Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Critical Text Project or Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: An Interesting Comparison - PtI

A reader sent in a comment regarding Royal Skousen’s (left) Critical Text Project as a basis for disagreeing with some of the value of Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language. In order to respond to his comments, and hopefully illustrate some of the values and questions regarding the Critical Text Project, we decided to answer his inquiry in a post rather than attempt a short, simple answer. We do this because we feel it is extremely important for us to understand the concept, meaning and purpose behind the words Joseph Smith used and their initial meaning, i.e., the meaning of the words as he would have known them in his time and local as opposed to how they might be interpreted today. 
    First, we’ll deal with the comments, then expand on the Critical Text Project, and also on Webster’s words and the work and knowledge behind his dictionary and its coincidental publication the year before the Book of Mormon was translated.
    Reader Comment: “I base my opinion on the actual findings of the Critical Text Project of the Book of Mormon recently completed by Royal Skousen, not on Joseph's "love" of King James language.”
The second-person pronoun distinction is crucial for a close reading of the Bible
    Response: The King James language Joseph preferred and used in his translation was in words like “thou” and “thee” and “ye” instead of “you,” “shalt,” instead of “shall,” “art,” instead of “are,” etc. Thus King James style of Elizasbethan period of Early Modern English usage has no impact on the meaning of the words being used when comparing with today’s usage—Joseph simply preferred the honorific language of the Bible to the more “common” usage of his day in describing words the Lord spoke or were referenced. Consequently, the words he substituted do not change the original English of his day “you,” “shall,” “are,” etc., as seen in “Thou savest,” for “You save;” “Thou shalt,” for “You shall,” “Thou didst save,” for “You saved,” “Sent thee,” for “Sent you,” “Thy salvation,” for “Your salvation.” In this sense, the word “ye” could also mean “the,” as in “Ye Old Tavern,” however, no one is going to try to interpret that as “You Old Tavern.” In addition, “My soul delighteth” for “My soul delights,” “Then cometh a remission” or “Then comes a remission” or “He speaketh unto men” for “He speaks to men,” or “wilt not suffer” for “will not suffer.” As can be seen, the usage of the King James language does not change the meaning in any way.
Therefore, the meaning of the words are not altered by the King James Biblical language Joseph used at times.
    Reader Comment: “Scientifically speaking, much of the language in the BOM ‘formerly’ attributed to Joseph's New England dialect is now known to actually be perfect early modern English from the 15th-18th century and was completely defunct and out of usage well before Joseph's time.”
    Response: This simply is not true. As I have suggested so many times in the past, and did to this reader before his comment, the language found in Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary was that of the current and contemporary usage of his day (late 1700s and early 1800s) in New England, where both Webster and Joseph Smith grew up (about 90 miles apart), and Webster shows very extensively how those words, used in New England in his day, were basically the same as they were used in earlier periods, giving a reference of writing for almost every word by very well known early American, European, and Asian writers, poets, authors, philosophers, etc., including kings, statesmen, and government officials throughout history from as early as 1300 and through to the early 1800s. While words may be spelled slightly different and even pronounce differently in places, Webster traces their meaning from origin to his day.
    Reader Comment: “These findings are some of the most startling and paradigm-altering to come from the critical text project.”
    Response: Making no attempt to criticize or downplay this monumental effort and accomplishment known as the Critical Text Project, especially since I have not read every word in its thousands-plus pages, this project is the work of one man over a 25-year period, sponsored and printed by FARMS and does not have any official Church backing, approval or endorsement. According to its own abstract: “The Book of Mormon Critical Text Project, under the editorship of Royal Skousen, began in 1988 and is now nearing completion. In 2001, facsimile transcripts of the two Book of Mormon manuscripts (volumes 1 and 2 of the critical text) were published by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). From 2004 to 2009 the six books of volume 4 of the critical text, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, were published, also by FARMS. Parts 1 and 2 of volume 3 of the critical text, The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, were published in early 2015. These two parts will describe all the grammatical editing that the Book of Mormon text has undergone, from 1829 up to the present. When all six parts of volume 3 of the critical text have been published, volume 5 of the critical text, A Complete Electronic Collation of the Book of Mormon, will be released…Nearly all of the work of the project has involved the knowledge and periodic involvement of the Scriptures Committee of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The project itself, however, remains independent of the Church, and none of its findings have involved any ecclesiastical approval or endorsement.”
    This, in no way, minimizes anything about the project, only that it is Skousen’s work, a professor of linguistics at BYU, and bears no official setting. When compared to Noah Webster, perhaps the most accomplished linguist of history, who in his lifetime mastered 26 languages and brought about the separation of American English from that of England and elsewhere, I prefer to rely upon his knowledge and understanding of the words of his day in New England, as would have been known to Joseph Smith and obviously used by him in his translation, since he believed in the fact that the Lord communicates with man in man’s own language.
 Certainly, the definitions and meanings are of great import in interpreting the words Joseph Smith knew and used. The grammatical corrections Skousen brings to light in some cases may be important, but their existence and change has no bearing on word meaning.
    Reader Comment: “Some others include the evidence for strict control over the translation process--meaning that it now looks like Joseph's own ability and vocabulary had little--if any--impact over the translation process.”
    Response: If that is true, it makes a liar out of The Church, several General Authorities, several modern Prophets, and the Lord himself. When Oliver Cowdery failed in his attempt to translate the very work Joseph Smith was doing, the Lord told him: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind, then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right, I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:7-8), and also “You cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me” (D&C 9:9).
   This was not a passive process, the interpreter or translator had to study out in his own mind what was before him and, after coming to a conclusion over it, ask of God if he was correct. According to the Lord, it was solely dependent upon the translator’s ability! And as for vocabulary, it is said of Joseph on the Church website under “Book of Mormon Translation” ( “Joseph Smith stands out among God’s prophets, because he was called to render into his own language an entire volume of scripture amounting to more than 500 printed pages, containing doctrine that would deepen and expand the theological understanding of millions of people. For this monumental task, God prepared additional, practical help in the form of physical instruments” (emphasis mine); and it was Nephi who said, “For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3, emphasis mine).
(See the next post, “The Critical Text Project or Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: An Interesting Comparison-PtII,” for more of the reader’s comments and our responses, and information about Royal Skousen’s project and Webster’s monumental dictionary)

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