Monday, December 7, 2015

The Critical Text Project or Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: An Interesting Comparison – Part III

Continuing with more of our reader’s comments and our responses, and information about Royal Skousen’s project and Webster’s monumental dictionary. 
In addition, in this explanation of his program, Skousen (left) argues that the original text shows word-for-word control in the translation process based on multiple factors: Its Hebrew-like expressions, a large number of lexical meanings and nonstandard grammatical constructions dating from the 1500s and 1600s, its use of 131 instances of fully consistent expressions, identical non-biblical citations from elsewhere in the text, and the letter-for-letter spelling of Book of Mormon names. Finally, he argues that conjectural emendations were made in the proposed original text—this, by the way for those who are not linguists, means in common language, that in the process of making a revision or correction to the text, the person based his correction or change on conjecture, making the result speculative, suppositional, theoretical or hypothetical—something that was reputed to be, even assumed or presumed to be correct when in reality it is merely believed or surmised, and often formed on the basis of incomplete information.
In other words, we come back again to the same issue of so many others like to claim, that errors beyond spelling and grammar were made despite the influence and guidance of the Spirit involved in the translation.
    Skousen goes on to say that these “conjectural emendations” were made much less frequently than in all subsequent editions of the Book of Mormon. 
    Now, let’s go back and look at the earlier issues he raised:
1. Its Hebrew-like expressions.
    Every language has its own idioms (dialect or jargon of a group of people, either in a certain region or a group with common interests, like in science, music, art, or business, or even an overall language), and will show up from time to time when someone of that language (region, etc.) speaks or writes.
As an example:
    English: “An arm and a leg”, referring to something that is very costly, i.e., “it’ll cost an arm and a leg, but I’m going to get it anyway.”
    French: “Coûter les yeux de la tête,” referring to something that costs the eyes in your head, i.e., it is unreasonably priced.
    Spanish: “Tomar el pelo,” which means tricking or making fun of someone. “Me estás tomando el pelo.” It literally means “to take the hair,” and is like English “You’re pulling my leg.”
    German: “auf den Arm nehmen,” literally means to “to take someone on your arm,” which is the same as the English idiom, ”you’re pulling my leg.”
    Idioms are in frequent use in every language and while they cannot be exactly translated into their meaning, every language knows its own idioms and what they mean. However, that does not mean that they continue to remain in the lexicon of that language. As an example, when I was growing up in my parents’ home, my dad had two sayings he used constantly: “Don’t take any wooden nickels” and “Keep your nose clean.” The first idiom was a reminder to me to be cautious in my dealings with people, especially financial dealings; and the second idiom meant to stay out of trouble (both had much earlier meanings dealing with staying out of prison and avoiding corruption, but in my dad’s day, it meant much as I’ve stated). However, despite how many times I heard these sayings over more than 20 years, I never once used them in my own speech.
    So when Skousen talks about Hebrew-like expressions, he seems to forget four very important things: 1) Other than Nephi, Sam and Zoram, with a minimal adding of Jacob and Joseph, no one in the Nephite nation in the Land of Promise had ever been to Jerusalem and knew the Hebrew language only as it was passed down from generation to generation in the Land of Promise; 2), that passing down of the Hebrew language was changed over time (Mormon 9:33).
This means that by the time Mormon came along, who was the author of the vast majority of what we have and Skousen could evaluate, was written by Mormon when Hebrew had been altered over 1000 years of their history, with the Book of Ether translated by Moroni, from a language that preceded Hebrew and may not have had much, if any, carry over of Hebrew expression, plus also after Hebrew had been altered for nearly 1000 years—leaving only 1st and 2nd Nephi and Jacob written by those who would have known the original Hebrew language whose record we now have translated by Mormon; 3) Nephi was not a fan of the Jews at Jerusalem, calling their works “works of darkness,” (2 Nephi 25:2) and may have avoided using any or most phrases that would trace back to that source—he certainly made a point of telling us he did not teach his people many things that were of the Jews; and 4) The Book of Mormon, as it originally appeared on the plates, was not written in Hebrew and might not have contained much in Hebraic writing at all, for it was written in Reformed Egyptian, and since none of us know exactly what that is, including Skousen, it is difficult to make claims that this statement or that is Hebrew-like in its expression. Even Moroni made it clear that their writing in Reformed Egyptian could not carry Hebrew expressions of meanings, otherwise why would there have been imperfections? (Mormon 9:33). Obviously, in translating from Hebrew to Reformed Egyptian, the flare of the Hebrew was lost and they had trouble understanding the words of the Jews (2 Nephi 25:1).
    Now, having said all that, it is imperative that we, including the professors at BYU who often seem to forget this little, all important detail, is that the Spirit was in charge of this translation. After all, according to the witnesses and scribes, words appeared on the seer stone Joseph Smith placed in the hat so he could see it clearly in the darkness of that hat (similar, to those of you who are older, to the fact that our early TV screens were easier to see when there was no light shining directly on the screen and the room was darkened), he read the words off to the scribe, who wrote them down, then read back what was written—and if it was correct, the words on the stone disappeared and others appeared, but if it was incorrect, the same words remained on the stone until the word(s) was corrected.
Left: Joseph wearing an artist’s rendition of the Urim and Thumim; Middle: however, many of the early Saints referred to the seer stone, which Emma and others described, also as the Urim and Thumim—the seer stone was placed in a hat; Right: To block out the light so he could see what appeared on the stone, Joseph placed the hat around his face so it was dark inside, which is the manner that all the scribes described Joseph’s translation of the plates
    After all, the Spirit knew what was written and what was meant from that and knew what was upon the plates, and to think that he was misled, didn’t understand, or know what was correct, is ridiculous. As is the belief that the Spirit would have allowed a mistake to have been made—God is not a God of confusion! The fact that the grammar and spelling of their day is different than that of today does not mark a mistake, only a difference; and since God speaks to man in his own language, whatever the spelling and grammar was of the time or known to those translating and writing was their language, which the Spirit accepted.
    Spelling of that era, as an example, was mostly phonetic—somewhere around Joseph’s day and shortly after, the term Late Modern English is applied, or just Modern English, meaning the difference between “Old English Grammar” and “Modern or Late English Grammar.” In fact, one of the purposes of Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, was to set down the rules of grammar and spelling of American English that had been rather haphazard before that time.
    The fact that all this took place at the same time of the Industrial and scientific revolution (or advances), which created a need for neologisms (newly coined words and expressions or new meanings of existing words) to describe the new creations and discoveries. To a large extent, this relied on the classical languages, Latin and Greek, in which scholars and scientists of the period were usually well versed; however, it gave rise to numerous new English words brought into the American lexicon, often words that were spelled according to who was writing them.
(See the next post, “The Critical Text Project or Webster’s 1828 Dictionary: An Interesting Comparison-PtIV,” for more of the reader’s comments and our responses, and information about Royal Skousen’s project and Webster’s monumental dictionary)


  1. I often wonder how much Hebrew has changed however. This is the ancient Adamic language and the language of God. It is the language of scripture too. It did become a dead language after 70ad but it has been revived. If want proof that Hebrew is the Adamic language you might remember three words in the temple C. They are Hebrew.

  2. We simply do not know that the language of Noah was the language of Adam. It may be, but we have no definitive knowledge of this.