Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

More on the Book of Abraham Manuscripts: What Spelling Errors Teach Us

I received a kind email from Kyler Rasmussen in response to arguments I have made about the spelling in the book of Abraham manuscripts that are part of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (see "The Twin Book of Abraham Manuscripts: Do They Reflect Live Translation Produced by Joseph Smith, or Were They Copied From an Existing Document?"). As a reminder, there are three manuscripts, A, B, and C, written by the scribes Frederick G. Williams, Warren Parrish, and W.W. Phelps, respectively (Phelps begins manuscript C and Parrish later copies more onto it), each of which cover some of the initial verses of the book of Abraham and also have a few characters in the margins from one of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Manuscripts A and B are often said to represent two scribes simultaneously taking live dictation from Joseph Smith as he "translated" the characters in the margins to give impossibly long blocks of text for each character, sometimes as many as 200 words for one. I've argued that the spelling errors of difficult proper nouns support the argument that Parrish could see a manuscript that he was copying, rather than taking dictation from Joseph Smith as new scripture was being revealed (or "fabricated" if you prefer). There are other reasons as well to see these documents as copies of an existing translation rather than some kind of "window" into Joseph's live translation.

You can see these manuscripts at the Joseph Smith Papers website:

With that background, here's what Kyler Rasmussen shared this with me:

Elsewhere I've been discussing your spelling argument with critics, and they made the point that Williams' spelling appears to be a lot worse than Parrish's, which could explain why there's less consistency in the spelling of proper nouns for Manuscript A [written by Williams].  That argument prompted me to take a closer look at the spelling of words that weren't proper nouns in manuscripts A and B.  Here's the misspellings I found for each, with the number of times that variety of misspelling is included within parentheses:

Williams:

hethens
sacrafice
indeovered
indeaver
endeaver
discent
alter (3)
begining (2)
distroy/ed (3)
discendent
decent
whin
leniage
dilliniate
reccord/s (3)
idolitry (2)
follod

So they're right that Williams is making a ton of spelling mistakes. He is, however, consistent in his misspellings (with the exception of endeavor, on which he's apparently hopeless). He thinks he knows how to spell alter, distroy, and reccord, and nobody is correcting him (consistent with dictation). Parrish, by comparison, makes fewer but far more interesting mistakes:

endeavoured
sacrafice
strang (he spells strange correctly in other places)
preist (he spells priest correctly in other places)
fassion
harts (he spells hearts correctly in other places)
their
deliniate
runing
idolitry
patraarch

So he has fewer mistakes, but he's not consistent in making them. He doesn't actually know how to spell strange, priest, or heart, but he gets them right anyway in various spots. To me this is very consistent with the theory that there's an extant written manuscript keeping him on point (and occasionally correcting him, as is clearly the case with "harts").

I also took a look at Manuscript C, which I thought would be interesting given that we know Parrish was copying from another manuscript. Here are the errors in Parrish's portion of the manuscript:

worshiping
sacrafice (spelled correctly in other places)
dum
fassion
knds-folks
idolitry
deliniate
runining
delivr
offiring (spelled correctly in other places)

Some of these are copied from the previous manuscript, but some of them are new, and appear at about the same rate as we have in Manuscript B. "Sacrafice" is a particularly interesting example, since he copies the error from Manuscript B, but then spells it correctly in the new material past 2:2. If he knew it was really spelled "sacrifice", you think he would have corrected it as he did some of the other errors in Manuscript B (e.g., priest, patriarch). There's nothing in the pattern of errors in Manuscript C that distinguishes it from B, and you'd think there'd be a ton to distinguish it if we were looking at a dictation vs. copying process.

Anyway, food for thought.  I think it's interesting that both the proper nouns and the other spelling errors are consistent with your theory. 

These are valuable insights. The spelling errors of proper nouns in Manuscript B suggest that Parrish could see a manuscript that was being copied, as I discussed in a previous post, but Rasmussen's analysis of other spelling errors from Parrish both in Manuscript B and in Manuscript C, where we know he was copying from an existing document, offer further support for Manuscript B being based on visual copying rather than live dictation of new scripture from Joseph Smith.

Thanks, Kyler!

The topics of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the meaning of the manuscripts are taken up in an excellent new article at Interpreter that just came out yesterday: John Gee, "Prolegomena to a Study of the Egyptian Alphabet Documents in the Joseph Smith Papers," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 42 (2021): 77-98. I believe John see Manuscripts A and B as being individually copied by the scribes, whereas I think there's a possibility that there were copied in a joint session in which Parrish could see the document and may have been reading it aloud as he copied for the benefit of the other scribe. Hard to know for sure, but Gee offers some important new evidence for the dating of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers which rule out the theories that these manuscripts give us a window into Joseph's live translation.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think strong evidence for a simultaneous, live dictation comes in the first two lines of text where both men record the same text, commit the same strikes, and make the same corrections to the strikes.

If you’ll remember Jeff, with your original post on this subject, which you have linked above, I posited a theory that the two scribes were taking live dictation and that their different skill levels in writing, as well as their speed in writing, could easily explain the differences you noted in their manuscripts This combined with an on-the-fly correction process, which probably included the scribe(s) reading back sections of text to the dictator, seems the logical method of creation for Manuscripts A and B. These differences, to you however, were evidence that they were copying from an extant text, which theory you’re attempting to bolster with this spelling “evidence.”

