Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Webster vs. Oxford English Dictionaries – Part II

Continuing from the previous post regarding the use of the American English of Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, or the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) of European or British English. Also, in discussing Kirk Magleby and his website article “OED on Necks of Land,” we find Magleby trying to convince his readers that the OED was the language of Joseph Smith, claiming that: “In the early 1980's as FARMS was beginning its contribution to Mormon scholarship, we were excited to see what we could learn about the meanings of Book of Mormon words and phrases from Webster's classic tome. Thirty years later we now know the earliest English version of the Nephite text has a much closer affinity with the older language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.”
    First, in looking at English, we need to keep in mind that it is a west Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England, being named after the “Angles,” one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to England from the Anglia (Angeln) Peninsula in the Baltic Sea, at the time of the Saxons and Jutes, and referr3ed to in history as the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain.
The Saxons came from Old Saxony in Northern Germany; the Angles from Anglia, which lay between the homelands of the Saxons and Jutes, straddling the modern Danish-German border; Jutland was the homeland of Jutes, on the coast between Elbe and Weser rivers of the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark
 First, let’s not confuse Shakespearean English with Old English, such as found in the epic poem “Beowulf,” the manuscript being written in perhaps 1000 A.D., and almost impossible to understand by the novice.
    Old English (Beowulf):
Hwät! we Gâr-Dena in geâr-dagum
Lo! the Spear-Danes' glory through splendid achievements
þeód-cyninga þrym gefrunon,
The folk-kings' former fame we have heard of
    Middle English (Chaucer)
Ye seken lond and see for your wynnynges,
You seek land and sea for your winnings,
As wise folk ye knowen all th'estaat
As wise folk you know all the estate
    Early Modern English (Shakespeare):
His captain’s heart, which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst the buckles on his breast, reneges all temper and is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy’s lust.
His heart used to burst the buckles on his breastplate in great fights, but now he’s lost all temperance and dedicates his heart to satisfying the lust of an Egyptian (woman).
Shakespearean English (Early Modern English): Thee, thou, and thine (or thy) are Early Modern English second person singular pronouns. Thou is the subject form (nominative), thee is the object form, and thy/thine is the possessive form

The problem with using Joseph Smith’s love for the scriptural writing of the King James period is in not understanding the difference between the use of words, and the meaning of those words. There is no question that Joseph Smith loved and preferred the language of the Bible for sacred matters; however, the words he used still carried the meanings of his time and not that of the English-speaking people of Europe—to the 20-year-old uneducated farm boy, it would be hard to imagine that he would have known the meaning and origin of words dating back to Shakespeare and King James. But he did like the sacred-sounding King James language as he read in his Bible.
    Yet, he was an American through and through—his ancestry dated back five generations in the New England area, his third great paternal grandfather Robert Smith, immigrated from England to Boston as a teenager in 1638; on his mother’s side, he was fifth generation New Englander from his second great maternal grandfather, John Mack who immigrated from Scotland to New England in 1669.
    It should also be understood that most of the innovations of the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were of British origin, including the harnessing of steam to drive heavy machinery, the development of new materials, techniques and equipment in a range of manufacturing industries, and the emergence of new means of transportation (steamships, railways).
    At least half of the influential scientific and technological output between 1750 and 1900 was written in English. America, of course, continued the English language dominance of new technology and innovation with inventions like electricity, the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph, the sewing machine, the later the computer, etc.
    The industrial and scientific advances of the Industrial Revolution created a need for neologisms (coining or use of new 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. Although words like oxygen, protein, nuclear and vaccine did not exist in the classical languages, they were created from Latin and Greek roots. Lens, refraction, electron, chromosome, chloroform, caffeine, centigrade, bacteria, chronometer and claustrophobia are just a few of the other science-based words that were created during this period of scientific innovation, along with a whole host of “-ologies” and “-onomies”, like biology, petrology, morphology, histology, palaeontology, ethnology, entomology, taxonomy.
    Additional new words were coined for the new products, machines and processes that were developed at this time (train, engine, reservoir, pulley, combustion, piston, hydraulic, condenser, electricity, telephone, telegraph, lithograph, camera). In some cases, old words were given entirely new meanings and connotation (vacuum, cylinder, apparatus, pump, syphon, locomotive, factory), and new words created by amalgamating and fusing existing English words into a descriptive combination were particularly popular (railway, horsepower, typewriter, cityscape, airplane).
    However, it is also important to understand that while new words might well be used by those on the frontier, such as Joseph Smith, in the 1820s, their meaning and derivations would not have been known. New words are used because they define something a person needs to discuss. How the word came into being or why, would not at all be important to someone other than a scholar. And Joseph Smith was not a scholar.
Joseph’s early years were in New England. After forming the Church, he moved a little west into western Pennsylvania and northern Ohio; finally, to Nauvoo, Illinois along the Mississippi River on the border of the American Frontier. The language used in these area was very similar in the 1820-1840 period

Joseph unquestionably, knew and spoke English as it was spoken and understood in the early 1800s New England where he lived—not Britain or Europe. And along this line, it should also be noted that some English word pronunciations and usages “froze” when they arrived in America while they continued to evolve in Britain (sometimes referred to as “colonial lag”), so that, in some respects, American English is far closer to the English of the 18th-19th century than it is to modern English of the 21st century. This has caused linguists today to claim that American English is more like Shakespearean English than modern English, but that is not totally correct.
    Still, in the “freezing” of word development, we see in American words like gotten which has long since faded from use in Britain (even though forgotten has survived). But the American use of words like fall for the British autumn, trash for rubbish, hog for pig, sick for ill, guess for think, and loan for lend are all examples of this kind of anachronistic British word usage. America kept several words (such as burly, greenhorn, talented and scant) that had been largely dropped in Britain (although some have since been recovered), and words like lumber and lot soon acquired their specific American meanings.
    We have to keep in mind that the words known in New England in 1800 to 1830 would have been the words Joseph Smith both knew and used, and whatever those words meant at that time is what Joseph would have understand them to mean. These are the words he used and understood in the translation he accomplished.
(See the next post, “Webster vs. Oxford English Dictionaries – Part III,” for more on the language Joseph Smith knew and used in his translation of the plates)

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