One of the most puzzling but interesting issues in Book of Mormon studies has been the
discovery of strong elements from Early Modern English (EModE) in the text of the Book of
Mormon, with grammar and vocabulary that often slightly predates the King James Bible.
I remain impressed with the detailed, data-rich work of Stanford Carmack and Royal Skousen on
this topic, though I still feel a need for caution about the conclusions to be drawn. If the English
of the original Book of Mormon dictated by Joseph Smith has clear EModE influence that cannot
be explained by simply using KJV language, then it may say something interesting about the
miraculous process used to guide Joseph's translation.
On the other hand, I've also wanted to see how much of the EModE could have come from
archaic elements in the English dialect that Joseph knew and spoke. Is there some way to
characterize that dialect and distinguish it's imprint in the text from actual EModE?
This suggested a test to consider: Does the original text of the BOM use New England-style
patterns of the verb be that distinguishes it from EModE, or are the patterns consistent with
Carmack and Skousen's work?
Given that Joseph Smith lived in New England (Vermont) until age 8 and was raised by New
England parents from Vermont and New Hampshire, a fair assumption about his personal dialect
is that it was strongly influenced by New England dialects.
My analysis is not yet complete, but so far, after examining every occurrence of be in the Book of
Mormon and looking for usages relevant to Pablé and Dylewski's study, the relevant instances of
invariant be appear consistent with EModE and do not point to uniquely New England influence.
Features of New England dialect that came after EModE, such as heavy first- and second-person
indicative use of "be" (e.g., "where be ye?") don't appear.
Familiar New England negative forms like "ain't" also don't appear. But some of the odd-sounding uses of be in the original text that seemed like bad grammar and were fixed by Joseph
or later editors turn out to be acceptable Early Modern English from, say, the 1500s.
This raises a host of questions, but they are questions we should explore in light of the data and
not our preconceived notions of how the text was generated.
There is a reasonably strong case against the notion that Joseph simply borrowed language from
the KJV, coupled with his own quaint dialect from New England. But much further work needs
to be done and more tests need to be devised with new sets of data.
For example, what can we learn by examining the language of the 1835 Doctrine & Covenants,
Joseph's journal, his other writings and speeches, and statements recorded from his family and
peers? What might we learn from examining court records and other documents from Joseph's
day to help us understand characteristic dialects of upstate New York that may have differed
from New England dialect? There are many other avenues to pursue and much to learn.
Much of the non-standard, awkward grammar in the Book of Mormon as dictated by Joseph
turns out to be characteristic of Early Modern English (EModE) several decades before the King
James Bible was written. This puzzling discovery was first made by Dr. Royal Skousen, the man
whose lifetime of work is pursuing the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project.
In my opinion, to best understand the Book of Mormon text as dictated by Joseph Smith, it is
vital to use Royal Skousen's grand work, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven
and London: Yale University Press, 2009), hereafter The Earliest Text. This text arguably gives
us the best available estimate of what Joseph dictated to his scribes. It also summarizes many
especially noteworthy changes in the Appendix and traces their history.
EModE can be said to begin around 1470 and to extend to perhaps 1670 or so. The KJV, first
published in 1611, fits squarely in this period, yet has some distinct differences from the EModE
of earlier decades. Finding EModE elements that pre-dates KJV English or that do not occur in
the KJV was not driven by an apologetic agenda, but was a completely counter-intuitive and
controversial find that was simply driven by the data. Apologetic arguments have evolved, but
the case for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon in no way depends upon them.
If the language of the Book of Mormon as dictated by Joseph Smith was standard Yankee dialect
or just Joseph's own bad grammar, as many of us have long assumed, that fits the idea of
revelation being given to people in their own tongue and language. It's quite a paradigm shift to
consider that the language Joseph was dictating might not just be his own language loosely
draped in KJV verbiage but often reflected some kind of tight linguistic control to yield archaic
scriptural language that was surprisingly standard or acceptable in an era slightly before the KJV
was translated. Why and how is still a matter for speculation and debate. But the data is there and
demands to be considered, explored, and tested.
