I Was a Wonderin About Them Archaic English Forms

I Was a Wonderin About Them Archaic English Forms

There has been an odd idea percolating through the LDS apologetic circles for the past decade or so that has in the past few months finally begun to quietly boil. It's that the Book of Mormon isn't an 18th Century production, but rather a 16th Century one! Let's look a little further into this idea and then let's explain some of the problems it presents.

A Dictation, a Dictation!

The English text for the Book of Mormon comes from a dictation. Joseph Smith dictated the text aloud and had scribes, mainly Oliver Cowdery, write down what he said during brief pauses. Even if you feel that there weren't any gold plates with writing from the 4th Century on it, I think everyone agrees that the text went through an oral process from Joseph to a scribe.

The resulting manuscript for the Book of Mormon thus did not contain much punctuation, instead being a flowing text that more often than not represented the spoken words Joseph said out loud. While much has been made of the few times when a proper name was misspelled and corrected (with the story that Joseph was able to detect the error while dictating and waited until the fix was applied before continuing) the text is full of words written hastily and sometimes misspelled, usually to reflect the audible sound of the words as spoken by Joseph. An example from 1 Nephi 2 and 3:

this they said that he had done because of the foolish immagionations of his heart

and a bit later

the Lord hath commanded me that thou & thy Brethers should go unto the house of Laban & seek the reckords

Other aspects of Joseph's spoken voice that end up in the original manuscript (such of it as we still have as much of it has been damaged beyond repair or simply lost to time) include missing G's and R's at the end of some words, hastily scribbled back in, and 'a' added before some verbs (such as "while they were a runnin").

Personally, I have loved this aspect of the text since I first discovered it in the UVU library around 2007 or so. I was reading through a facsimile transcription of the original manuscript prepared by Dr. Royal Skousen that the library happened to have. The country drawl of Smith leapt out at me from the pages. For instance, take that misspelling I listed a few paragraphs ago, "brethers". At first glance it looks like it might be a mistake because the scribe expected to write "brethren" but the same mistake occurs just a few sentences later in the text. It is instead representing the sound that Joseph is making as he talks. Joseph has an accent that drawls and twangs and it emerges from this manuscript. It is humanizing and really connects you two centuries in the past to the very air in the room when the Book of Mormon project was ongoing.

Rescuing the Text from the Drawl

Okay, in 2005 Royal Skousen, who had spent years studying and transcribing this manuscript, released his findings and conclusions. Skousen had come to the conclusion through his studies that the text for the Book of Mormon was deliberate and that Joseph Smith himself was given the text word for word. But this led to an interesting problem: how do we account for the aspects of the language that reflect the language patterns and accent of Joseph Smith? And Skousen found what has become such a surprising solution that it has not died down but has gained a new life of it's own:

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

In one swoop, Skousen opened up such a mystery that it has energized countless LDS apologists who felt that every word of the English text was divinely inspired.

What does this mean? Skousen recognized that many of the spelling mistakes and grammar issues were to be found in Early Modern English in Britain. "They was yet wroth"? That's a construction that can be found around the late 1400s and early 1500s in England. "Therefore there were no chance for the robbers to plunder"? You can find usages of "there was no" in England in the 1500s. "Nephi’s brethren rebelleth"? Shouldn't that say, "Nephi's brethren rebel"? You can find similar usages of verbs with singular endings and plural subjects in 16th Century English.

Case closed, then. The language of the Book of Mormon does not represent bad grammar, but rather represents a version of English that is itself even older than the King James Bible! Apologists Church-wide had rejoiced to have this unexpected and unexplained marvel, one that to them shows just how unlikely it would have been for Joseph or others in the 1800s to have written the book.

Case Closed?

The first issue that arises for you should be, why? Why would the language of the Book of Mormon be more archaic than the King James Bible? Why does the English of the volume represent English from the period of transition from Middle English to Modern English? What does this actually mean and what are the implications for it?

These are questions that have not yet received much attention. Perhaps God just really likes that particular flavor of English. One theory that I have seen in a few places on various message boards is the idea that perhaps we have in the Book of Mormon the voice of a particular early Englishman. Perhaps God tasked the translation of the Book of Mormon once before in the early 1500s and rather than let this effort be lost we have it today in the form of Joseph's divine dictation. Perhaps the words that Joseph spoke out loud were produced by this mysterious early Englishman years before who vanished from history. Figures such as John Dee have even been proposed for such a figure.

