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Victorian era (1830-1900)

1830 was the beginning of the Victorian era. This literary period was short and volatile, in terms of thought and style; daring use of words and letters, pressing the bounds of literary tradition. It is very distinct (victorian).

Notable examples of the authors of this period would be; Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Alfred Tennyson(Lord) (1809-1892), and many others whose works are as recognizable.

The only traces of Jacobean era English, at this time, were stylistic holdovers, like those seen in the poetic literature of Tennyson.

Meanwhile, in American literature, writers such as Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), had no such stylistic relics in their poetry, that I have come across. That is not to say that they did not exist.

Scriptural writings were, in their day, of necessity, written in the linguistic style of the translators; which to the reader of that day would appear non-stylistic, being, to them, of modern vernacular.

Why then was the Book of Mormon stylized, to match Jacobean era literature?

  1. http://www.victorianweb.org/vn/index.html web. retrieved 1/7/17
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_literature web. retrieved 1/7/17
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Joseph Smith did not just translate the Book of Mormon into Jacobean English, but into a very specific type of Jacobean English, as used in the King James Version of the Bible (KJV). W. H Stevenson (King James's Bible: A Selection, 'The Language of AV' - ebook) says King James was a virtual contemporary of William Shakespeare, but that the language is not the same as that of Shakespeare's plays. For example, he says "The formality of 'Forasmuch as ...' (e.g. 2 Sam 19:30), was never 'ordinary' English." Presumably, Smith was at least influenced by his knowledge of the KJV to translate the Book of Mormon into the register of Jacobean English that had been used in the KJV, for example:

2 Nephi 18:6: Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters ...
2 Nephi 27:25: Forasmuch as this people draw unto me ...

Smith copied not only the Jacobean English of the KJV, but some other usages characteristic of the Bible. The phrase 'And it came to pass' occurs more than 200 times in the Old Testament and more than 50 times in the New Testament. Although these passages are sometimes translated in other ways in different English Bibles, what we see in the KJV is a valid translation of the Masoretic and Greek texts. I have not counted them, but there are said to be more than 1400 occurrences of 'and it came to pass' in the Book of Mormon. Another example is that Mark's Gospel is noted, more than any other book of the Bible, for beginning many sentences with 'And', which is as ungrammatical in Greek as in English. I point this out because Smith found many sentences in the Book of Mormon that he also translated in the same way.

The KJV twice referred, incorrectly, to seraphims, where the Hebrew seraphim is already plural. The 1830 version of the Book of Mormon faithfully adopted this Jacobean spelling, although later versions of the Book of Mormon adopted the Hebrew 'seraphim'.

Stevenson (ibid) says that the language of the KJV has "become familiar as the prototype of a kind of religious dialect whose very archaism is one of its distinguishing features." I propose that Smith adopted this biblical English in his translations because his contemporaries would not have accepted a Victorian English Book of Mormon as authentic scripture.

  • 2
    (+1) I appreciate the lengths you are willing to travel, for the sake of exactness. The uniqueness of the KJV as a sample of Jacobean era literature was a superfluity I declined in my draft. However, seeing it in this answer has made me rethink the importance of that decision. Well done sir. – Abstraction is everything. Jan 8 '17 at 6:16
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    And it came to pass that an upvote was made, yea, even unto the answer of acceptance, and all the people were exceedingly glad. – Robert Columbia Jan 9 '17 at 1:56
7

From an exmormon standpoint, an alternative explanation is that there were no plates to "translate," and the whole thing was something he created, using contemporary sources. The current thinking is that he (obviously) drew heavily from the King James Bible, but also several other books that were popular at the time and widely available in his area of the country. The books that appear to be likely sources are:

1) View of the Hebrews, a work by Ethan Smith which has a very similar "plot" as the Book of Mormon- that Native Americans are descendants of Jews that traveled from Israel.

2) The Late War, a book written about the War of 1812 for school children in New York. It was written in "biblical" prose, and many of the passages have striking similarities to passages in the BoM.

3) The First Book of Napoleon, another work that was contemporary to Joseph Smith, which also contains many passages that read almost verbatim to passages in the BoM.

A lot of fascinating research has been done about word patterns in the BoM and similarities between the BoM and the works listed above. (I have links to multiple other sources but I can't post more than 2 due to being new to the site, apparently.)

Edit: Ok, now I have enough street cred to add more links:

View of the Hebrews (just wikipedia)

Side by side quotations from The Late War and the BoM

Article about word analysis and The First book of Napoleon. Youtube link to a presentation within the article.

4

LDS Perspective

If this is a truth question, one can only speculate because as far as I can tell, it does not appear that Joseph Smith ever addressed the question of why the Book of Mormon uses the English style it does.

Ultimately, the LDS perspective is that God commanded and helped Joseph to translate the plates so that translation was not decided by Joseph Smith himself, but by God. See Book of Mormon Translation - lds.org

Premise

The assumption that the Book of Mormon is written with the English of the Jacobean era stands to be proven. Comparing it to the KJV of the Bible may not necessarily be considered Jacobean English because scholars have said that 90% of it was based on the Tyndale translation which was done prior to the Jacobean period. Coggan 1968, pp. 18-19.

