"No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey"
- - Heber J. Grant
September 5, 2014
The Debate Over Book of Mormon Translation: Loose or Tight?
by Jeff Lindsay

An interesting debate is underway in the Church on theories regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon from the gold plates. I'll focus on two main schools of thought: tight control and loose control.

Tight control means that Joseph may have regularly seen or been inspired with the specific words to use in his translation (sometimes even specific spellings, as appears to have been the case for at least some of the names in the Book of Mormon).

Loose control, on the other hand, holds that generally what was revealed was a concept or idea that Joseph then had to express in his own language.

Neither school insists that the translation was only done one way — examples of apparent tight or loose control can still fit in either theory.

Loose control has been a reasonable theory and helps explain some of the possible anachronisms in the Book of Mormon. One could argue that concepts presented to Joseph's mind of specific plants or animals would be "translated" into his vocabulary, thus giving "horses," for example, when another unfamiliar species may have been intended.

Loose control can also seem to explain the bad grammar (i.e., non-standard relative to modern English or the KJV) that was in the original translation of the Book of Mormon, much of which led to minor corrections to the text.

Brant Gardner's 2011 book, The Gift and the Power, strongly argues that loose control is how Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, and that loose control and Joseph's use of his own language plus KJV English even could have given us some of the apparent Hebraisms of the Book of Mormon, in addition to possible anachronisms and strange grammar.

See a review at Common Consent. I'm currently reading it, almost done, and find it thoughtful and well done, though I disagree with some of the assumptions and arguments.

Some aspects of Gardner's book have been criticized by another LDS scholar and writer, David Bokovoy. See Bokovoy's remarks at MormonDialogue.com. Bokovoy provides a great example of vigorous and intelligent disagreement done with respect and courtesy. Definitely something to ponder, fellow netizens.

Meanwhile, a significant argument in favor of a significant degree of tight control has recently emerged. This began with some early analysis by Royal Skousen, which Gardner takes on in his book (some say his work even decimates Skousen's theory, though I would disagree — Bokovoy's remarks mentioned above remind us of why that judgment is probably premature).

Royal Skousen, as you may know, is the scholar who has done so much to help us appreciate the granular details of the original and printers manuscripts. After completing much of that groundbreaking work, he made an observation in 2005 in a short article for the Maxwell Institute's Insight publication with a shocking statement.

In summarizing his findings through studying the early Book of Mormon manuscripts, he begins by listing the following:

1. The original manuscript supports the hypothesis that the text was given to Joseph Smith word for word and that he could see the spelling of at least the Book of Mormon names (in support of what witnesses of the translation process claimed about Joseph's translation).

2. The original text is much more consistent and systematic in expression than has ever been realized.

3. The original text includes unique kinds of expression that appear to be uncharacteristic of English in any time and place; some of these expressions are Hebraistic in nature.

So far so good. Then comes what I would call a shocker:

Over the past two years, I have discovered evidence for a fourth significant conclusion about the original text:

4. The original vocabulary of the Book of Mormon appears to derive from the 1500s and 1600s, not from the 1800s.

This last finding is quite remarkable. Lexical evidence suggests that the original text contained a number of expressions and words with meanings that were lost from the English language by 1700. On the other hand, I have not been able thus far to find word meanings and expressions in the text that are known to have entered the English language after the early 1700s.  [emphasis added]

He then lists some plausible examples. So strange. So unexpected.

While Gardner responds to some of Skousen's work, Skousen's thesis was greatly expanded and strengthened in a 2014 article at the Mormon Interpreter. See Stanford Carmack, "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar."

Carmack contends that so much of what were dismissing as Joseph's bad grammar actually turns out to be acceptable grammar from Early Modern English, featuring many elements that were from decades before the English of the King James Bible, almost as if the translation given to Joseph by inspiration had been deliberately translated into that slightly earlier English.

So strange. What is going on?

As interesting as it was, I immediately thought I saw a flaw in the analysis and posted this comment to Carmack's article:

One of the criticisms the Tanners make of the grammar of the original Book of Mormon when they discuss “the 3,913 changes” of the Book of Mormon is the use of “a” before many verbs, such as “As I was a journeying to see a very near kindred …” [Alma 10:7], “And as I was a going thither …” [Alma 10:8], “… the foundation of the destruction of this people is a beginning to be laid …” [Alma 10:27], “… he met with the sons of Mosiah, a journeying towards the land …” [Alma 17:1], and “… the Lamanites a marching towards them …” [Mormon 6:7].