These question, however, don't matter to many apologists. It is an odd quirk to them, nothing more. The archaic nature of the English is important more because they feel it is simply that much more unlikely for Joseph to imitate. I mean, it's not like Joseph could have faked this language, right?

Except that he didn't have to fake it if it was the English he spoke.

Joseph the 16th Century English Speaker

"Wait a minute!" I hear you saying, "what was that? Are you saying that Joseph Smith, living in the 1800s, spoke 1500s English?"

Actually, that is what I'm saying and it's not nearly as far-fetched as you may think.

Let's list how much of the world spoke English in 1820, okay? England, obviously. America. Canada (well, except French Canada, right?). Scotland. Parts of Ireland. Parts of Wales. The Isle of Man. And many British colonies in the Caribbean. Australia was beginning to be colonized in the 1800s, and South Africa was also experiencing some attention, but on the whole that's about it. Small world, right?

Wrong. Just within England itself we have people living in areas with their own accents all over the place. English speakers in the north of England and southern Scotland were not using the same words and the same grammar as people on the southern coasts. Someone from the Isle of Man might be nearly unintelligible to someone living in Pennsylvania even though both of them would be speaking English. English as a language has always been a wide tapestry of culture and people and changes that begin in one area can take centuries to fully arrive in others.

Coming to America

And in the midst of this wide tapestry we also have migration. The Puritans left England (via Holland) for American in the early 1600s and they weren't just "British" as we usually think of them. They were, on the whole, from Southern England and brought that southern accent developed in the 1500s with them to Massachusetts and began to develop independently of changes in England.

In all of these migrations we see the English language often uprooted and transplanted into America many times. Just like in the expansion into the American West, when people moved they tended to move with family and friends. Whole communities uprooted themselves from England to plant themselves into the American colonies. And while the British accent, for reasons still not entirely understood, quickly transmogrified into the now-recognizable "British" accent of Doctor Who fame, this occurred around the time of the American Revolution. Before the Revolution an English speaker in London may have sounded more "American" than you might have expected before reading this article.

But the end of the story is that while urban areas in both America and England continued to develop their accent and language, in more remote rural areas older forms of English were preserved. Including accents and grammar. Many of the forms of English that we today view as "hick" or "uneducated" are not the effect of people being "lazy" with their language, but rather are presenting archaic forms and accents of English. Take the word "ain't", long hated by English teachers. You may think it is a modern word, but it isn't. It comes from England and can be attested all the way back to the days of early Modern English.[1]

Boyd Crowder and Shakespeare

The same was true for rural New England and the Appalachian country to the south of where Joseph lived. The Appalachians had been settled throughout the 1700s by settlers largely from the Northern England lowlands and Northern Ireland. North England in particular has always through the story of the English language seemed to resist change and hold onto their own particular ways of speaking long after southern England advanced, both in the days of Old English though the Norman conquest that brought Middle French and Middle English to the island. Certain aspects of English that they retained when they immigrated in the 1700s go back to Middle and even Old English. Some of these include retention of preposition in the progressive aspect ("I'm a talking to you"), propensity to use compound nouns ("kinfolk", "ice cream", "cesspool"), the use of very old styles of pronouns ("hit" for "it", "hisn and hern"), the use of "them" as an adjective in place of "their" ("them boys"), and the dropping of the "ng" to just "n". There's a surprising number of words they brought with them from 17th Century England, including words like "moonshine" and "redneck". If you're a fan of "Justified" you're also a fan of a style of English similar in character and style to English around the the time of Shakespeare.

Take that "brethers" from earlier. This pronunciation is quite old, and represents how the word was spoken just after the "Great Vowel Shift". There's a reason that the more-familiar archaic form is written "brethren" and not "brothren". In fact, in some areas of England the word would have been pronounced as "britheren".[2]

So as we can see, the various English accents surrounding Joseph Smith at the time are themselves composed of much older forms of English. In fact, a lot of them use verbal grammar and words that saw their heyday fade in London English centuries before, but they had been preserved both by being brought to the American colonies and then even further by virtue of their rural nature.

Is Archaic English Actually Remarkable?

So, getting back to the apologetics I'm sure you can see the second problem with the explanation that the grammar of the Book of Mormon is too old to be explained. The problem is that it fits into the grammar we would expect Joseph Smith himself to have. His spoken English would have slipped, when speaking between friends and family and when not paid attention to, into the "lower-class" forms he grew up with. Forms that were "lower-class" not because they were lazy forms of English but because they were archaic forms of English the the more "educated" had moved away from generations before and forgotten that their own ancestors had used.

