LDS scholars have been giving significant attention in recent years to the English grammar, vocabulary, and style of the Book of Mormon. The thrust of this literary output has been to argue that the language of the Book of Mormon, far from an embarrassing liability, is in some respects an apologetic asset—even evidence of inspiration. More broadly, these scholars have been arguing that allegations of ungrammatical usage in the Book of Mormon are often unfounded, being based on misunderstandings or ignorance regarding earlier English grammar.

The most recent offering in this burgeoning literature is an article by Stanford Carmack in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. According to Carmack, who has written other recent articles of relevance, mistakes in the analysis of grammar and usage in the Book of Mormon have been made on the assumption that Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language is the appropriate reference in such matters. Carmack argues that the Oxford English Dictionary should be used instead. Following the lead of Royal Skousen, the leading scholar on the textual history of the Book of Mormon,[1] Carmack argues that the English of the Book of Mormon is written mainly in the Early Modern English that was current in the 1500s but archaic by Joseph Smith’s day—and not entirely due to imitation of the KJV. On this basis, Carmack argues that Joseph could not have been responsible for the English idiom of the Book of Mormon; it must have come from the Lord revealing specific words to Joseph. At the same time, Carmack admits that some of the language in the Book of Mormon is more modern.[2]

A thorough examination of Carmack’s article is beyond the scope of what I will attempt here. There are dozens of specific examples that would need to be considered and a thicket of assertions and inferences that would need to be evaluated. Carmack’s work in this and other articles will undoubtedly be hailed as having turned the English grammar question of the Book of Mormon into an astounding evidence of its divine inspiration. I believe there are serious holes in the argument and that it raises questions so far unanswered. For example, to the best of my knowledge no one has yet explained why God would reveal a translation of an ancient scripture to a nineteenth-century man in largely (but not entirely) sixteenth-century English. However, here I wish to address just one point, albeit a somewhat tangential point to Carmack’s overall project. The point concerns the use of the English pronoun thou in the King James Version (KJV), a matter of some possible relevance to its usage in the Book of Mormon.

Carmack correctly states that the KJV generally uses thou as a singular pronoun, but claims that the KJV “at times clearly goes against this general stricture,” citing Isaiah 51:16 and Hosea 2:23 as examples.[3] But these are not exceptions at all. Here are the two texts:

And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people (Isa. 51:16 KJV).

And I will sow her unto me in the earth; and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God (Hos. 2:23 KJV).

The Hebrew words of relevance translated “Thou art” in both verses are ‘ammî-’āttāh, “my people you [are],” with the singular form of the Hebrew pronoun (more precisely the pronomial suffix –mî). (The second “Thou art” in Hosea 2:23 has been supplied by the translators to complete the sense in English; there are no corresponding words in the Hebrew there.) The Septuagint in both places also used a singular pronoun and a singular verb, laos mou ei su (where su is the singular second-person pronoun meaning “you”). Hence the KJV was simply translating the Hebrew text literally by using “thou” here. The reason for the singular pronoun is easy enough to understand: its antecedent, Zion, is grammatically a singular noun even though the entity known as Zion is made up of a plurality of individuals. The same is true for the word people (am in Hebrew, laos in Greek). Thus, in Hebrew, Greek, and English, the singular form is used and correctly so.

Carmack also claims that the KJV “slides almost imperceptibly and frequently between ye/you and thou/thee in passages such as Deuteronomy 13:1–5 and Matthew 6:1–9, to give just two examples.”[4] His point here is that the pronoun ye is normally plural while the words thou and thee are (or were) normally singular in usage. (The implication is that you was normally plural, but this is simply not correct for any of the time periods in question.) Thus, any usage of ye as a singular or thou or thee as plural forms would be a departure from customary usage, but one which Carmack claims is evident in these and other passages of the KJV. However, a close examination of his two example passages shows otherwise. In the two quotations that follow, the number (singular or plural) of the relevant pronominal form in the original-language text is indicated in brackets.