I’ve heard this described as “Pittsburgh dialect” I think, with a suggestion that it might have been Oliver’s language. But I also read someone say or guess that this construction can be found in Chaucer. Haven’t had time to check. What are your thoughts?

What I didn't say was that this "a going" and "a marching" pattern really annoyed me, for it sounded like "hick language" to my ears. Why no mention of that in the article? I suspected it must be because it didn't fit the Early Modern English hypothesis.

After all, Carmack is not claiming that every case of awkward grammar is squarely from standard Early Modern English. But this form isn't Hebraic either, as far as I know — it's just bad, even embarrassing grammar.

Turn out I was wrong.  After posting my comment, I poked around for more information about this verb form. It's very hard to search for since the key term "a" is ignored or obscured in many of the search strings one might try. But I did stumble upon some articles that led me to look up the history of the English progressive form, and that's where I found interesting material.

The best source I found was  The Cambridge History of the English Language, vol. III, ed. by Roger Lass, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 217:

Some earlier scholars (e.g. Jesperson MEG IV: 168-9) espouse the theory that be + -ing goes back to the combination of the preposition on > a + the verbal noun ending in -ing (I am a-reading > I am reading). The available evidence makes it more likely, however, that the verbal type without a preposition and the nominal type with one represent two separate constructions which lived side by side from Old English on. In the course of the Modern English period, the verbal type superseded the nominal one. In the seventeenth century the nominal type can be found even in formal and educated writing, but it becomes non-standard in the course of the eighteenth (Nehls 1974: 169-70). There are only half a dozen Helsinki Corpus instances of the nominal type dating from 1640-1710, all of them in fiction, private correspondence or comedies. Lowth (1775 [1979]: 65) gives the following comment on the principles preceded by a: 'The phrases with a… are out of use in the solemn style; but still prevail in familiar discourse . . . there seems to be no reason, why they should be utterly rejected.'

The full form of the preposition on is much less common than the weakened a in Early Modern English. Also other prepositions are possible; instances with upon can be found as late as the eighteenth century (159)….

So yes, that annoying verb form is also good Early Modern English. Carmack's thesis still works on that issue as well. I'm surprised, though pleasantly. But still tentative about this theory.

By the way, for an interesting theory of the development of the "on" construction in Middle English and Early Modern English, see Casper de Groot, "The king is on huntunge: on the relation between progressive and absentive in Old and Early Modern English" in M. Hannay and G. Steen eds., The English Clause: Usage and Structure, 175-190, Amsterdam: Benjamins 2007).

Carmack would later respond to my comment by confirming that it is an Early Modern English form, and one that can even be found in the Bible. He mentioned Luke 8:42 and 9:42. Sure enough, there's "a dying" and "a coming." Never noticed that. It's a rare occurrence to me, but it is there.

So yes, much of the awkward grammar of the original Book of Mormon appears to reflect language that is not typical of the KJV, being earlier than the KJV era and earlier than Joseph's dialect, though remnants persisted in his day and in ours as nonstandard forms in modern grammar.

Carmack sees this as evidence against a modern, fraudulent origin and evidence for divine translation — but why would a divine process result in English forms predating the KJV? Was some sort of Celestial Translator Device set the wrong century by a clumsy angel?

However the divine translation process worked, however the language was selected or "seasoned" for delivery to Joseph's mind, what came out can no longer be explained as mere imitation of the KJV or as a modern fabrication that Joseph and his friends or family were capable of.

The debate over Carmack's work continues in the comments at Mormon Interpreter and in the comments in a discussion at Mormanity. I look forward to learning more and appreciate those who have shared what they have found in their own digging.

If Carmack and Skousen are right, then why would pre-KJV have been used so heavily in a divinely aided translation? Here's one hypothesis: The translation into language actually predating the KJV is an example of one of God's little jokes. A helpful little joke, that is, a humorous gem to bless and strengthen those willing to pay attention, offering surprising evidence that there is far more to this text than meets the eye.

Yes, it is quiet and easy-to-overlook evidence that the Book of Mormon is not a modern translation, is not merely drawn from the KJV or any other modern source. It's a little joke, but the real joke is on those who cry plagiarism.

Now the difficulty of explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon text might be even greater than we ever imagined. But there's still a lot to explain and figure out, and a lot more research needed. Looking forward to learning more!

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.

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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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