Your Choices

The problem comes down to whether or not you think that God Himself has decided upon every word choice in the English text of the Book of Mormon. If you believe that He has, then you "must needs" believe that the grammar has been selected as a form of archaic English from the early 1500s, and you must believe this without any explanation as for why this would be. Is there some mystery translator from old England who did a now-forgotten translation? Was the Book of Mormon first translated by the gift and power of God through someone like John Dee? Just having a mystery does not in and of itself explain anything or really defend the text in any way. It's just a weird thing.

However, if you believe that when Joseph Smith was dictating the text of the project he did so in his own voice, then there isn't any great mystery that needs to be unfolded. He spoke in his 19th Century New England Appalachian mash-up accent, complete with grammatical forms that we today would see as improper and uncouth. He used what he felt was "King James" style English, complete with the occasional mistake in doing so, such as confusing the difference between "ye", "you", and the paradigms of "thee". He used words he was familiar with that weren't commonly used in the 16th Century, like "extinct" and "adieu". There's nothing surprising about it and we shouldn't expect not to find Joseph Smith within the pages of the book he spent so much effort to dictate.

The Coelacanth (added 6 March 2015)

I'm adding this note here as I think I gave something of an incorrect impression above. Perhaps I shouldn't have said that Joseph Smith was a speaker of 16th Century English. That gives the wrong impression that the "thees" and "thous" of the Book of Mormon were part of his native speech which is understandably silly. However, much as the coelacanth has been preserved in the waters of Madagascar so too have older fragments of archaic speech been preserved in much of rural American English. It doesn't mean that the entire language they speak is somehow out of time anymore than the entire fauna of the oceans of Madagascar is composed of ancient species, but rather that the ancient is mixed into the modern untouched and preserved. And a lot of it is still there.

More Info

If you want to learn more about the history of English in post-colonial America, here are some good sources you may enjoy:

1. O'Conner, Patricia T. and Stewart Kellerman. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language. Random House. 2010. p.48.

2. Okay, this footnote is being written a little bit after the post itself. I was asked to explain about this and the Great Vowel Shift and what Smith's pronunciation of "brothers" as "brethers" has to do with anything. The Great Vowel Shift was a pronunciation change that occurred throughout the English speaking world primarily in the 14th and 15th Centuries, but continuing as a process up to the 18th Century. Basically, while the consonants of English words continued to change at a normal, slow pace the vowels English speakers used all seems to shift. Remnants of this shift still exist in how we pull the vowels in related words where one of the words has a long vowel and the other a shorter one. The vowel shift mostly affected long vowels leaving the shorter vowels alone. Take "nation" and "national": the "a" in the first syllable is different; the original "a" seems to have been the softer "a" from "national". Another example is "dream" and "dreamt" where they originally were similarly pronounced like the softer vowel in "dreamt". A lot of the strangeness of English spelling makes more sense when you realize that the spelling of the word made sense at some point in the past.

Now you may have noticed that the sound in "brethers" seems similar to that of "dreamt". So why didn't "brethers" become "breathers"? Technically, it should have and kinda did, but the original would have been pronounced "brouthers". The answer is a bt more technical than just a vowel shift. In Old English nouns were declined based on their grammatical function. A noun would be pronounced differently as the subject of a sentence than it would as the direct object or as the indirect object. Often these declensions of the nouns would produce vowel changes. Modern English only really declines our pronouns: "he, him, his". These pronouns change depending on where they fall in the sentence: "He threw his ball to him". The dative form of the plural "brothers" in Old English was often "brethre" where the first vowel was softened from an "o" to an "e". For some reason, this plural form survived in Northern England even after English stopped declining nouns, even becoming de-pluralized as "brether". The Reverend Richard Morris of London documents it being used as late as the mid-1500s (Elementary Lessons in Historical English Grammar, pg. 74).

So to be technical, the pronunciation of "brethers" is not a result of the Great Vowel Shift, but even after the Shift had largely occurred it was still being used in the Northern English dialects. These are the same dialects that were brought over by settlers in the 1700s to rural Appalachia, so it's not surprising to see it being spoken out loud by Joseph Smith during the translation project.

Tom Doggett

Tom Doggett

I'm a programmer, Ancient Greek reader, feminist, spouse and partner, and a dad.

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