If there arise among you [sg.] a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee [sg.] a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee [sg.], saying, Let us go [1st pl.] after other gods, which thou hast not known [sg.], and let us serve [1st pl.] them; thou shalt not hearken [sg.] unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your [pl.] God proveth you [pl.], to know whether ye [pl.] love the LORD your [pl.] God with all your [pl.] heart and with all your [pl.] soul. Ye [pl.] shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear [pl.] him, and keep [pl.] his commandments, and obey [pl.] his voice, and ye shall serve [pl.] him, and cleave [pl.] unto him. And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you [-] away from the LORD your [pl.] God, which brought you [pl.] out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you [sg.] out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee [sg.] out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee [sg.] to walk in. So shalt thou put [sg.] the evil away from the midst of thee [sg.] (Deut. 13:1-5 KJV).

The word thou appears three times and thee five times in Deuteronomy 13:1-5 KJV, each of which translates a singular form in Hebrew (typically a pronomial suffix). The KJV uses the pronoun ye three times in this passage, always representing a plural form in the Hebrew text. Only the word you is used to translate both singular and plural forms, which is consistent with common English usage by the time of the KJV in the early seventeenth century. The same consistent pattern of pronoun usage may be seen in Carmack’s other example, Matthew 6:1-9.

Take heed that ye [pl.] do not your [pl.] alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have [pl.] no reward of your [pl.] Father which is in heaven. 2 Therefore when thou doest [sg.] thine [-] alms, do not sound [sg.] a trumpet before thee [sg.], as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you [pl.], They have their reward. 3 But when thou [sg.] doest [sg.] alms, let not thy [sg.] left hand know what thy [sg.] right hand doeth: 4 That thine [sg.] alms may be in secret: and thy [sg.] Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee [sg.] openly. 5 And when thou prayest [sg.] , thou shalt not be [sg.] as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you [pl.], They have their reward. 6 But thou [sg.], when thou [sg.] prayest, enter into thy [sg.] closet, and when thou hast shut [sg.] thy [sg.] door, pray [sg.] to thy [sg.] Father which is in secret; and thy [sg.] Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee [sg.] openly. 7 But when ye pray [pl.], use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 8 Be not ye [pl.] therefore like unto them: for your [pl.] Father knoweth what things ye have need of [pl.], before ye [pl.] ask him. 9 After this manner therefore pray ye [pl.]… (Matt. 6:1-9 KJV).

This passage perfectly conforms to normal usage of pronouns in English during the time of the KJV, translating singular Greek forms as singular and plural Greek forms as plural. The singular forms are translated with thou (7), thee (3), and thine (2), while the plural forms are translated with ye (7), you (2), and your (3).

Before one makes comparisons of the English of the Book of Mormon and of the KJV, one needs to make sure one is reading the KJV text accurately. Consulting the Hebrew and Greek texts on which the KJV was based—texts that are available to scholars today, something not true of the Book of Mormon—is an indispensable part of such accurate reading.
NOTES

[1] See especially Royal Skousen, “The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon,” Insights: A Window on the Ancient World 25 (2005), 2–6.

[2] Stanford Carmack, “Why the Oxford English Dictionary (and not Webster’s 1828),” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 15 (2015): 65-77.

[3] Ibid., 67 n. 8.

[4] Ibid., 66.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 at 3:36 pm and is filed under Biblical studies, Mormonism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

2 comments so far

Jonah
 1 

A critical look at the transliteration from the original hebrew and greek to the english of the KJV 1611 and then to the text of the book of mormon 1830 shows that in my opinion there exists a tangible link where there should be none considering the fact that the english language has aged 200 years.

September 21st, 2015 at 12:14 pm
 2 

Jonah, sorry for the delay in your comment posting. We had some technical problems with the blog and they have just been fixed.

December 3rd, 2015 at 11:27 pm

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.