The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon

In my work as editor of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project (which began in 1988), I was initially interested in discovering the original English-language text of the book. But I soon came to the conclusion that it would be impossible to fully recover the original text by scholarly means, in large part because only 28 percent of the original manuscript is extant. In addition, there are obvious errors in the original manuscript itself that require conjectural emendation. As I have worked on the text of the Book of Mormon, I have come to some surprising conclusions regarding the nature of the original text itself, conclusions that I had not at all expected when I started my work transcribing the original and printer’s manuscripts of the Book of Mormon:

1. The original manuscript supports the hypothesis that the text was given to Joseph Smith word for word and that he could see the spelling of at least the Book of Mormon names (in support of what witnesses of the translation process claimed about Joseph’s translation).

2. The original text is much more consistent and systematic in expression than has ever been realized.

3. The original text includes unique kinds of expression that appear to be uncharacteristic of English in any time and place; some of these expressions are Hebraistic in nature.

For some discussion of these findings, see the following two articles of mine: “Translating the Book of Mormon: Evidence from the Original Manuscript,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds, pages 61—93 (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1997); and “The Systematic Text of the Book of Mormon,” in Uncovering the Original Text of the Book of Mormon: History and Findings of the Critical Text Project, edited by M. Gerald Bradford and Alison V. P. Coutts, pages 45—66 (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002).

Over the past two years, I have discovered evidence for a fourth significant conclusion about the original text:

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

This last finding is quite remarkable. Lexical evidence suggests that the original text contained a number of expressions and words with meanings that were lost from the English language by 1700. On the other hand, I have not been able thus far to find word meanings and expressions in the text that are known to have entered the English language after the early 1700s.

In the following sampling, I list some of the clearest examples in the Book of Mormon of this archaic vocabulary from the 1500s and 1600s. (In this discussion, I exclude, of course, archaic words such as besom ‘broom’ that are found in direct quotations from the King James Bible.) For each word and its meaning, I provide citations from the original text of the Book of Mormon, corresponding citations from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and a range of dates for citations in the OED with that same meaning (except for citations from the King James Bible, original spellings are provided). In some instances, the word can be found with that meaning in the 1611 King James Bible. But some of these words predate 1611 by a few decades at least. The difficulty of these archaic words has sometimes resulted in accidental changes during the early transmission of the Book of Mormon text. At other times, editors and typesetters have replaced such words with more recognizable alternatives.

Some Examples Found in the King James Bible

To require, meaning ‘to request’

Enos 1:18 reads “and the Lord said unto me: thy fathers have also required of me this thing.” It may seem unusual that Enos’s ancestral fathers (Lehi, Nephi, and Jacob) required the Lord to preserve their records. Notice that the word also in verse 18 implies that Enos too is “requiring” the Lord to preserve these records, yet previously (in verses 15—17) Enos simply asks the Lord to do so. But the passage makes perfectly good sense when we observe that earlier in English the verb require had the meaning ‘to ask, request, or desire someone to do something’ (see definition 3 for this verb in the OED). The OED provides citations of require with the meaning of ‘to request’ dating from 1375 to 1665, including this example from William Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1613): “In humblest manner I require your Highnes, That it shall please you.” We have a similar example in the King James Bible: “For I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way” (Ezra 8:22).

To cast arrows, meaning ‘to shoot arrows’

Alma 49:4 reads “the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them.” Similarly, verse 19 reads “and thus were the Nephites prepared to destroy all such as should attempt to climb up to enter the fort by any other way by casting over stones and arrows at them.” For us today, it seems strange to cast arrows. Yet the OED gives the following comment for definition 2 under the verb cast: “Formerly said also of military engines, bows, and the like, which throw or shoot projectiles.” OED citations date from about 1300 to 1609, including the following biblical one in John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of 2 Kings 13:17: “Helise seyde, kast an arowe; and he kest.” The King James Bible uses the verb shoot in translating this same passage: “Then Elisha said, Shoot. And he shot.” But there is one place in the King James Bible where the verb cast does occur with arrows: “As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death” (Proverbs 26:18).

For examples like these, one could claim that Joseph Smith picked up such vocabulary usage from intensive Bible reading. But there are words and expressions in the original Book of Mormon text that never appear, at least with their archaic meanings, in the King James Bible yet were common in Early Modern English.

Some Examples Not Found in the King James Bible

To counsel, meaning ‘to counsel with’

In the original text of the Book of Mormon we have two cases where the verb counsel is used without the expected preposition with:counsel the Lord in all thy doings” (Alma 37:37) and “take it upon you to counsel your elder brothers in your undertakings” (Alma 39:10). In the first case, Alma is speaking to Helaman; in the second, to Corianton, the wayward missionary son. In no way is Alma advocating that Helaman counsel the Lord or that Corianton counsel his two righteous brothers. The editors for the 1920 LDS edition recognized that the preposition with was necessary in those two passages so that readers would not misinterpret the language; thus in both cases counsel was emended to counsel with. One could assume that somehow the preposition with was accidentally lost during the early transmission of these two passages. Yet the OED, under definition 4, lists the now obsolete meaning ‘to ask counsel of; to consult’ for the verb counsel. Citations date from 1382 to 1547, the last one coming from John Hooper: “Moses . . . counselled the Lord and thereupon advised his subjects what was to be done.” Clearly, Moses is counseling with the Lord, not giving counsel to the Lord.

