apologetics sound like god was either incompetent or purposefully obfuscating.

  19. Jack Collins said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 6:36 pm

    This issue is hardly unique to The Book of Mormon. The Hebrew Bible contains many sections with what seem to be deliberate and grammatically-questionably archaisms, and The Book of Revelation reads like it was translated from Aramaic to Greek by someone who spoke neither.

  20. Nathan Myers said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 8:03 pm

    rpsms: The wiser of rival churchmen feel obliged to let Joseph Smith’s be, as they know their own houses are of no more resilient glass.

  21. J.O.E. said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

    Or read it for yourself : http://scriptures.lds.org/en/1_ne/1

  22. JS Bangs said,

    October 25, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

    Not a Mormon nor especially interested in defending it, but JW’s defense is plausible enough–assuming that it represents what the Mormons believe about it. If Smith had divine help in creating a translation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that his personal dialect and choice of register was left out of it.

    Likewise, having read Revelation in the Greek, I’ll attest to it being generally atrocious and suggestive of an Aramaic speaker struggling with a second language. However, most Christians don’t assert that the human author’s choices, dialect, and limitations were obliterated by inspiration, so it’s to be expected that an old Jew recording a vision in exile would create something of this quality.

    The Koran is a more interesting case, because if I understand the doctrine correctly the Arabic text of the of the Koran is believed to be the verbatim word of God. That the Arabic text contains numerous violations of Arabic grammar is to be taken as somehow part of God’s intent, though don’t ask me to speculate on what.

  23. Aaron Davies said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 12:22 am

    There was some interesting stuff floating around a year or two ago to the effect that some of the Koran is actually in Syriac, and that reading it this way makes a lot of the stranger passages make a lot more sense.

  24. ben wolfson said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 12:56 pm

    GC Lichtenberg:

    “The rules of grammar are mere human statutes, which is why when he speaks out of the possessed the Devil himself speaks bad Latin.”

  25. Tom Recht said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 3:00 pm

    Jack Collins: “The Hebrew Bible contains many sections with what seem to be deliberate and grammatically-questionabl[e] archaisms” – do you mean the original Hebrew, or the English of the KJV or some other translation? If the former, I’m curious: can you give any examples? (I’m a Hebrew speaker and have never heard this claim before, but it would be interesting if it’s true.)

  26. James Kabala said,

    October 26, 2008 @ 9:30 pm

    It seems as if the original post doesn’t distinguish clearly between two separate issues:

    1. Use of deliberate archaisms by Smith to lend the work a KJV flavor(e.g., “which” in place of “who”) and 2. usage that was non-standard even in the 17th century (e.g., “thou remembereth” and “this he done.” The former issue seems easier to square with the idea of a divinely guided translation than the latter (although I appreciate JW’s attempt at a defense even of the latter, and although it won’t shake my own faith, I am curious about the issue of grammar problems in the Old and New Testaments).

  27. Irene said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 2:17 pm

    A related issue with the Quran is the frequent alternating of first person and third person pronouns purportedly used by Allah in referring to his self. The Quran is supposed to be the word of Allah (the God) spoken verbatim by Muhammad who was illiterate. Yet, at times the Quran has Allah saying “I did (something)” and at other times “He did (something). Muslims I know believe that only Arabic will be spoken in heaven, so we all better brush up. Although it does beg the question of why any language at all would be needed in the great beyond.

  28. Forrest said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 2:52 pm

    I found this gold plate with “Reformed English” (no one else can read it) that says I can park as long as I’d like to in Seattle. It’s pretty handy. If you’d like, I’ll translateth for you.

  29. tablogloid said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

    I have a friend who went to look at a house on sale. It turned out to be a catholic rectory. While perusing the property, he purloined a plastic dashboard sign inscribed with “Clergy on Call”. I asked him if he had any shame for stealing from the Church. He replied, “You can call it stealing. I call it revenge”. To this day he still uses the sign.

  30. mollymooly said,

    October 27, 2008 @ 11:52 pm

    Mormonism is expanding in non-anglophone countries, so what about translations of the Book of Mormon? Does the German version read like Luther’s Bible? [Some info here]

  31. Rev.C. Interruptus said,

    April 25, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    I started reading the book of Mormon last night, and this was the first thing that struck me. After the preamble in which the witnesses testify to the veracity of the tablets and the angel (a fine way to start), I noticed that the text was all badly written in the style of the King James Bible. I suppose that it is an obvious selling point to use a style of language that common people would see as authoritative.

    I also found it particularly amusing that the angel that delivered the message was named Moroni. I might dig this Joseph Smith cat after all.

  32. Highlights from the Blogroll, First Michigan Edition « The Voice of Stefan said,

    May 5, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    […] Poser, one of the geniuses over at Language Log, has a fascinating post on the use of archaic English verb endings in the Book of Mormon. As one long interested in the literary features and peculiarities of that work, I was startled to […]

  33. Cameron said,

    November 22, 2011 @ 1:59 pm

    I would like to see what you all think of this:
    The Lachish Letters:

    http://lds.org/ensign/1981/12/the-lachish-letters-documents-from-lehis-day?lang=eng

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lachish_letters

  34. Richard said,

    January 3, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

    It makes sense that believers believe The Book of Mormon and that
    “Just about everyone else” doesn’t believe in its divine origin. If they did believe it, they’d be grouped with the believers. I’m not sure what point is being made there.

    I’ve read these arguments for and against the authenticity of The Book of Mormon for over twenty years. There are thousands of arguments for and against it. Anyone who’s interested in it can read it on the LDS Church’s web site: http://lds.org/scriptures/bofm?lang=eng. You can also request a copy of it online at http://mormon.org/free-book-of-mormon/

    The LDS Church recently began publishing the original accounts (in the original handwriting) of Joseph Smith and his contemporaries for scholars t examine at http://josephsmithpapers.org . Those are a couple resources that provide first-hand information for anyone interested in the subject.

    I have read The Book of Mormon several times, and I believe it is what it purports to be.

RSS feed for comments on this post