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MormanityIt Ain't That Simple: Exploring the Complex Language of the Original Book of Mormon Text
by Jeff Lindsay
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?
In exploring this issue, I have found a study on the use of the verb "be" in New England dialect showing characteristic non-standard forms that evolved after the EModE among immigrants in the United States. The article is "Invariant Be In New England Folk Speech: Colonial And Postcolonial Evidence" by Adrian Pablé and Radosaw Dylewski, American Speech, Vol. 82, No. 2 (2007)151-184 (a full text PDF is available).
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 language.
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 is available).
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 been't afraid!"
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 be.
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. For example,
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 Mormanity.
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 http://quod.lib.umich.edu.
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.
Finally, speaking of ain't, Adrian Pablé and Radosaw Dylewski in their "Invariant Be In New England Folk Speech: Colonial And Postcolonial Evidence," the study that kicked off this little investigation, remind us of some other "quaint" aspects of New England dialect that don't appear to have influenced the dictated Book of Mormon:
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.
http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebogroup/ - searchable database of early English texts
http://thehistoryofenglish.com/history_early_modern.html - a useful history of Early Modern English
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