But if, meaning ‘unless’

In the original text, Mosiah 3:19 reads “for the natural man is an enemy to God and has been from the fall of Adam and will be forever and ever but if he yieldeth to the enticings of the Holy Spirit.” This strange use of but if was replaced in the 1920 LDS edition with unless since the latter seems to be the appropriate meaning. And indeed it is: the OED gives the following definition for the now obsolete but if (under definition 10b for the conjunction but): ‘if not, unless, except.’ Citations of this usage in the OED date from about 1200 to 1596, including this one from Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580): “He did not like that maides should once stir out of their fathers houses, but if it were to milke a cow.” The OED also states that this meaning of but if was “very common” from the 1300s through the 1500s.

To depart, meaning ‘to part, divide, separate’

In the printer’s manuscript for Helaman 8:11, the text reads “God gave power unto one man even Moses to smite upon the waters of the Red Sea and they departed hither and thither.” The 1830 typesetter thought departed must be an error, so he replaced it with the expected parted. Yet the OED explains that the verb depart once had the now obsolete meaning of ‘to put asunder, sunder, separate, part’ (see definitions 3a—3d), with citations from 1297 through 1677. Many of the citations in the OED for this meaning are religious ones. For instance, John Wycliffe’s 1388 translation of Isaiah 59:2 reads “ʒoure wickednesses han departid bitwixe ʒou and ʒoure God” (which the King James Bible translates as “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God”). There is John Maundeville’s reference (about 1400) to Moses’s rod: “þe ʒerde of Moyses, with þe whilk he departid þe Reed See,” meaning ‘the rod [yard] of Moses with which he parted the Red Sea.’ When the King James Bible refers to Moses using his rod to part the Red Sea, the verb is divide: “But lift thou up thy rod and stretch out thine hand over the sea and divide it” (Exodus 14:16). William Tyndale, in his 1526 translation of Romans 8:39, uses depart: “To departe us from Goddes love.” The King James Bible, on the other hand, uses the verb separate: “to separate us from the love of God.” The 1557 Geneva Bible translates John 19:24 as “They departed my rayment among them.” But the King James Bible once more circumvents this use of depart, in this instance by selecting the verb part: “They parted my raiment among them.” Finally, there is this example from the 1548—49 Book of Common Prayer: “Till death vs departe.” In 1662 this reading was changed to “Till death us do part” because by then the meaning of ‘to part’ for depart was obsolete. Note, however, that the change in the very familiar phraseology was minimal: the de- was replaced with the helping verb do, thus maintaining the cadence and sound of the original language.

Extinct, referring to an individual’s death

Alma 44:7 reads “and I will command my men that they shall fall upon you and inflict the wounds of death in your bodies that ye may become extinct.” Such usage seems very odd today since, as the OED explains under definition 4 for this past participial adjective, we now use extinct to refer to a family, race, or species as having died out or come to an end. But in Early Modern English, extinct could refer to a person’s death. The OED, under definition 3, lists citations from 1483 through 1675, the last one from an English translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince: “The Pope being dead and Valentine extinct.”

We should note that the text does not consistently use the archaic meaning for every instance of these words. For example, the verb require has its expected meaning in Alma 34:12: “but the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered.” One can shoot as well as cast arrows: “and they cast stones at him upon the wall and also many shot arrows at him” (Helaman 16:2). There is also one case of “to counsel with someone” in the earliest text, in Mosiah 17:6: “having counseled with his priests”; and there are two instances that refer to counseling the Lord: “seek not to counsel the Lord” (Jacob 4:10) and “counsel me not” (Jacob 5:22). The conjunctive but if occurs only once in the text with the meaning ‘unless.’ In seven other places, the text uses unless, as in Mosiah 17:8: “for this cause thou shalt be put to death unless thou wilt recall all the words which thou hast spoken evil concerning me and my people.” Similarly, depart otherwise means ‘to leave’ in the Book of Mormon rather than ‘to part.’ There are two other references to Moses’s parting of the Red Sea (1 Nephi 4:2 and 1 Nephi 17:26), and they have the verb divide, just as the King James Bible does. Four instances of extinct refer to the death of individuals in a single military engagement (Alma 45:14, Helaman 11:10, and 3 Nephi 3:8 as well as Alma 44:7), but there is one that refers to the permanent extinction of an entire race of people: “even until the people of Nephi shall become extinct” (Alma 45:11). Yet even with all these examples where the words take on their more familiar uses, we find that those meanings are also found in Early Modern English. In any event, examples of variant meaning are not unexpected in a text of this size since language itself is inherently variant. We cannot expect the text to have no variation at all. The critical text will accept these earliest readings as the original text, despite their archaic meanings and their inconsistent usage.

