The Implications of Past-Tense Syntax in the Book of Mormon

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Abstract: In the middle of the 16th century there was a short-lived surge in the use of the auxiliary did to express the affirmative past tense in English, as in Moroni «did arrive» with his army to the land of Bountiful (Alma 52:18). The 1829 Book of Mormon contains nearly 2,000 instances of this particular syntax, using it 27% of the time in past-tense contexts. The 1611 King James Bible — which borrowed heavily from Tyndale’s biblical translations of the 1520s and ’30s — employs this syntax less than 2% of the time. While the Book of Mormon’s rate is significantly higher than the Bible’s, it is close to what is found in other English-language texts written mainly in the mid- to late 1500s. And the usage died out in the 1700s. So the Book of Mormon is unique for its time — this is especially apparent when features of adjacency, inversion, and intervening adverbial use are considered. Textual evidence and syntactic analysis argue strongly against both 19th-century composition and an imitative effort based on King James English. Book of Mormon past-tense syntax could have been achieved only by following the use of largely inaccessible 16th-century writings. But mimicry of lost syntax is difficult if not impossible, and so later writers who consciously sought to imitate biblical style failed to match its did-usage at a deep, systematic level. This includes Ethan Smith who in 1823 wrote View of the Hebrews, a text very different from both the Bible and the Book of Mormon in this respect. The same may be said about Hunt’s The Late War and Snowden’s The American Revolution.

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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.

43 thoughts on “The Implications of Past-Tense Syntax in the Book of Mormon

  1. My first thought on starting to read the article was, “Well, I’m very familiar with this construct.” The immediate second thought was, “Yeah, but I’ve also read the Book of Mormon 50+ times.”

    A fascinating, convincing, and exhaustively methodical article. Thanks.

  2. Another outstanding contribution, thank you! The fingerprint of EModE in the original text is truly remarkable, and yet there are times when the translation may have been loose. See Brant Gardner’s 2011 book, The Gift and the Power. Gardner’s work on this topic has some weaknesses, as David Bokovoy has pointed out (see discussion at http://www.mormondialogue.org/topic/55301-brant-gardners-new-book/), but one example I find especially interesting is the reference to the “five Books of Moses” in the BOM text, which most likely were not a set of five books in Nephi’s day. I think the original text may have made a reference to the Torah or the books of Moses, and Joseph modified it in the translation process to refer to the five books of Moses as we know them. That’s a moment of loose translation.

    I think the debate over tight and loose translation is a bit like the tension between the wave and particle properties of matter. Perhaps the translation process involves both to varying degrees, with the delivery of information to Joseph being provided with initial tight control that he then sometimes adjusted in his role as translator, resulting at times in loose control.

    I’d love to have a day-long panel discussion with you, Brant Gardner, Royal Skousen, David Bokovoy, and maybe someone like Daniel Peterson, John Tvedtnes, and Bill Hamblin, etc., to discuss the ins and outs of tight vs. loose control and the implications of EModE.

    • I suppose that a merging of theories is possible, but I think it is somewhat unlikely. For me it is a lot easier to find alternative explanations for what seems to be 19th century influence than it is to explain away the EModE imprint.

      Remember, we also have to consider the proliferation of Hebraisms that in a similar way would defy Joseph’s linguistic pattern. The textual control over words and phrases is astounding, and it is hard for me to imagine that Joseph was occasionally amending the text during the prime translation effort. The subsequent edits (i.e. white = pure/ God = Son of God) make sense as a later effort to adapt an ancient text to the needs of a modern audience, but why would he defy/adapt the words in the very moment that they appeared via the seer stone(s)?

      Of course, one could argue that through some sort of mentalese Joseph was sporadically “controlling” what words appeared, but to me that seems a very odd mix. It seems far more likely that there are alternative explanations for why certain portions of the text seem to have 19th century influence.

  3. oh, come on! Surely you are aware of the massive library of books which were the sources of every bit of fiction that Joseph Smith wrote!
    It’s not as if the only books available to him were The Bible, View of the Hebrews, The Late War and The American Revolution.
    Undoubtedly there was some text with a similar use of 1500’s specific affirmative past tense syntax available that Joseph could have read; it just remains for someone to do a sufficiently diligent search to find it!
    Then it can be bundled with all the other books Joseph surely must have read and one can continue to avoid the uncomfortable possibility that Joseph Smith was actually a prophet.

    • Actually, it’s quite clear that what we are now dealing with is not the sneaky plagiarism that was originally assumed, but rather a dastardly theft of a heretofore unpublished manuscript originally written by Henry Machyn himself. Sidney Rigdon somehow pilfered the manuscript on a previously unknown trip to England then handed the whole thing over to Joseph. It’s airtight. Just gotta find (i.e. make up) all that evidence that will inevitably validate this hypothesis.