One man taking up that challenge is a linguist, Dr. Stanford Carmack, who has further explored
the strange occurrence of archaic EModE from several angles in great detail. Carmack more fully
demonstrates that the Book of Mormon provides extensive and accurate EModE usage and
grammar in ways that cannot be explained by copying the KJV. Such laughable blunders as "in
them days," "I had smote," and "they was yet wroth" turn out to be consistent with EModE
patterns. The analysis shows that much of what we thought was bad grammar is quite acceptable
EMoDE, sometimes showing a sophisticated mastery of EModE.
The findings are puzzling indeed, but his work is rich with facts and data that again demand
attention. The four articles Dr. Carmack has contributed to the Mormon Interpreter are worthy
of note. I am especially impressed with the broad information and analysis presented in his "A
Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar," which I just re-read today after
doing a two-hour seminar in Shanghai last week on the topic of the subjunctive mood in English
grammar (the crazy things I get involved with here!). Digging into some of the mysteries of the
English subjunctive prepared me to much better appreciate some of the powerful points Carmack
makes in that work. His analysis deserves much more attention and contemplation.
Royal Skousen and Carmack Stanford feel strongly that the abundance of EModE elements in the
BOM is evidence of divine tight control in text somehow given to Joseph Smith to dictate, and
that it is perhaps a fingerprint of divine origins in the text. However, some skeptics have
wondered if it can be explained by residual EModE influence in Joseph's dialect of English.
Some of the "hick language" found in regional dialects preserves elements of English that have
long since become obsolete in modern English, so such a thing could be possible to some degree.
I think Carmack and Skousen would argue that the level of EModE is so strong and often so
appropriate to the 1500s that it would be hard for so many elements to survive in the United
States. But I feel we need more work to analyze regional dialects that could have influenced
Joseph Smith to see if the strange characteristics of the language in the earliest text could be
explained as a natural result of Joseph naturally expressing revealed concepts in his own
A natural language hypothesis can be consistent with either a fabricated text or a divinely
transmitted text based on real ancient writings on golden plates. Indeed, a translation process
using Joseph's own language and dialect, complete with bad grammar and other linguistic warts,
is what some faithful LDS thinkers have long assumed.
But Carmack and Skousen offer a surprisingly different explanation for the flaws in the original
text: not bad grammar, but a divinely transmitted English text with heavy dose of reasonably
good Early Modern English provided with the consistency, subtlety, variety, sophistication, and
naturalness of a native EModE speaker, making the linguistic fingerprint of the Book of Mormon
impossible to explain as a derivative of the KJV, though it also draws heavily upon that text. If
BOM language is not simply the language of the KJV, could it be in part the language of Joseph's
local dialect, or is something more miraculous required?
There She Be: One Possible Test for New England Dialect
To explore the hypothesis that Joseph's own regional dialect simply preserved EModE elements
in ways that can account for all or much of the original text of the BOM, some additional tests
are needed. While the Book of Mormon was dictated in upstate New York, it's reasonable to
assume that New England dialect may have been a strong influence in Joseph's language. He was
born in Vermont and lived there until age eight, and continued to be raised by his thoroughly
New Englander parents, with a father from New Hampshire and a mother from Vermont.
In searching for information on New England dialect, I found an interesting study that may be
useful in framing a test that can differentiate the influence of New England dialect from EModE
on some non-standard elements in the original text of the Book of Mormon. The reference is
Adrian Pablé and Radosaw Dylewski, "Invariant Be In New England Folk Speech: Colonial
And Postcolonial Evidence," American Speech, Vol. 82, No. 2 (2007)151-184(a full text PDF
Pablé and Dylewski explore a widely recognized feature of New England dialect, the tendency to
use the finite "be" in indicative cases that would normally require conjugated forms like "is" or
"are" in standard modern English. For the third person plural, both New England dialect and
EModE sometimes use finite be, as in "they be there." But a distinguishing feature is the use of
invariant be for the third person singular indicative, as in "he be here", a pattern which is well
known in New England dialect but not characteristic of EModE.