English in the Book of Mormon

Many of the stylistic examples in the Book of Mormon that may be incorrectly attributed to the style of English may actually be attributed to the original language of the text. For example,

Possession in English is shown in two constructs-"the man's house" and "the house of the man"-but only the latter construct is employed in Hebrew. The lack of apostrophe possession in the Book of Mormon is consistene with a translation from the Gebrew construct. Further, the "of" construct is common for adjectival relationships in Hebrew. Correspondingly, the Book of Mormon consistently employs phrases such as "plates of brass" (1 Ne. 3:12) instead of "brass plates" and "walls of stone" (Alma 48:8) rather than "stone walls."

Another example:

Sentence structures and clause-combining mechanisms in Hebrew differ from those in English. Long strings of subordinate clauses and verbal expressions, such as those in Helaman 1:16-17 and Mosiah 2:20-21 and 7:21-22, are acceptable in Hebrew, though unorthodox and discouraged in English: "Ye all are witnesses…that Zeniff, who was made king,…he being over-zealous,…therefore being deceived by…king Laman, who having entered into a treaty,…and having yielded up [various cities],…and the land round about-and all this he did, for the sole purpose of abringing this people…into bondage" (Mosiah 7:21-22).

Many more examples are given in this Study done on Book of Mormon Language

A quick text analysis of the Book of Mormon shows that the phrase "and it came to pass" occurs in the Book of Mormon 1123 times. One LDS member makes the case that the phrase "and it came to pass" is precisely what certain words in the original language means (therefore not necessarily an english phrase from an earlier era). See "And it came to pass..."

  • Sure, one place is from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyndale_Bible. I just referenced the actual text (Coggan) that was referenced in the wikipedia article. – JBaczuk Jan 8 '17 at 19:46
  • Yes, as I have read, the several disparate testimonies, the seer stone, was the agent, per word, and in some cases regarding difficult pronunciations, per letter of the actual translation. So, you think the question should be. Why did God decide to stylize the BoM after a bygone inflection? – Abstraction is everything. Jan 8 '17 at 19:57
  • That is an interesting wording of the question as well. But, honestly I think your original question is good. For example, the words shall, hither, twain, etc. are all old English that is not used as much today. I think there is an argument there. I also think that there are some premises of the question that could be challenged such as that the BOM matches the english of KJV Bible. – JBaczuk Jan 8 '17 at 20:04
  • " The uniqueness of the KJV as a sample of Jacobean era literature was a superfluity I declined in my draft." See that I pulled this from a comment to the acc. post above. I chose to leave this arg. alone. for this spec. reason. The disparity between the Victorian era and the BoM OE grammar alone was my original contest. I have no interest in the minutiae. – Abstraction is everything. Jan 8 '17 at 20:16
  • Maybe you should be taking this up with @DickHarfield: as this was his point, not mine. – Abstraction is everything. Jan 8 '17 at 20:21
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I think the answer is probably a lot simpler than some might think. Joseph Smith was basically illiterate, as his wife testifies to, when he set out to translate the Book of Mormon. It is possible he learned English from the Holy Bible itself, and used the examples therein as a basic format to go by. Considering many families at the time were poor and often the Holy Bible was the only book they owned as books were not easily come by.

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. For more on what this site is all about, see: How we are different than other sites. For some tips on writing good answers here, see: What makes a good supported answer? If you could provide one or two links or references to support your answer, it would be greatly improved. Meanwhile, thanks for offering an answer here. – Lee Woofenden Feb 12 '17 at 17:15
  • @CharlesFox: I see what you are getting@. However, it has already been well established, in this thread, that the translation was effected by supernatural means, beyond Smith's control, word for word, and in those cases where his elocution failed him (enter the deficit you have ascribed to his faculty, being an ignoramus) it is unlikely that Joseph Smith was instrumental in the translation much further than directing the medium @ the golden plates and stammering; that is, until his frustration drove him to the iteration of individual letters. You get points for thinking (+1) outside of the box – Abstraction is everything. Feb 12 '17 at 17:34
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I think Joseph put the Book of Mormon into the religious language he was familiar with - that of the King James Bible. Any translator has the choice of vernacular to put a work into and he thought this sounded appropriate for a sacred text. Would like to point out that while the King James Bible has some inaccuracies, it is still probably the best English translation out there for preserving the poetic feel of the Bible. Second best would be the New Jerusalem Bible. The Bible, New and Old Testament, is not a prose document. It is poetry, 100%. If you really want to hear it, go to a conservative Jewish Synagogue some Saturday and listen to the chanting. In the original, there are sound-poetic elements that we are all familiar with in English - rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance etc. In addition, the Bible uses many kinds of structure poetry couplets, acrostics and chiasm. (side note - Book of Mormon also has similar poetic elements, especially chiastic poetry) To translate one work of poetry into a different language is a new artistic work. Due to cultural factors at the time of King James Bible, poetry was considered as the only appropriate vernacular for sacred subjects.

Mormons today share that view of a certain vernacular being appropriate for sacred subjects and are taught to pray in King James English.

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