  4. Your research is fascinating. I was especially surprised by how distinct, at least in this particular syntax form, the Joseph Smith History was from Joseph’s translated and revelatory works. I realize that data comes from comparing books of the Pearl of Great Price and Book of Mormon and Bible; have you done anything similar with sections of the Doctrine and Covenants?

    • A very interesting article, but I think saying game, set, match maybe is not appropriate. I think everyone is trying to decipher the significance of this. I’m sure there will be future research on this, and who knows what that will hold. So…

      • I suppose we will have to agree to disagree. Dr. Carmack’s work, and this is just the latest ( as well as the work of many others), make it clearer and clearer that the Book of Mormon could not have come from the mind of Joseph Smith. It makes the proponents who want to pigeon hole the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction look silly. Sure there will be more research, and I welcome it, and sure we will probably never come to ironclad certainty, because then where would faith fit in?, but the words in the Book do not lie and the statistical chances of them appearing happenstance in this way are, to quote the article, “vanishingly small.” You can take away a different import from all of this than I and there’ll be no hard feelings. But for me I am more astounded than ever at the utter power of this Book and humbled by the Prophet, the unlearned as to the ways of the world Prophet, and what has come forth.

    • While it may have been inaccurate to lump View of the Hebrews in with The Late War, it is true that E. Smith consciously imitated biblical style. He just did it to a small degree. Gilbert Hunt did it to a large degree.

      Here are some examples of how VH shows conscious archaizing, under biblical influence, in its lexis, morphology, and syntax. E. Smith used “slew” 10 times instead of “killed” when the latter was certainly the prevailing form in the 1820s (there are nearly 200 instances of “slew” in the KJB; VH has “slain” 16 times and “killed” three times instead of “slain”; the KJB has “slain” almost 200 times, and “killed” 67 times). E. Smith used “rebuilded” instead of “rebuilt”. The former was much less common than the latter, in the 17c! But E. Smith used it because “builded” is found 50 times in the KJB. And the first awkward did construction — “Long did the church, while they walked with God, there see and enjoy peace” — can be argued to be structured that way under biblical influence (similar to Acts 2:31). So VH shows biblical influence to a small degree, LW to a large degree.

  5. Thank you for your work! I was starting to believe those nay-saying anthropologists, archeologists, linguists, and so-called DNA experts that claim there is no proof for the Book of Mormon. They seemed to be making a good case until your work with past-tense syntax proved them all wrong.

  6. Posts like this always bring out comments that, and I hope I’m not the only one here, make me uncomfortable. I’ll try to say this the kindest way possible and I don’t intend to offend anyone.

    All we know is that the evidence is adding up that The Book of Mormon was a ~ revealed ~ text. That is, Joseph didn’t “translate” it in the way you would translate something from Japanese to English. He simply (and I use the word simply with admiration) read it off to his scribe. It was transmitted to him word for word. He could spell out names in English if necessary.

    God revealed it to Joseph Smith through the Nephite interpreters or the seer stone. God gave Joseph Smith the words to read. Did the 3 Nephites or Moroni learn English? No. They didn’t need to. God is perfectly capable of giving the text written by the Nephites to Joseph Smith in any language. Obviously he chose a language that Joseph could read, but its a language that could also be proven wasn’t spoken in Joseph’s day, a language that Joseph wasn’t fluent in, that his contemporaries didn’t speak, that no one had spoken or written in for hundreds of years.

    My opinion is, there was no “pre-translation” necessary. God could put whatever words he wanted to on the seer stone. William Tynsdale, Moroni, the three Nephites, and others of English or Nephite times didn’t need to participate, didn’t need to learn English, didn’t need to have meetings, etc. Saying so is wildly speculative, and a little ridiculous. The Book of Mormon was untouched from the time Moroni buried it until the time Joseph dug it up.

    • I’m sometimes surprised when others get uncomfortable about such speculations. Is there something wrong with asking or entertaining such proposals? Doesn’t God want us to ask questions and study things out in our mind? And doesn’t he want us to be open to potential possibilities, especially when there is no official doctrine one way or the other. One could argue that such questions aren’t to be openly considered in a public forum, but don’t know of any prohibition of such discussions–especially when the underlying intent is to build faith and deepen our understanding of sacred texts.

      Would these ideas be…

      Appropriate to teach as doctrine in church or in private? Certainly not.

      Appropriate to bring up as a question or topic of discussion in church? Probably off topic and too speculative for that setting.