New England dialect also shows first and second person singular invariant be in indicative cases,
beginning apparently early in the eighteenth century and unattested in the seventeen century,
apparently sprouting up in the United States, diverging from Early Modern English and the
English of England:
Based on the evidence at our disposal, we feel justified to claim that by the late
seventeenth century, be in colonial varieties of English was diffusing to grammatical
contexts typical of postcolonial New England folk speech, but atypical of Early Modern
British English, namely to the first- and second-person singular context. It may well be
that the questions just cited constitute the earliest "American" attestations of
nonsubjunctive be with the singular. The historical dictionaries of American English offer
no analogous attestations of be dating back to the seventeenth century. The earliest
reference work featuring singular indicative be in a declarative clause is the Dictionary of
American English on Historical Principles (1938-44), which quotes from Cotton
Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, published in 1702: "I been't afraid! I thank God I
Interestingly, the New Englanders using be as a singular indicative form (i.e., Ann Carr-Putnam, the magistrates John Hathorne/Jonathan Corwin, Cotton Mather) were all
American-born, which underpins the "domestic origin" hypothesis of singular indicative
Postcolonial and Early-twentieth-century New England. While invariant be in colonial
American English has not yet been studied in any systematic way, grammarians and
dialectologists devoted some attention to it once it had become recurrent in the speech of
the "common people" living in a particular area. In fact, a social and regional connotation
inherent in be was noticed by contemporary observers already at the end of the eighteenth
century--in Noah Webster's (1789) Dissertations on the English Language, he included
be as a typical feature of "the common discourse of the New England yeomanry": "The
verb be, in the indicative, present tense, which Lowth observes is almost obsolete in
England, is still used after the ancient manner, I be, we be, you be, they be" (385).
Grammarians writing in the first decades of the nineteenth century also commented on
the regional concentration of invariant be usage. Thus, John Pickering wrote in his 1816
Vocabulary that finite be "was formerly much used in New England instead of am and
are, in phrases of this kind: Be you ready? Be you going? I be, &c" (46). In his English
Grammar, Samuel Kirkham (1834, 206), in a chapter dedicated to "provincialisms," cited
two examples of be supposedly typical of "New England or New York," with be
appearing in independent direct statements ("I be goin"; "the keows be gone"); Kirkham
also adduced examples of be as a main verb in direct questions and short answers--as
Pickering had done ("Be you from Berkshire?" "I be")--and cited the negative form
("You bain't from the Jarseys, be ye?"). In Kirkham's opinion, the latter three cases
represented only "New England" usage.
The authors also observe that New England dialect tends to rarely use invariant be with the third
person plural, though this was part of EModE and surely was part of the early colonists' dialect.
The collocation there be/they be for 'there/they is/are' was not recorded as occurring in
the speech of any LANE informants [LANE is the Linguistic Atlas of New England].
Notably, map 678 of the Atlas investigates the existential clause on the basis of the
construction There are a lot of people who think so. As it turns out, Type I informants
[less educated descendants of old local families, whose speech might best preserve old
forms from New England's preindustrial era] were reported to have said They's many
folks think(s) so and There's many folks think(s) so, not They/there be many folks . . . ,
probably because contraction between the existential and the copula is always possible
(i.e., grammatical), irrespective of whether the context is singular or plural (i.e., they's,
they're, and there's). Thus, plural existentials in postcolonial nonstandard varieties of
English no longer find themselves in syntactically "strong" contexts. (p. 170)
On the whole, however, be in postcolonial New England folk speech does not seem to
have been a form associated with the "old" subjunctive of Early Modern English but was
primarily an indicative form (i.e., occurring respectively in direct questions and sentence-finally). (p. 172)
In discussing negative forms of be, the authors note the prominence of ain't as a feature of New
England dialect (less commonly, hain't was also used; see p. 171). In the first half of the
nineteenth century (Joseph's era), two other negative forms were also common in New England
dialect: ben't and bain't, contractions of be not (p. 171). None of these negative forms are found
in the Book of Mormon. None of these negative forms occur in Early Modern English (p. 173).
