Royal Skousen on “The Nature of the Original Language” of the Book of Mormon

In a launch event celebrating the publication of parts 3 and 4 of Volume 3 of The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, professor Royal Skousen and fellow researcher Dr. Stanford Carmack discussed their continued research on the original language of the Book of Mormon.

PROVO, Utah (September 25, 2018)—Anyone familiar with the Book of Mormon knows that its language can feel idiosyncratic, and according to Professor of linguistics Royal Skousen, the Book of Mormon’s language really is one-of-a-kind. “[The Book of Mormon features] a very complex and interesting mixture of specific language usage,” he said to a crowded lecture hall on BYU campus in late September. And contrary to what many might think, the book is “definitely not an ignorant mishmash of language imitating but the Biblical style.”

If you want to learn more about the language of the Book of Mormon, Skousen’s work presents an expert perspective. Having researched all linguistic aspects of the Book of Mormon’s original manuscripts since he initiated the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project in 1988,  his central (and longstanding) project has been to “restore the original English text of the Book of Mormon to the extent possible by scholarly means.” Over the last thirty years, Skousen’s efforts have well exceeded this original goal, including many new linguistic insights worthy of further study.

The publication of parts 3 and 4 of Volume 3 of the Book of Mormon Critical Text Project are evidence of the project’s breadth and continued vitality. Titled The Nature of the Original Language (NOL), these two parts belong to a volume called The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon. The NOL continues the analysis of parts 1 and 2 (both titled Grammatical Variation) of the same volume by arguing that a majority of the Book of Mormon’s language is found in Early Modern English of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In a lecture sponsored by BYU Studies and the Interpreter Foundation, Skousen (in collaboration with independent researcher Dr. Stanford Carmack) expounded on the significance of the recently released NOL, focusing primarily on the vocabulary, phraseology, and expressions found within the Book of Mormon that ceased to exist in English prior to 1700 (and therefore, prior to Joseph Smith’s time). Following Skousen, Carmack examined the unique syntax of the Book of Mormon, which also supports a strong connection between the book’s language and the English of the latter half of the 1500s. “In my studies of the Book of Mormon, it has been impressed upon me that [the book] is indeed a philological achievement in its syntax, time and time again,” Carmack said.

Skousen noted that the seamless “blending” of King James Bible phraseology within the Book of Mormon is an indication that “the book is not a direct translation of what might have been on the plates” and that “the Book of Mormon is a creative translation that involves considerable intervention by the translator.” Similarly, Skousen said, “the words that occur in the Book of Mormon proper—and not in the citations from the Bible—are recognizable as current words in English.” That said, he continued, “[these words in the Book of Mormon] often take on archaic meanings that neither Joseph Smith or his scribes understood.” Skousen also argued that certain themes within the Book of Mormon, including burning people at the stake for heresy, secret combinations, the rejection of child baptism, and standing before the bar of justice, were not prominent issues of Joseph Smith’s time but issues pertinent to the Protestant Reformation.

In concluding his lecture, Skousen decided to put a series of common questions to rest. Although Early Modern English has a strong presence in the Book of Mormon, the Book of Mormon is not entirely written in Early Modern English, Skousen clarified. “We need to continue to study the nature of the original language of the Book of Mormon,” he said. As to the question of who translated the original gold plates and why there might be language from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, he added, “I’m afraid we’re just going to have to wait for the answer from the Lord.”

Elizabeth Barton (English and French Studies ’18)