      Appropriate to discuss as a possibility in public or private, but not in church? Sure, why not?

      Of course God could do everything himself. But he often asks his servants on both sides of the veil to do things for him–for their growth and continuing progression and for other reasons. God may have had power to save his children without vicarious temple work, but he instituted a plan that involved helping those on the other side of the veil. And we know that angels are often called to help mortals. They even seem to have specific duties and responsibilities, often associated with their keys/responsibilities in mortality.

      Is it really spectacularly wild to suppose that post-mortal spirits or resurrected beings were involved in preparing the Book of Mormon text in English? Is that not just as wild and speculative as supposing that God did it all himself? Any proposition that one can make on the matter, no matter how seemingly sound or reasonable it seems to one’s self, is still speculation. And depending on how it is framed could seem wild and speculative.

      One could posit that it is silly for God to do something all by himself when he could allow others to participate and grow from the experience. And perhaps whoever he chose could be seen as symbolically meaningful and therefore the event becomes instructive for teaching a principle.

      I personally think it is fine if someone believes that angels couldn’t have been involved in the production. But to suggest that such speculations themselves are somehow off-limits or uncomfortable, especially in this type of venue, is perplexing.

      • I guess I’m not uncomfortable with discussing it (I decided to comment on it after all). I’m uncomfortable that some declare such confidence in it. Of course it’s not against church doctrine to ask questions or ponder over things. The theory can sound plausible, and I could be wrong in not accepting it early, but it still seems like unsure footing. Alma had something to say that may be relevant:

        Now these mysteries are not yet fully made known unto me; therefore I shall forbear.
        Alma 37:11

        The intent of my comment was: Let’s exercise caution about what we don’t know; Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I personally prefer to stay with what we can know through evidence or testimony.

        I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of looking for another translator, or group of translators, to give credit to. Joseph was the translator and Joseph only. Of course, this is my opinion and like I said before, I am open to the idea that I could be wrong. Joseph is the only one mentioned to be involved in the “translation” when it is prophesied in the Book of Mormon. I think 2 Nephi 27 applies, as Dr. Carmack cited.

        Joseph didn’t need someone to pre-translate it for him. Its miraculous enough that Joseph brought forth The Book of Mormon into a non-native and archaic version of English. Let’s just bask in how these many articles are now implying that, without being so certain in speculation that doesn’t require defending.

  7. One expects that God, being omniscient, is also omnilingual. However, angels like John the Baptist and Peter, James and John are not God, so one assumes they had to learn some degree of English to prepare for their personal communications with Joseph and Oliver. Then there is Moroni, who spoke to Joseph for hours. He appears to be quite fluent. Presumably as a resurrected being, he is able to learn a language and remember its words and grammar much more easily than mortals. Where would he learn it? There are thousands of English speakers who died and went to the Spirit World to await resurrection who could have taught him. No doubt there were many speakers of Early Modern English who could have helped whoever prepared the actual translation of Moroni’s record from Reformed Egyptian.

  8. Moroni was the resurrected being with custody of the gold plates and the responsibility for delivering the words of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith. It is unlikely that God would do the translation Himself after giving this assignment to Moroni.

  9. It would seem reasonable that the translation would have been given to Joseph in the language he was familiar with at the time. Although the analysis on the language of the Joseph Smith History did not match the translation, the history was written a decade or so later, after much language influence from those outside his youthful circle. It would be interesting to compare his writings and those of his family or neighbors from the time of the translation or earlier, if there are any. On the other hand, perhaps it was given in language not of his time and place as further evidence that Joseph did not write it?

  10. Another well-argued and detailed increment of evidence in the claim that Joseph Smith Jr could not have inserted certain archaisms into the Book of Mormon translation.

    However, it is also true that Carmack has skewed his rate comparisons between King James Bible and the Book of Mormon by not counting according to literary genre, i.e., much of the Bible is not narrative, while nearly all of the BofM is narrative. And, of course, it is in narrative where this past tense syntactic feature most often appears. Large sections of the Bible are poetry, wisdom, legislation, epistles, and oracular narrative.

    Carmack’s basic conclusions would likely remain the same, following a more discriminating approach to genre in the KJV. But the rate figures would likely differ markedly. All such data should be presented according to book or section of both Bible and Book of Mormon. I had to do that when assessing the different rates of use of “it came to pass” in both Bible and Book of Mormon. The differences in rate were very important: https://www.scribd.com/doc/39997996/It-Came-to-Pass-in-the-Bible-and-Book-of-Mormon .

