The Book of Mormon’s use of archaic “subordinate that” syntax exceeds what we would expect from a 19th century imitation of archaic style, and even exceeds what we find in the Bible, strengthening the cumulative case against 19th century authorship and Joseph Smith’s role in forming the book’s words.
In this article, Stanford Carmack reviews what to many would be both a mundane and pedantic feature of the Book of Mormon: it’s use of the word “that”. The term “subordinate that” refers to an archaic form of syntax where the word that is used after a subordinating conjunction—words like after, because, before, or when—at the head of a subordinate clause. A subordinate clause begins with a subordinating conjunction and is followed by a sentence-like phrase with a subject and a verb. Subordinate clauses in modern English generally include the conjunction followed by the clause itself (which Carmack labels as “S”, but more archaic English often inserts the word “that” between them—an inclusion that modern English readers, including early 19th century readers, would find clunky and unnecessary.
Carmack notes seven types of subordinate that found within the King James Bible, showing the frequency and providing examples for each type, finding a total of 211 instances within the Bible. When examining a corpus of 25 texts from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s that attempt imitate biblical style, Carmack finds four of those seven varieties of subordinate that, comprising 68 instances. No single text, including longer ones, features more than two of those types. In contrast, the Book of Mormon features six of the seven biblical varieties of subordinate that, as well as two additional archaic varieties not found in the King James Bible (namely, “to that S”, which is not found in any Bible, and “since that S”, which is found in the 1568 Bishop’s Bible). Altogether, the Book of Mormon has over five times the rate of subordinate that compared to longer pseudo-biblical works (6.9 vs. 1.2 per 10,000 words). (It’s worth noting that the range of use for longer pseudo-archaic works is quite large, from 1 instance to 34 instances, with the rate per 10,000 words being as high as 3.2 for American Revolution.)
Carmack also explores rare subtypes of subordinate that usage. He finds that the King James has three total instances of three subtypes, and that the pseudo-archaic works have only one instance of one of those subtypes. In contrast, the Book of Mormon features seventeen total instances of five subtypes. The Book of Mormon also has two additional archaic subtypes which don’t appear related to those found in the King James and can’t be found in pseudo-archaic works: 1) “Wherefore after that S”, and 2) a subtype that incorporates periphrastic instances of the word “did”, which is itself another example of Early Modern English syntax. Both of these subtypes were ten times more popular in the 1500s than in the 1600s, let alone the early 1800s.
Lastly, Carmack addresses two arguments put forward by Brant Gardner supporting Joseph Smith’s role in shaping the language of the Book of Mormon. According to Gardner, Joseph’s willingness to edit the text in the 1837 edition of the book suggests that he was in a position to know the true meaning and intent of that text. Gardner also notes anachronistic references (e.g., to “a dumb ass” or to goats and lions) that are unlikely to have been original to the plates. In response, Carmack argues that almost all of Joseph’s edits were stylistic edits, such as removing many cases of subordinate that. He also notes evidence that Joseph did not appear to understand the book’s syntactic structure very well, making edits that contradict the context of some verses (e.g., changing a which to a who, when the referent wasn’t a person). Carmack also notes that some anachronistic concepts could have been preserved via the brass plates—modern writers, for instance, often make reference to extinct or even mythical creatures based on concepts transmitted from earlier cultural periods. And even if the translation was in some parts conceptual, Joseph need not have been the one responsible for forming those concepts.
For Carmack, the presence of Early Modern English syntax, including examples of subordinate that, argues strongly against Joseph producing that text. As he says near the end of the paper:
“Joseph Smith was unlikely to have produced the original forms found in the dictation language. The assumption that he could have been responsible for producing, in a sustained manner, much more convincing archaism than the best pseudo-archaic authors is a dubious one.”
I like Carmack’s characterization of the Book of Mormon’s archaic syntax as both broad and deep. Though he doesn’t specify exactly what he means by that, I see it as broad in the sense that it includes a near-staggering array of different forms of archaic syntax, of which subordinate that is a key example, and deep in that it seems to be effortlessly woven into the bones of the book, with a frequency that biblical imitations simply do not match. Though it would have been useful for Carmack to show more clearly how the book’s use of subordinate that matches how it was used archaically, as he did in a similar article late last year, explaining these characteristics through Joseph Smith’s own word choices is becoming an increasingly daunting task.
I can understand why some would try to preserve that role for the prophet, given the strange implications of Early Modern English, but I find myself resonating with Carmack’s arguments here. I’ve tended to see Joseph’s 1837 edits as evidence of Joseph’s discomfort with the archaic style of the text—why would he be so uncomfortable with the style if the style was his to begin with? And even if some references are anachronistic, why must those anachronisms have been Joseph’s? To my mind, there’s nothing limiting asses or goats or lions to the early 19th century. In contrast, I see the careful case being built by Carmack as clearly and effectively ruling out 19th century authorship, something which should give critics pause when considering questions of the book’s authenticity.