Friday, December 4, 2015

The Language of Joseph Smith

If people are going to criticize the language, orthography, syntax, spelling, and grammar of the Book of Mormon, which resulted in numerous changes after publication, then it should be something one does with knowledge, not simply because it appears outdated, uneducated, or archaic by today’s standards. 
As an example, the language that existed in New England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries has a long and complex history, dating as far back as the Christian era in England, around 600 A.D., where the Roman letters and alphabet replaced the Germanic “runes,” which was previously used mostly for incantations, curses, and some poems, when tribes were small and still on the continent and through their migration to Britain and the period of Christianization.
    The Roman alphabet, however, was never perfectly adapted for writing English even when first used to represent Anglo-Saxon. The first monks writing English using Roman letters soon added new characters to handle the extra sounds, such as the Anglo-Saxon “æ,” called ash, or the runic characters fricatives “þ,” called thorn and “ð,” called eth, and “ȝ,” called yogh, which in medieval times where replaced with the digraphs, or single sounds (phoneme) represented by two letters: “th,” “sh,” and “gh.”
    Like any new language, no norms for writing words consistently was adopted, and had not been absolute in Anglo-Saxon before that. Obviously, it is not easy for writers to remember a single orthographic representation, called a spelling, for a word yet such is required for standardization. Unfortunately, then as now (in new words), writers prefer to produce written forms they have seen before for specific words, even if there is not a good match between written characters and sounds.
    In addition, getting a pronunciation out of alphabetic writing requires people to analyze the sound string down to the level of component sounds. Yet this type of phonemic analysis is apparently not an obvious or natural one for people; it needs to be taught intensively before it can be spoken somewhat automatically and that is one reason why acquisition of literacy at an early age is stressed in cultures with alphabetic writing. It takes a lot of practice to reliably decode messages from alphabetic writing to the spoken word.
I remember the first time I coached a Little League baseball team of several kids that had various Latin names. One in particular gave me great difficulty—Ramirez. It took me several weeks to get from RAM-i-rez. To Ra-MIR-ez.
    In fact, some of those who try to learn to read alphabetic writing never master it because they can't separate the speech string into individual segments, which are clusters of vocal gestures in consonants and vowels. This is what leads to accents among people in the U.S. who speak English as a second language, which is especially true among those who speak languages based on Latin spelling (pronunciation), such as Spanish, Italian, Japanese, etc., where vowels always have the same sound, since English is a conglomeration of several language pronunciations with numerous sounds for each vowel. As an example, English has 44 different sounds: 19 vowel sounds, including 5 long vowels, 5 short vowels, 3 dipthongs, 2 “oo” sounds, 4 “r” controlled vowel sounds and 25 consonant sounds, plus 19 blend sounds, 7 digraph sounds, and odd balls (like “zh” as in vision).
    When you compare that to Latin vowels, “a” is always “ah,” “e” is always “eh” (though occasionally sounds like a hard “a”); “i” is always a hard “e”; “o” is always “oh,” and “u” is always “oo,” with the dipthongs of “a” and “i” creating the sound “eye, ” “a” and “u” creating “ou” as in “house,” “o” and “e” as “ay” in “say.”
The Norman conquest (1066 A.D.) and its aftermath changed the entire social and government structure, bringing French into the language, and removing Wessex English and replacing it with London English. As an example, the “c,” which had always had a “k” sound, now also had an “s” sound, as in “curb,” and “city,” and the “g” took on a “j” sound as well as its normal hard “g” sound, as in goat and gesture.
    As Oxford and Cambridge grew in prominence away from London, the language of the 1300s took on an even greater change, with their different dialects governing the Age of Learning in England. This triangle of London-Oxford-Cambridge, with its revolving scholarly and clerical workforce, became a large and important center of developing orthographic norms. Then came the printing press in the 1400s which drastically changed the speed at which manuscripts could be produced and therefore disseminated, and the adoption of paper also helped to make written documents cheaper and more widespread.
Left: Chancery Lane where (Right) Chancery Court was held in the 16th century, and now used by the Institute of Actuaries today
    These factors encouraged the growth of record-keeping and bureaucracy and the continued growth in importance of the Court of Chancery and Chancery English. Property records, tax-collecting and other financial records, laws, and records of crime and punishment all burgeoned in the 1500s. The rise of schools, designed to train not only religious workers but also secular clerical workers for government, made it possible to train larger numbers of people in literacy and thereby also further spread the developing norms for orthography. The growth of London and its role in public institutions ensured its importance as the center of a linguistic standard for the developing nation.