    • I just saw a comment on a Facebook thread about this article, and it mentioned your name and your hesitancy about some of the conclusions of this theory. While not nearly smart enough to fully understand the English syntax part of this discussion, I thought some of Brother Carmack conclusions were odd to make considering some of the sources that he failed to look at. For instance the writings of Joseph Smith Jr. in letters or in the early relevations of D&C, and other people around JS, and writings from that time period in newspapers, etc.

      While this discussion on the Facebook thread seemed to imply an 19th century “author” instead of a “translator” which I reject, they seem to make some solid arguments that early modern syntax Brother Carmack discusses in his paper was not as rare as suggested in this paper. They specifically point out its usage in newspapers in the 19th century. In addition, they point out its use in Lucy Mack writings and in early relevations in D&C. Specifically, they point to D&C 9:1, 10:50, 6:15, 29:43.

      9:1- “Behold, I say unto you, my son, that because you did not translate according to that which you desired of me, and did commence again to write for my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun., even so I would that ye should continue until you have finished this record, which I have entrusted unto him.”

      10:50- ” 50 And thus they did leave a blessing upon this land in their prayers, that whosoever should believe in this gospel in this land might have eternal life;”

      6:15- ” 15 Behold, thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth;”

      29:43- “And thus did I, the Lord God, appoint unto man the days of his probation—that by his natural death he might be raised in immortality unto eternal life, even as many as would believe;”

      I would enjoy hearing your and Brother Carmack’s opinion on the argument that EmodE being found in the BOM is not that strange. That there very well might have been pockets of it’s use, as seen by its use in newspaper during this time period. That this could have been a “style” of the author/translator of the BOM, and it could possibly have been one of JS, as seen by its use in D&C. Just curious what yours and Brother Carmack’s thoughts about this argument and if there has been or are there future plans for research looking at more than the 3 books in the study. Thanks.

      • There is some EModE in the D&C (e.g. 20:31 mights). There is no critical text of the D&C.There is ADP did in the D&C. There is not much of it (I count 10 instances [60% adj.; 40% inv.]). The overall ADP did rate appears to be quite a bit lower than the BofM’s and the pattern of usage is different (based on only 10 examples). I have not estimated any rates.One cannot argue on the basis of isolated examples about systematic ADP did usage. No linguist, from Ellegard to Rissanen to Wagner, found high levels of ADP did in 19c English (American or British).

      • An appeal to the Doctrine and Covenants seems like an odd way to prove that Joseph Smith is the “author” of The Book of Mormon. You’d be starting from the position that Joseph Smith is the “author” of the revelations. I find that flawed for a couple of reasons:

        1. If you are of the persuasion that Joseph got revelations word for word, just as he did The Book of Mormon: If God revealed the text of the Book of Mormon in 1500s-1600s English, why couldn’t he reveal the sections of the D&C in the same language? This applies especially for the sections received through the Urim and Thummim.

        2. If you are of the persuasion that the revelations came through the filter of Joseph Smith’s language patterns, and not word for word, wouldn’t his deep familiarity with the language of The Book of Mormon have seeped into his consciousness? The Book of Mormon manuscripts are the oldest surviving documents personally associated with Joseph Smith, everything after that can be classified as potentially imitative of The Book of Mormon language.

        • I think many of your comments are correct. However, it would show that JS had this language in his syntax at a high rate besides in the BOM. I agree that this is not “evidence” that the JS is the author and not the translator of the BOM, but it shows that the BOM isn’t unique to JS writings. Now, he could have been influenced from the syntax in the BOM in his other writings, but I would assume that is near possible to determine.

          Brother Carmack answered my comment about EmodE and ADP in D&C, but I have to admit that I am still trying to understand everything.

    • For “came/come to pass”, one considers the phrasal rate per word. In the case of ADP did, one considers internal past-tense usage rates, not the rate per word. Different genres have different past-tense rates, but the percentage of simple past-tense word forms and adjacency did syntax, etc. can be profitably studied in any genre of a text as long as there are enough instances. Ellegard 1953 estimated overall KJB ADP do/did at 1.3%. I estimated ADP did at 1.7%. Studying it according to genre might yield interesting results and was of course not attempted as part of this analysis.

  11. I have to say that the biggest initial kicker I get out of this is thinking upon poor Richard Dawkins. This vindicates his perception in all the possible ways he wouldn’t want it to. I mean it’s one thing to go and say that it sounds like it’s from the 15-16th century English, it’s quite another to say that syntactically it appears to be indistinguishable.

    If all of this checks out this has to rank up there as a prime evidence that Heavenly Father has a sense of humor.

  12. I.

    Learning about the literary nuances of the Book of Mormon text can be helpful in understanding its form more than its message. But speculations about what Joseph perhaps “did” in translating seem superfluous.