One could argue that all these examples are actually errors that entered the Book of Mormon text in the early transmission of the text: for example, require looks like request, the preposition with after counsel could have been accidentally omitted, and part could have been miswritten as depart. But the other examples seem fully intended: arrows are cast along with stones, the highly unusual but if cannot be an error for unless, and the word extinct refers to the death of individuals in four out of five cases in the Book of Mormon.

Another argument against this analysis would be that all these archaic meanings might have still existed in Joseph Smith’s upstate New York dialect. Thus far there is no evidence to support such a hypothesis. Lexical studies consistently show that the archaic meanings for these words did indeed become obsolete in England prior to 1700. Nor have any vestiges of their use in the American colonies been found as of yet.

Conjectural Emendations

If the original vocabulary of the Book of Mormon text dates from Early Modern English, one might wonder if there are any archaic words or expressions that were unrecognizable to Joseph Smith and his scribes, thus leading them to misinterpret and change the language during the early transmission of the text. Two possibilities have arisen thus far. The first one deals with the word ceremony in Mosiah 19:24: “and it came to pass that after they had ended the ceremony that they returned to the land of Nephi.” The problem with this passage is that the word ceremony seems out of place. The larger context implies that their discourse was simply over:

and it came to pass that they were about to return to the land of Nephi and they met the men of Gideon and the men of Gideon told them of all that had happened to their wives and their children and that the Lamanites had granted unto them that they might possess the land by paying a tribute to the Lamanites of one half of all they possessed and the people told the men of Gideon that they had slain the king and his priests had fled from them farther into the wilderness and it came to pass that after they had ended the ceremony that they returned to the land of Nephi rejoicing because their wives and their children were not slain and they told Gideon what they had done to the king (Mosiah 19:22—24)

The OED lists no meaning for ceremony that would work reasonably well for this passage except to assume that the conversation itself is a ceremony or that it involved some kind of cere­monial aspect in recounting the execution of King Noah.

I have had a number of my students and research assistants try to find another word that might work better in Mosiah 19:22—24, one that would perhaps sound or look like ceremony. The idea behind this approach is that such a word might have been miscopied or misheard as cere­mony. The only plausible suggestion proposed thus far comes from Renee Bangerter in her 1998 BYU master’s thesis (“Since Joseph Smith’s Time: Lexical Semantic Shifts in the Book of Mormon,” pp. 16—18), where she proposes that the original word in Mosiah 19:24 might have been sermon. Although the current meanings for this word will not work in this passage, Bangerter notes that the OED gives the earliest meaning for sermon as ‘something that is said; talk, discourse,’ which would exactly fit the context described in Mosiah 19:22—24. This meaning is, however, obsolete; the last citation in the OED with this meaning dates from 1594: “Desiring Don Infeligo with very mild sermon to be friends with Medesimo again.” The last citation found on Literature Online <lion.chadwyck.com> with this meaning comes from Giles Fletcher and dates from 1593: “Out of my braine I made his Sermon flow.”

In part 3 of volume 4 of the critical text, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon (this part will be published in the summer of 2006), I discuss under Mosiah 19:24 how sermon could have accidentally been replaced by ceremony. Basically, I propose the following: the scribe for the original manuscript (which is unfortunately not extant here) spelled sermon as cermon, which was then misread as ceremony (and spelled as cerimony) when Oliver Cowdery copied the word from the original manuscript into the printer’s manuscript. Such a conjectural emendation is possible once we recognize that the vocabulary for the original Book of Mormon text dates from the 1500s and 1600s.

A second possible misinterpretation deals with the expression “the pleasing bar of God,” as found in Jacob 6:13 (and similarly in Moroni 10:34 as “the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah”). In part 2 of volume 4 of the critical text (this part was published in August of this year), under Jacob 6:13, I argue that the pleasing bar is actually a mistake for the pleading bar. An abbreviated description of the evidence for emending the text to the pleading bar was initially presented in 2004 and can be found in a previous issue of the FARMS publication Insights (vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 2—3). This conjectural emendation was first proposed by Christian Gellinek in 2003. There are no uses of the term pleasing bar anywhere on the Internet except in reference to the Book of Mormon, yet there is clear evidence that the legal term pleading bar was used in the 1600s. And as might be expected, no instances of pleading bar have thus far been found during the 1800s, in either England or the United States. But such a conjectural emendation is consistent with the hypothesis that the vocabulary of the Book of Mormon dates from Early Modern English.

These new findings argue that Joseph Smith was not the author of the English-language translation of the Book of Mormon. Not only was the text revealed to him word for word, but the words themselves sometimes had meanings that he and his scribes would not have known, which occasionally led to misinterpretation. The Book of Mormon is not a 19th-century text, nor is it Joseph Smith’s. The English-language text was revealed through him, but it was not precisely in his language or ours.

In this article, I have briefly listed some of the examples of the original archaic language in the Book of Mormon. A complete discussion of this issue will eventually appear in volume 3 of the criti­cal text, The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon. Many of these examples, especially those that involve textual variation, are discussed in volume 4, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, now in the process of being published.

By Royal Skousen Professor of Linguistics and English Language, Brigham Young University