Friday, September 12, 2014

Early Modern English

Scholars of English demarcate eras in the evolution of the language. The date ranges below reflect the fact that not all scholars agree on the precise beginning and ending points.
  • A.D. 450 was the beginning of Old English which continued until A.D. 1100 - 1170.
  • A.D. 1100 - 1170 was the beginning of Middle English which continued until A.D. 1300.
  • A.D. 1300 was the beginning of Late Middle English which continued until A.D. 1470 - 1500.
  • A.D. 1470 - 1500 was the beginning of Early Modern English which continued until A.D. 1670 - 1700. (Some even put the end of Early Modern English as late as A.D. 1800 e.g. The History of English.)
  • A.D. 1670 - 1700 was the beginning of Modern English aka Late Modern English which has become Earth's lingua franca.
Some milestones along the way:
  • Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales were written in Late Middle English about 1380.
  • The first book in English printed on a printing press appeared in Late Middle English in 1475 in Bruges (now Belgium). The first printing press on English soil began operation in 1476.
  • Between 1590 and 1613 William Shakespeare wrote the 37 plays in his canon in Early Modern English.
  • In 1611 the first edition of the King James Version of the Bible was published in Early Modern English. Predecessors included the Tyndale New Testament in 1526 and the Coverdale Bible in 1535.
  • In 1755 Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language helped standardize the Modern English we use today.
  • The first edition of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928 in ten bound volumes. The most cited work in the OED: various editions of the Bible. The most cited author: William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's most cited play: Hamlet
In 1994 Royal Skousen, Professor of Linguistics and English Language at BYU, published an article entitled "The Original Language of the Book of Mormon: Upstate New York Dialect, King James English, or Hebrew?" in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 3.1. He was beginning to ask the right questions about the translation's target language. In August, 1998, Renee Bangerter entertained the hypothesis that the language of translation was Early Modern English in her BYU master's thesis entitled "Since Joseph Smith's Time: Lexical Semantic Shifts in the Book of Mormon." On September 25, 2003 Christian Gellinek suggested to Royal Skousen that "pleading bar" may be a good reading for the problematic "pleasing bar" in Jacob 6:13. It took him some time to get used to the idea, but gradually based on his meticulous research with the earliest manuscripts, Skousen came to the startling conclusion that the original language of the first edition of the Book of Mormon was Early Modern English. Skousen's revolutionary discovery first appeared in print in 2005 in his discussion of "pleading bar" in Jacob 6:13. He re-iterated it in 2006 when he discussed "sermon" in Mosiah 19:24. When the Yale edition appeared in 2009, the Early Modern English nature of the text was featured prominently in Skousen's editor's preface. I am indebted to a personal communication from Royal Skousen for many of the details in this paragraph.  

Four years after his 1994 paper, Skousen published another important article entitled "How Joseph Smith Translated the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript" in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7.1 (1998). Skousen argued the Prophet Joseph was not at liberty to articulate ideas in his own vernacular, but rather the translation process was under divine "tight control." This was Royal Skousen's second revolutionary discovery with profound implications for textual exegesis.

Between 2004 and 2009 Skousen published his important 6 volume Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon. They were followed by the seminal The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), the version of the text we now commonly refer to as the "Yale edition." The Yale edition attempts to reconstruct the text as it fell from the lips of the Prophet at the moment of translation. As such, it has quickly become the de facto standard for scholarly analysis of the Book of Mormon.

Through close reading of the Yale Edition, the Oxford English Dictionary, and many of the 125,000 titles in Early English Books Online EEBO, linguist Stanford Carmack has now found significant new evidence supporting Skousen's ground-breaking theses:
  • The language spoken by the Prophet to his scribes during translation was in large degree Early Modern English.
  • The translation process was carefully controlled by a higher power.
Carmack, son of Emeritus General Authority John K. Carmack, received his bachelor's degree in linguistics from Stanford. He then got his J.D. from Stanford and a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literature from UC Santa Barbara. He has worked professionally as a technical writer and editor.

His article is entitled "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar" in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture Vol. 11 (2014). Skousen came to his conclusions largely through a painstaking analysis of Book of Mormon vocabulary. Carmack's second witness comes from his study of grammar and syntax.

In January, 2015 Carmack published another article entitled "What Command Syntax Tells Us About Book of Mormon Authorship" in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture Vol. 12 (2015). It significantly reinforces his thesis. Carmack has still other blockbuster publications in process (personal communication from Stan Carmack) that should convince even the skeptics.

Why did the Lord render the text of the Book of Mormon in a vocabulary and syntax that predated the translation by approximately 120 - 350 years? One likely reason was so the text sounded Biblical with an affinity to the King James Version. Another likely reason was to grace the already awe-inspiring Nephite masterpiece with yet another miracle. The Book of Mormon got a great deal of Old World culture right (a convenient survey of the data is in Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch, editors, Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, (Provo, UT: BYU and FARMS, 2002). It got hundreds of Mesoamerican cultural nuances right (the best current summary is in John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013). And, as we are showing in this series of blog articles, it got hundreds of points of Mesoamerican geography right. That's a lot to ask of a prophet who was only 24 years, 3 months old when the book went on sale for the first time in Palmyra, NY on Friday, March 26, 1830. Now add the fact that the text was in a language not spoken by Joseph Smith, Jr. or any of his father's or grandfather's generation. One is left spell-bound with respect for the prodigy of it all. This is another powerful witness that the Nephite corpus did in fact come forth "by the gift and power of God" As Moronisays on the Title Page.

More information is in the blog article "English in the Book of Mormon."
Article last updated April 10, 2020