    It seems most likely that the text of the Book of Mormon was revealed verbatim through the seer stone (whether the Urim and Thummin and/or Joseph’s first seer stone). Although Joseph was commanded to testify simply that he translated the book by the gift and power of God, eyewitness accounts include details about the translation process. Joseph apparently did not have to study the plates; they sat idly by while he dictated the revealed text and his scribe wrote it. Only after the scribe had written the text correctly, which was not always on the first try, the next group of words to dictate was revealed, and so it went.

    One might then ask, did the admonition given to Oliver Cowdery about his failed translation attempt imply Joseph’s translation methodology? Perhaps, since some form of effort is often required to receive a revelation; but probably not, since Joseph had been given everything he needed to receive a translation whereas Oliver was not, and Oliver’s admonition included nothing about using a seer stone.

    In the Book of Mormon, there happens to be KJV connections here and EME there, Hebrew connections here and Egyptian there, and so forth, including usages correct in Semitic languages but awkward in English. In subsequent editions, Joseph edited most of the awkward usages for the sake of English. In 1841, Joseph testified that the Book of Mormon is the “most” correct book on earth, but according to whose criteria, God’s (doctrine?) or man’s (grammar, usage, etc.)? Would the book have been more correct if the plates had been written in Hebrew, or if the printer’s MS. had been identical to the original MS? Did Joseph’s edits, perhaps including the correction of actual errors that were nevertheless translated correctly, improve the percentage of its correctness? Does it matter?

    To keep scriptural texts pure, their receipt, recording, preservation, transmittal, and translation requires tremendous care by many people, especially over time. Biblical texts have a checkered history, but modern revelation affirms the veracity of their core teachings, corrects many misunderstandings, and offers invaluable insights. Far more reliable than the Bible’s transmission history is that of the Book Mormon, and subsequent modern revelation also affirms the veracity of its core teachings.

    Cynical or conspiratorial theorizing contributes nothing to the conversation. Must prophets be perfect to be true prophets? Must revelation be perfect, unique, linguistically tied to the receiver’s knowledge and environment to be valid revelation? Must prophets know everything and always answer everyone’s questions about everything? On the other hand, might some truths not fit into the metaphorical boxes we tend to create for knowledge?

    II.

    The term “automatic writing” in the statement “automatic writing cannot overcome an absence of syntactic knowledge” is ambiguous. If it means “stream of consciousness” (e.g. “Ulysses” by James Joyce), this would be true; if “spirit channeling,” this would be false, for legitimate mediums do not “manufacture” the communication, which is a discussion for another place and time.

    • “Only after the scribe had written the text correctly”: Skousen’s careful work with the MSS shows that that non-observable conjecture by certain scribes/eyewitnesses is wrong. See his 1998 article in JBMS 7.

  13. This is a very interesting thesis. I wonder, however, if there is not a simpler explanation for the word choices used. One very common book available to many at the time which was written and published after ADP usage was tapering off (according to your charts) but which might still preserve that basic style and that is Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. This book was widely available in Joseph’s place and time and there are attested instances of the book in Massachussets Bay Colony after it was published in 1678. Now, I do not know the rates of usage in this book but it might be interesting to see if it preserves any of the linguistic features you have noted. If it does not, then you are left with your same basic thesis. But if it does, it might explain a more organic reason for Joseph’s word choice in translating since it is likely that Joseph would have encountered that book. Perhaps he never had instance to read it but it is one of the more famous and influential religious books in the English language and very popular in the kind of overtly religious Protestant millieu that existed in Joseph’s Palmyra home.
    At any rate, it would be interesting to see if there might be literary sources available to Joseph that might contain those same linguistic features you have noted.

  14. The Book of Mormon contains nearly 2,000 instances of this particular verbal form, using it 27 percent of the time in past-tense contexts. By contrast, the 1611 King James Bible employs the form less than 2 percent of the time.”?

    Englishman’s N.T. Concordance: “to make, ’do“=( poieo G. 4160). Verb Total occurrence 572.
    “Did” from G 4160 past tense=(epoiēsen Occurs 75 times in N.T. E.g… Mt:24 KJV: from sleep “did” as the angel. 75 Occurrences in N.T. . Actually the KJV verb translation is 13%, not 2%.

    How sure are we that the EmodE in KJV is 2%?

    Thanks.

  15. Please see Ellegard (1953: 169) for 1.3% estimate of ADP do/did in the KJV. I estimated 1.7% ADP did. Ellegard was supervised by an authority in EModE: Charles Barber (d. 2000).

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