"Archaic English Verb Endings and the Book of Mormon"

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"Archaic English Verb Endings and the Book of Mormon"

Post  ankh_f_n_khonsu on Sat Oct 25, 2008 9:26 pm

From Language Log:

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.
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