The Case of Plural Was in the Earliest Text

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Abstract: Because it is primarily an Early Modern English text (in terms of its English language), the earliest text of the Book of Mormon understandably employs plural was — for example, “the words which was delivered” (Alma 5:11). It does so in a way that is substantially similar to what is found in many writings of the Early Modern period ­— that is, it manifests the syntactic usage, variation, and differential rates typical of that era.

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About Stanford Carmack

Stanford Carmack has a linguistics and a law degree from Stanford University, as well as a doctorate in Hispanic Languages and Literature from the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in historical syntax. In the past he has had articles published on Georgian verb morphology and object–participle agreement in Old Spanish and Old Catalan. He currently researches Book of Mormon syntax as it relates to Early Modern English and contributes, by means of textual analysis, to volume 3 of Royal Skousen’s Book of Mormon critical text project.

6 thoughts on “The Case of Plural Was in the Earliest Text

  1. According to my Google books searches, the religious phrases “plan of salvation,” “plan of mercy,” “plan of redemption,” and “plan of happiness” do not appear in print until the mid 18th century, and become very popular religious phrases in the early 19th century.

    If the Book of Mormon is an early modern English text as you claim, why is it that religious phraseology exists in the text that was unknown until the mid-18th century? Which is more likely, that the Book of Mormon translation utilized culturally continuing and religiously popular language of Joseph Smith’s time, or that some early prescient 16th or 17th-century translator incorporated religious language and concepts into his/her text a century before they were in use?

    • More complex syntax can date language more effectively and reliably than limited syntax involving short nominal phrases with a simple prepositional phrase. The lexical components of the simple syntax were available with their meanings and closely analogous usage in the eModE era, though the phrases mentioned are attested in the modern era. Many items of more complex or extensively used syntax say that the structure of the BofM, harmonizing with narrow KJV eModE, is wide-ranging eModE.

      Nevertheless, there are and can be under the broad eModE view lexical and phrasal outliers. Some vocabulary dates from the early 18c such as “derangement”. Part 3 of volume 3 will discuss this matter. A divine translation effectively structured in pre-1700s English doesn’t rule out phrasal usage that might have entered the language in the 18c.

      I would say that translation mechanisms are unknowable by scholarly means and that it will always be speculation to fix a time of the translation in the absence of revelation. Also, one can find the syntax of hundreds of early authors in the BofM so no one should be comfortable saying that certain people must have been involved. I am comfortable saying the Lord carried out the English-language translation and caused the words to come to Joseph Smith (“the words which [the Lord] commanded [him]”). We can conclude, however, that the BofM is a highly literate text written largely in eModE syntax, with some fairly transparent late Middle English elements and some modern English elements.

      The word “plan” entered English in the middle of the 1600s. One can find “plan of peace/war” by the 1690s. “Plan of ” was available by about that time. The earliest we find the phrase “plan of salvation” in Google Books may be 1738. Google Books has valuable things to offer earlier, but serious OCR problems. Go to EEBO for the 1600s.

      A quick search currently gives 1727 for “plan of happiness”, 1737 for “plan of redemption”, and 1778 for “plan of mercy”.

      • As a postscript, the phrase “plan of our redemption” is found in a sermon given in London in November 1696. That means that all these simple if striking phrases were certainly possible by that time.

        Also, it should be made clear that Loyd Ericson has misstated the position. The extensive evidence of eModE usage in the BofM does NOT entail “that some early prescient 16th or 17th-century translator incorporated religious language and concepts into his/her text a century before they were in use”. What it does entail is word-for-word transmission of the text to Joseph Smith, agreeing with statements of several dictation eyewitnesses, but disagreeing with the weakly supported view of various critics and commentators.

    • Loyd

      You raise an interesting question, one that deserves further research. Prompted by your question, and since I happened to be reading the book of Mosiah, I took the first three verses from chapter one and looked up 18 phrases. Here is what I found. Unfortunately the paste function does not format the data properly.

      Verse Phrase First Usage
      1 no more contention 1792
      1 among all the people 1685
      1 people who belonged to 1623
      1 continual peace 1656
      1 the remainder of his days 1635
      2 called their names 1775
      2 caused that they should be 1840
      2 language of his fathers 1802
      2 men of understanding 1676
      2 mouths of their fathers 1789
      2 was delivered them by none
      3 which were engraven 1685
      3 would that ye should 1757
      3 were it not for 1574
      3 contain these records 1816
      3 suffered in ignorance 1840
      3 at this present time 1581
      3 the mysteries of God 1607

      While about half of the phrases support Carmack’s EModE origins, other phrases – like “called their names” – appear to have their origins in the Modern English time frame. Two of the phrases – “caused that they should be” and “suffered in ignorance” – do not appear in Google Books prior to the 1840 Book of Mormon, showing that this language was possibly unique to that book. “Was delivered them by” – as in the Earliest Text – does not show up in any book, while “were delivered them by” – the current rendering – first appeared in 1658.