Based on my understanding of this study, a characteristic trait of New England dialect was the
development of invariant be usage beyond the third person plural known in EModE. Finding it in
other cases in the dictated text of the Book of Mormon would be one way to differentiate New
England dialect from EModE.
Some of those forms began to appear humorous or dated even to New Englanders by the 1930s
when the Linguistic Atlas of New England was compiled, as Pablé and Dylewski report:
Atwood (1953, 27) confirms that informants using be as part of their sociolect in LANE
belonged exclusively to the "Type I" category, that is, those born in the mid-nineteenth
century, which suggests that be had become a relic form, no longer actively used by
informants born in the first decades of the twentieth century. In fact, some field-workers
of LANE noticed that the expressions How be ye? and . . . than I be were associated with
"humorous usage" by younger speakers, which seems to indicate that such phrases were
sociolinguistically marked in the 1930s and may have served for stereotyping.
There is no shortage of humorous grammar, at least for modern ears, in the earliest text of the
Book of Mormon, much of which has been cleaned up and standardized. Funny-sounding first-
and second-person forms of invariant be might just the thing to look for.
I have not found any such forms in the Earliest Text, apart from acceptable subjunctive phrases
that are appropriate in EModE and somewhat less often in modern English (e.g., the subjunctive
phrase "if it so be" which abound in the Book of Mormon is relatively obsolete today but well
attested in EModE). The lack of first- and second-person indicative forms of invariant be is
interesting and to some degree weighs against New England dialect as the source of Book of
Mormon grammar , but that is not the end of the story.
Though rare, LANE does offer third-person singular examples of invariant be, including "How be
it?" "How be it" does occur in the Original Text of the Book of Mormon, which I'll discuss
below. It's usage is subjunctive, not indicative, though I suggest it is not consistent with EModE
usage of that term.
To explore the possible influence of New England dialect on invariant be in the Book of
Mormon, we should also consider third-person singular cases.
Relevant BOM Cases of Invariant Be: It Begins with the Title Page
Using my Kindle version of the Earliest Text to search for "be" poses several problems.
Searching for "be" also returns hits for "being," and searches text at the beginning and end of the
book that is not part of scripture. Among the roughly 2800 hits for be/being in the Book of
Mormon, I estimate that pure "be" occurs about 2500 times. Of those numerous instances, only a
handful are noteworthy. If you have better search tools, I welcome your input.
The vast majority are the infinitive "to be" or "be" following a modal verb (can, could, will, shall,
shalt, may, might, must and must needs, etc.). There are many subjunctive forms, especially "if it
so be", a phrase not found in the KJV but characteristic of EModE, as Carmack has shown and as
you may verify by exploring works of Caxton, for example. A few examples of subjunctive
instances will be shown below.
Regarding potential uses of invariant be that might reflect New England or other folk dialects,
the relevant examples of invariant be to consider begin right on the title page.
Title Page: And now if there be fault, it be the mistake of men.
This sentence is one of the most interesting examples of invariant be in the Book of Mormon,
and I wish to address it before looking at the remaining cases of note because it will assist in
understanding additional cases.
The title page statement is similar to Mormon 8:17: "If there be faults, they be the faults of a
man…" which has finite be in both clauses, but differs in using the plural faults and thus "they
be" instead of "it be."
Is "it be" a case of third-person singular invariant be that might be due influence from New
England dialect? I don't think so, because this sentence can readily be explained as a case of the
subjunctive mood. What is interesting, though, is that the subjunctive mood persists in the
second clause after being introduced in the first, when modern speakers might prefer the second
clause to be in the indicative mood. Indeed, this sentence was awkward enough that Joseph
Smith changed in the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon to what we have today:
And now, if there are faults, they are the mistakes of men;…
Not only has the double subjunctive been dropped, the subjunctive mood has been completely
removed (the related sentence in Moroni 8:17 has not been "fixed"). Further, the singular "fault"
that seems odd to modern ears must have bothered Joseph's ear as well and has been replaced
with the more standard "faults," a change we'll return to in a moment.
