Tuesday, December 11, 2018

On the Language of Joseph Smith – Part I

How often do people reading the Book of Mormon consider what words meant to Joseph Smith that he used in translation. If you were to translate something, what words would you use? Would you know how a work might change over time in the future?
If you have been translating English in the past, would you have known that the word “nice,” which meant “silly, foolish, simple,” would be so far different in the future? And what about the word “silly” of the past, would you know the word, which meant things worthy or blessed, would later mean weak and vulnerable, and finally, as in our day, meaning those who are foolish?
    In that distant past, when you wrote “something was awful,” such as “the awful majesty of God,” meaning it was worthy of “awe,” would you know the word would eventually come to mean what it does today, just the opposite? And centuries ago, the word “clue” meant a ball of yarn, “naughty” meant “naught” or “nothing,” a “spinster” was merely a woman who spun, the word “merry” meant “short,” and the word “fine” meant being at the end, while “merry” meant “short.”
    For those who wonder how such opposite meanings came about, think of teenagers today using words like “that’s sick,” meaning excellent, outstanding; “bad” “wicked” and “nasty,” meaning awesome; “snatched” meaning looking good; “thirsty,” meaning needs attention, etc.
    Words in general change over time, such as “afford” once meaning to move forward, or “artificial” once meaning a messenger, or “desire” which once meant a person who studied the stars. Thus, an American dialect will therefore be formed." As the settlers (including a good proportion of Irish and Scots, with their own distinctive accents and usages of English) pushed westward, new terms were indeed introduced, and these pioneers were much less reticent to adopt native words or, indeed, to make up their own. The journals of Lewis and Clark, written as they explored routes to the west coast in 1804-6, contain over 500 native words (mainly animals, plants and food). The wild “outlands” west of the Mississippi River gave us the word outlandish to describe its idiosyncratic characters.
John Adams’ much-vaunted “plain English” took a back seat in the hands of colorful characters like Davy Crockett (who was himself of Scots-Irish decent) and others, who saw western expansion as an excuse to expand the language with new words and quirky Americanisms like skedaddle, bamboozle, shebang, riff-raff, hunky-dory, lickety-split, rambunctious, ripsnorter, humdinger, doozy, shenanigan, discombobulate, absquatulate, splendiferous, etc., not to mention evocative phrases like fly off the handle, a chip on the shoulder, no axe to grind, sitting on the fence, dodge the issue, knuckle down, make the fur fly, go the whole hog, kick the bucket, face the music, bite the dust, barking up the wrong tree, pass the buck, stack the deck, poker face, in cahoots, pull up stakes, horse sense, two cents’ worth, stake a claim, strike it rich, the real McCoy and even the phrase stiff upper lip (in regard to their more hidebound British cousins).
    From the deliberately misspelled and dialectical works of Artemus Ward and Josh Billings to popular novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Tom's Cabin” (1852) and Mark Twain's “Huckleberry Finn” (1884), this American vernacular spread rapidly, and became in the process more publicly acceptable both in everyday speech and in literature.
    Many Spanish words also made their way into American English during the expansion and settlement of the Spanish-influenced American West, including words like armadillo, alligator, canyon, cannibal, guitar, mosquito, mustang, ranch, rodeo, stampede, tobacco, tornado and vigilante (some of which were also originally derived from native languages). To a lesser extent, French words, from the French presence in the Louisiana area and in Canada, contributed loanwords like gopher, prairie, depot, cache, cent and dime, as well as French-derived place names like Detroit, Illinois, Des Moines, etc.
    American English words made their way to the mother country of England should not be underestimated. They include commonly used word like commuter, bedrock, sag, snag, soggy, belittle, lengthy, striptease, gimmick, jeans, teenager, hangover, teetotal, fudge, publicity, joyride, blizzard, showdown, uplift, movie, obligate, stunt, notify, redneck, businessman, cocktail, skyscraper, bootleg, highfalutin, guesstimate, raincoat, cloudburst, nearby, worthwhile, smooch, genocide, hindsight and graveyard among many others.