    Standard written norms based on London English developed and were used even where local pronunciations were hardly affected by the sounds of spoken London English. Documents moved around in far greater volume and speed, even more than people and thus could influence the norms of the region more easily than the spoken dialect features of travelers. The growth of a professionalized class of printers outside of the direct control of church and government led to the role of printers in setting norms of writing and spelling, who had a strong interest in standardization to reduce variation and hence make the printing process easier.
    The printing profession evolved into the profession of publishing, and publishers have been important ever since in the setting of written standards.
    During the 1500s, a major upheaval in the pronunciation of English vowels, the Great English Vowel shift, spread through the speech community and tore the conservative written forms of the long vowels away from their changing pronunciations, leaving English with a set of letter-to-written vowel correspondences different from everywhere else in Europe, as well as internal variation that bedevils readers in pairs like divine, divinity. In addition, many inflectional endings were reduced and finally eliminated, notably many final unstressed e's. These "silent e's" were continued in the spelling system but repurposed as a tool to signal the value of the long vowels changed in the Great Vowel Shift (i.e., the silent "e" ending made the earlier vowel "long" or "hard" as in mate, name, while etc.)
    Other sounds were reduced then eliminated, such as the k's and g's in the old clusters kn and gn (as in knight and gnat) and some of the remnants of Old English yogh, the old velar fricative (as in neighbor and bough). The result is the numerous set of "silent letters" that those trying to learn English today find so maddening.
    By 1600, under the impetus of printing the tremendous variety of spellings in written English had shaken down into a far smaller set of variants, and a great part of the outlines of the modern orthography was in place. Changes in orthographic norms slowed considerably, and Modern English was left with a spelling system from an earlier period of its history: essentially it is a normalized Middle English system. The result is a set of letter-to-sound mismatches greater than those of elsewhere in Europe, even in some respects greater than those of French, whose spelling was codified a little later.
    The introduction of the Reformation and Renaissance as part of a new, Protestant England, created the need for new doctrine and its administration, new documents, and liturgies for the recently-established Church of England, the Book of Common Prayer, and above all, English translations and copies of the Bible.
As the American colonies grew and separated from England, a push was made to identify distinguishing cultural factors and language that would separate Americans from Britons, since a recognizable set of American pronunciation features had already developed. However, instead of using pronunciation differences to try to develop a separate written standard, Noah Webster wrote a dictionary in 1828 that containing some regional, American-dialect based definitions to set it apart, and also introduced into his dictionary and other writings a set of spellings that put a distinctive stamp on American orthography without changing it too much for mutual intelligibility.
    In other words, most of the spelling conventions that had solidified in the British standard written form by the early 19th century were maintained by Webster in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, but he added a few systematic differences: Using -ize instead of -ise for verbs derived from Greek verbs in -izein; eliminating u in the suffix -our (thus moving it away from the French-derived spelling of Middle English to a spelling somewhat more in line with pronunciation on both sides of the Atlantic), the replacement of -re in French loans by -er (centre/center, theatre/theater) and a few other simplifications.
    Movements advocating more drastic spelling reform of English emerged in the 18th century, and there are periodic resurgences of this trend, which represents an attempt to introduce efficiency and save time for new learners. Benjamin Franklin devised an alphabetic system largely keeping English orthography the same but introducing single symbols for the current digraphs, and additional symbols for vowel distinctions not systematically represented in the writing system. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was a passionate advocate of total spelling reform and left his entire estate to be devoted to this project in 1950.
    The point of all of this is for us to recognize that the period of time that Joseph Smith lived, and translated the Book of Mormon, was during one of the greatest movements of change known in the English language, even more so than the changes resulting from the Conquest (1066) and the Great Vowel Shift (1350-1700). During this time in the early 1800s, the language, spelling, grammar, etc.,, were all changing rapidly, with few people having the same understanding of any regularity to rules and guidelines.
Thus, when we look at the original writing of the Book of Mormon, and compare it to today, we see an enormous amount of "errors" in the grammar, spelling, word meanings, etc., many of which have already been changed to especially bring the grammar and spelling into a modern reading syntax and orthography.
(Beginning in the next post is the subject of Royal Skousen’s Critical Text Project, which, after these last three posts about language of Joseph Smith’s time, will make more sense and, we hope, our responses more meaningful)

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