For the moment, I'll use the term "persistent subjunctive" mood or "double subjunctive" to
describe a sentence that maintains the subjunctive mood introduced in an early clause. (I'm sure
there is a better grammatical term--let me know, please!) This feature, interestingly, is attested in
Early Modern English. I provide several examples in my related article at JeffLindsay.com and
This "persistent subjunctive" sense continues to occur several times in the Book of Mormon,
frequently in cases where today we might prefer to use indicative or a modal verb + be in the
second phrase, or even lose the subjunctive mood entirely.
A Little Fault Finding
The awkward singular fault on the title page, now a comfortable plural, actually appears to be
attested in early English, as one can find by searching EEBO (Early English Books Online) at
1. … for the others if there be fault in them, let them be sent for, and punished.
Title: A breife narration of the possession, dispossession, and, repossession of William Sommers
and of some proceedings against Mr Iohn Dorrell preacher, with aunsweres to such obiections as
are made to prove the pretended counterfeiting of the said Sommers. Together with certaine
depositions taken at Nottingham concerning the said matter. [LINK]
Publication Info: [Amsterdam? : S.n.], Anno M. D. XCVIII 
2. Concerning rites and ceremonies, there may be fault, either in the kinde, or in the number and
multitude of them.
Title: Of the lavves of ecclesiasticall politie eight bookes. By Richard Hooker. [LINK]
Author: Hooker, Richard, 1553 or 4-1600.
Publication Info: Printed at London : By Iohn Windet, dwelling at the signe of the Crosse-keyes
neare Paules wharffe, and are there to be solde, 1604.
The fourth Booke: Concerning their third assertion, that our forme of Church-politie is corrupted
with popish orders, rites and ceremonies, banished out of certaine reformed Churches, whose
example therein we ought to haue followed.
Note that sometimes "fault" appears to mean "found" in early English documents, accounting for
some of the strange cases you may encounter.
The relevant invariant be example on the title page of the Earliest Text sets the stage for what
follows in the text. Namely, every case of the "interesting" or "relevant" instances of invariant be
(based on searching for "be" used with first, second, or third person cases) turns out to be
reasonable subjunctive cases consistent with EModE usage, including the use of the "persistent
subjunctive" discussed above, along with specific phrases not found in the KJV but attested in
EModE. If there is unique New England influence in Book of Mormon usage of invariant be, I've
been unable to find any trace of it.
On my lengthier related pages at JeffLindsay.com and Mormanity, I look at further examples of
invariant be in the Book of Mormon text, including the common phrase "if it so be" (42
occurrences) that Carmack shows is good EModE but does not occur in the KJV. I also explore
the variant, "if it should so be," which is found twice in the Book of Mormon and in EModE, but
not in the Bible.
For now, the case for unique New England influence in the use of "be" in the Book of Mormon is
coming up negative. The negative "ain't" of New England dialect is also a negative for the Book
of Mormon, in a positive way: it ain't there.
The Yankee stage character, who was particularly popular in the first half of the
nineteenth century in both the United States and England (Dorson 1940; Hodge 1964), is
a case in point: in fact, theater audiences expected the speech of New England country
bumpkins to be replete with certain "quaint" traits not (or no longer) found in the speech
of educated Americans and Englishmen, such as to improve 'to employ', plural verbal -s
(they knows ), be for am/are , warn't/wa'n't for wasn't , the possessive pronouns in -n
(hisn , hern ), on for of (any on'em ), and euphemisms (tarnation! , darn! ), not to
mention the many peculiarities concerning accent. (p. 157)
Further tests are needed, but so far, many notable characteristics of New England dialect don't
seem to show up in the Book of Mormon, other than those shared with KJV language or EmodE,
while many aspects of EModE are found in the Book of Mormon in ways that can't be explained
by imitating the KJV. Why it's that way and what it means is a topic for further debate, but let's
conduct this debate in light of as much data and analysis as possible. I hope this minor effort
contributes to that discussion.
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.