    Even the word roundabout originally came from America, even though traffic circles hardly existed then. This word, by the way is used by Mormon to indicate the boundary of the Lamanite-occupied West and East wilderness where the Narrow Strip of Wilderness curved upward along both seashores. In addition, the quintessential Americanism is perhaps OK (okay), which has become one of the best known and most widespread terms throughout the entire world.
Its origins are somewhat obscure and still hotly debated, but it seems to have come into common usage in America in the early 1800s, during President Van Buren’s re-election campaign of 1840, from orl correct, then a humorous form of “all correct,” which, along with the initials of Van Buren’s nickname, Old Kinderhook, provided the initials of OK.
    Many of these Americanisms were met with a certain amount of snobbery in Britain, and many words thought to be American in origin were vilified as uncouth and inferior by the British intelligentsia (even though many of those denigrated actually turned out to be of older English provenance in the first place).
    Today, some 4,000 words are used differently in the USA and Britain (lift/elevator, tap/faucet, bath/tub, curtains/drapes, biscuit/cookie and boot/trunk are just some of the better known ones) and, increasingly, American usage is driving out traditional words and phrases back in Britain (e.g. truck for lorry, airplane for aeroplane, etc). American spelling is also becoming more commonplace in Britain (e.g. jail for gaol, wagon for waggon, reflection for reflexion, etc), although some Americanized spelling changes actually go back centuries (e.g. words like horror, terror, superior, emperor and governor were originally spelled as horrour, terrour, superiour, emperour and governour in Britain, even if other words like colour, humour and honour had resisted such changes).
    Just as important are the words common to the region in which one lives, for not all American English is the same any more than American and British English are the same, such as faucet in the north and spigot in the south; frying pan, north, but skillet in the south; or such other words as gutter or eves; pit or seed; teeter-totter or seesaw; firefly or lightning bug; pail or bucket, etc.
    Joseph Smith grew up in the New England area of Vermont, New Hampshire and north-western New York. If you have never traveled around this country you might not realize the huge difference in pronunciation from one area to another, though today it is nowhere near as pronounced as it was in Joseph Smith’s day. And if you are from the West, regional differences are far less pronounced than in the East and South. The point is, words meant one thing in New England when Joseph Smith was translating the plates, and often something entirely different today, 187 years later.
One of the great advantages we have, however, is that the Lord saw fit to provide us in order for us to know what Joseph’s words meant is the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, compiled by Noah Webster, a very religious man in his time, who claimed to have been inspired or motivated by the Holy Spirit to compile his dictionary, on which he spent many long years.
    That it so happened to be published, the only American dictionary in the land at the time and for decades later, at the time of the publication of the Book of Mormon should point out to all of us that the Lord does not leave us without knowledge in regard to understanding his written word. Some claim Joseph Smith would not have had such a dictionary, however, when the School of the Prophets was organized in 1833, records show that among the books used as reference material in the School was Webster’s 1828 dictionary.
    Consequently, it was with some amazement a local Sunday School teacher recently in teaching the Book of Mormon went so far to say to begin her class, “We’re going to look at words and their meanings today in the Book of Mormon, and we’re not going to use some old, out-of-date Webster dictionary, but a new modern, Oxford English Dictionary.” Needless to say, it was an astounding show of a lack of understanding about which she spoke. No doubt, if old Noah Webster, who struggled for years to bring about a dictionary of the meaning of American English, had been in earshot of such a remark that this woman was going to use a British-based dictionary of modern terminology to decide what words meant in 1829 America when Joseph Smith translated the plates, he probably would have had a few choice words in response.
(See the next post, “On the Language of Joseph Smith – Part II,” for more information on how theorists and others writing or talking about the Book of Mormon often mistake the meaning of a word or phrase which either clouds the issue, changes its meaning, or draws inaccurate conclusions)

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