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The Book of Mormon and linguistic evolution

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As the Book of Mormon illustrates, languages evolve.

For instance, somewhere between 279 B.C. and 130 B.C. — roughly 325-470 years after they’d separately left Jerusalem — the Nephites of King Mosiah I encountered the people of Zarahemla or “Mulekites.” From the Nephite standpoint, the Mulekite language had grown so “corrupted” that neither “Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them.” Accordingly, “Mosiah caused that they should be taught in his language” (see Omni 1:17-18).

But the Nephite language itself had almost certainly become “corrupted” over the intervening centuries.

Likewise, during the early fifth century A.D. — that is, as the Nephites’ thousand-year history neared its tragic end — Moroni explained that their “reformed Egyptian” writing system had been “handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.” They might have used Hebrew letters, but those would have required more space on the plates and, anyway, “the Hebrew hath been altered by us also.” After a millennium of isolated linguistic development, “none other people knoweth our language” (see Mormon 9:32-34).

English manifests similar historical changes. Thus, taking just the first 20 lines of the 1603 printing of “Hamlet,” we find such spellings as “magicall,” “historie,” “meete,” “leegemen” (“liegemen,” itself obsolete), “souldier,” “releeved,” “peece,” “seene,” “wil,” “beliefe” and “fantasie.”

And, in Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400), we find words such as “contree,” “armee,” “koude” (“could”), “ooth” (“oath”), “condicioun” (“condition”) and “seyd” (“said”). Chaucer doesn’t write “eyes,” “toes” or “foes,” but “eyen,” “toon” and “foon.” His infinitive verb “to ride” seems almost German: “riden” or, sometimes, “ryden.” And his past participles often have a “y” prefix, so that “fallen” becomes “yfallen” (like German “gefallen”).

Furthermore, such spelling variations represent changes in pronunciation. “Forehead” was once pronounced “forid.” “Bone,” “home” and “oak” were spelled “boon,” “hoom” and “ook” 600 years ago — and “ban,” “ham" and “ac” around A.D. 1000.

Meanings change, too. So, when Shakespeare writes in “King Lear” of “mice, and rats, and such small deer,” he’s plainly using the word “deer” to mean “animals.” And when “Romeo and Juliet” describes a quarrel as “nice,” the word means “foolish” or “trifling.”

In 20th-century England, Americans speaking about a “campus” or “bleachers” might have bewildered their hearers. And British references to the “bonnet” (“hood”) of their car, or to parking it off the highway in a “lay-by,” would mystify many Americans. George Bernard Shaw is attributed with the quip that Britain and America are “two countries divided by a common language.”

Syntax or sentence structure also evolves. Modern English rejects double and triple negatives on logical grounds, but Shakespeare and others used them for emphasis. “I will not budge for no man’s pleasure,” reads “Romeo and Juliet.” And, literally translated, the “Canterbury Tales” say of Chaucer’s Knight that “he never did not say no harm to no kind of creature in all his life.”

Moreover, words come and go. “Trousers” are becoming “pants.” The “waistcoat,” often pronounced “weskit,” is now usually a “vest.” And what would Henry Alexander, the Anglo-Canadian linguist from whose 1940 book “The Story of Our Language” my English examples are drawn, have made of “transgendered,” “internet” or “Apple laptop”? How would he have understood the verb “to google”?

If we were transported four centuries back to Shakespeare’s day, or six centuries to Chaucer’s, we would find the language virtually incomprehensible. If we traveled back a thousand years, English would seem as foreign to us as German, French or Latin.

But, if anything, printing and widespread education have slowed the pace of linguistic change over the past half millennium. In an oral culture, it proceeds more rapidly.

Thus, William Caxton (d. ca. 1491), perhaps the first English printer, explained that “certaynly our langage now used varyeth ferre (far) from that whiche was used and spoken when I was borne. For we englysshe men ben borne under the domynacyon of the mone (moon), which is never stedfaste, but ever waverynge, wexynge one season, and waneth and dycreaseth another season.”

The fact that the Mulekites “had brought no records with them” is significant. It probably explains not only why “they denied the being of their Creator” (Omni 1:17) but also why their language was so “corrupted.”

This scarcely proves the Book of Mormon is true. But the book’s awareness of linguistic evolution seems to me rather sophisticated for young Joseph Smith, who had about a third-grade education at the time of the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, and who, his mother recalled, read very little.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.