      Overall, the results are a mixed bag – some EModE, some Modern English, and some unique Book of Mormon phrases. I would enjoy seeing someone pick this up and do an extended analysis.

      • A need to develop further linguistic understanding is indicated by your remarks.

        Make sure you focus on syntactic structures that can have some diagnostic significance rather than simple, often uninteresting things like short nominal or verbal phrases. The phrase “called their names” (which Tyndale used in 1530, by the way) is a weak diagnostic of time and not terribly interesting. Verbal “cause that they should” is found in the 1600s, and causative constructions with finite complementation are biblical (barely). The OED gives a 14c example of cause with an object sentence.

        Make sure you use the Yale edition not the current LDS text for this study. Ex.: The phrase “people who belonged to” is not in the earliest text.

        Make sure you search hundreds of millions of eModE words. Use EEBO. Google books is very limited in its reach with huge numbers of OCR errors. Example: “no more contention” is found no later than 1558, and the phrase doesn’t say much since there are about one thousand examples in EEBO of the form “no more (where the noun ends in *tion(s))” (with spelling variants).

        Make sure you search for spelling variants.

        Make sure you control for biblical usage.

        Make sure you consider word variants: verb forms, singular and plural usage, etc.

        Here’s an interesting bit of systematic usage that might be considered in this regard, not what is given in the comment above: “people that/which/who” usage, where the relative is restrictive in function. Majority usage in the eModE period was “people that” — the KJB is 82% “people that”. Majority usage in the modern period is “people who”. The BofM (93.5% “people which”) is different from the majority usage of either period, but is a fairly good match with two or three long books published in 1599, 1615, and perhaps 1652, which also prefer “people which”. The BofM is negatively correlated with the KJB (-36%), and strongly negatively correlated with the modern period. The 122 instances of restrictive “people that/which/who” in the BofM are not what JS would have dictated from his own language patterns or from biblical patterns. The BofM is a minority eModE text in this regard. It is certainly not a modern English text in this and in many different ways. This particular study can only be performed reliably using the Yale edition as a resource. (JS changed most instances of “people which” to “people who” for the 1837 edition, matching modern English usage more closely.)

      • For those who might be misled into thinking there is something to the phrases Spendlove has listed, I offer the following, showing that such phrases do not tell us one way or the other whether this language is earlier or later English:

        continual peace (1525, EEBO A11367) “a bonde of continuall peace bytwene hym and them”.

        the remainder of his days (1587, EEBO A05312) “and quietly betooke himselfe to end the remainder of his daies in the delectable practise thereof”.

        language of his fathers (1584, EEBO A10345) “was then by the usuall language of the Fathers”.

        men of understanding (1535, EEBO A10349) “which were men of understondynge”.

        mouths of their fathers (1547, EEBO A22106) “maye come oute of the mouthe of these spirytuall fathers”.

        was delivered them by (1570, EEBO A68068) “Wherupon was delivered him by the sayd la Riviere certaine white pouder”.

        which were engraven (1595, EEBO A01161) “about which were engraven those words”.

        would that ye should (1484, EEBO A05159) “I Wolde that ye sholde wel reteyne an ensample of a good lady”.

        were it not for (1529, EEBO A07698) “wherin were it not for your other busynes”.

        contain these records (1600, EEBO A06128) “A table besides, which containe the records and monuments”.

        suffered in ignorance (1692, EEBO A36910) “Some Roman Catholicks worthy of a better Religion, suffered thro’ the ignorance of this Mystery.” This isn’t an exact match and can be considered to be the one phrase in this list not found in the eMod period. Nevertheless, a divine translation could have produced this phrase from analogous eModE usage that was fairly close such as “suffered in compliance/defence/obedience” and “be/live/remain in a state of ignorance”.

        at this present time (1509, EEBO A16638) “For at this presente tyme there be many grete prynces”.

        the mysteries of God (1540, EEBO A10405) “As for the mysteries of God, they understande them not”.

        These simple phrases offer little in terms of dating language. Other simple phrases like “more part” and different syntactic evidence are required for that.

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