As I reviewed the manuscripts again, I found another textual artifact that seems to bolster the theory of live dictation, as well as my earlier theory that Parrish was the faster writer (in addition to the example employing a modern rhetorical device that would be out of place in a truly ancient document—though that is outside of the scope of this argument). Please note the Parrish manuscript has the following text:

“and that you might have a knowledge of this altar, I will refer you to the representation, [strikeout] that is lying before you [strikeout] at the commencement of this record.”

—I couldn’t get HTML strikeout code to work. —

The Williams manuscript contains no such strikeout. This seems to be a mistake made by the dictator referring directly to the document he has “lying before” him, which he is likely using as inspiration for the text he is dictating. He realizes his mistake and corrects it by referring the reader to a place in the document, rather than the location of the document itself, before Williams’ scribing can catch up. There is no dittographic explanation for this difference that I can see.

K. R. Rasmussen said...

"I think strong evidence for a simultaneous, live dictation comes in the first two lines of text where both men record the same text, commit the same strikes, and make the same corrections to the strikes."

Could that not be explained by Parrish realizing that he misread the text?

"I posited a theory that the two scribes were taking live dictation and that their different skill levels in writing, as well as their speed in writing, could easily explain the differences you noted in their manuscripts"

I'm not sure how that explains the spelling differences I found, though. Skill and speed wouldn't create consistency or the lack thereof.

"There is no dittographic explanation for this difference that I can see."

I don't see it as an impossible dittography. If Parrish starts out trying to dictate and write at the same time, he could easily have forgotten the end of the sentence by the time he got there. Or he could've said one thing and wrote another. I've done both pretty frequently when trying to copy notes from a textbook.

And if Joseph really is looking at the document with the illustration, and assuming he's reading from text on the same page, then "lying before you" would've been just as reasonable a thing to say as "at the commencement of the record". No real reason to make the correction.

I see both the spelling arguments as more dispositive.

Anonymous said...

“Could that not be explained by Parrish realizing that he misread the text?”

So you’re asserting that Parrish is reading and writing at the exact same time? That’s quite a feat. It’s a bit of a stretch to mistake “second” for “first,” “the” for “mine,” and “unto” for “whereunto” when reading. They don’t start with the same letter and they are visually completely different. It’s much more reasonable to believe the text is being created on the fly and these are artifacts of someone who realizes his word choice doesn’t work for what he is trying to say and backtracks. Same goes for the “before you” error.

“I'm not sure how that explains the spelling differences I found, though. Skill and speed wouldn't create consistency or the lack thereof.”

I never said it did. Actually, I’m not sure what your observed spelling differences show other than both scribes were bad at spelling. If you’ve ever corrected English student essays, you’ll know that they can come up with all sorts of spellings for words (even in the days of spell check!) and, just like Parrish, sometimes they get it right, but in the very next paragraph (and sometimes in the very next sentence!!) they come up with a completely different way to spell it. Misspelling words has no bearing on how they came up with the text they produced.

“‘lying before you’ would've been just as reasonable a thing to say as ‘at the commencement of the record.’ No real reason to make the correction.”

Except that those reading the text wouldn’t necessarily have “the representation. . . lying before [them].” They would be able to refer back to the commencement of the record,however. So I would say not as reasonable a thing to write and something that appears to favor a live dictation rather than a misreading. It’s also indicative of an author (or dictator) who is aware of his audience and their situation. The fact that Parrish has the error where Williams doesn’t further bolsters the theory that Parrish was the faster writer. If Parrish were dictating, one would expect Williams to have created the same error.

K. R. Rasmussen said...

"So you’re asserting that Parrish is reading and writing at the exact same time? That’s quite a feat."

In my experience it's a common thing to try to do--to be overconfident in your ability to remember, to look at it and then read it out loud as you're trying to write it.

"sometimes they get it right, but in the very next paragraph (and sometimes in the very next sentence!!) they come up with a completely different way to spell it"

Having graded a couple thousand in my day, you're right that it does happen (as with Williams' "endeavor"), but that it's pretty rare, and that the frequency with which Parrish does it is unusual, and that the correction for "hart" and the comparison to where we know he's copying suggests that the pattern is meaningful.

"It’s also indicative of an author (or dictator) who is aware of his audience and their situation."

Maybe. Or it's a dittographic error. Hard to know for sure. Therefore: not dispositive.

Anonymous said...

“Look at it and then read it out loud as you're trying to write it. “

With a quill and maintaining legibility and straight lines as he writes? Very difficult—especially for such an amateur penman whose spelling vacillates. You would expect to see the penmanship, legibility, and writing orientation suffer and be inconsistent as he toggled between the text he was reading, and reorienting himself to his writing if this were the case.

“it's pretty rare”

Not in my experience. The fact that we have both seen the phenomenon in independent experience is proof of that. We also have examples of it from Parrish himself—you pointed them out. So what, pray tell is its great significance? What linguistic proof have you that spelling errors are indicative of copying vs receiving dictation? I suppose if you had a large body of text he produced and you could show that his spelling was generally consistent except in this case you may have something.

“Maybe. Or it's a dittographic error. Hard to know for sure.”

You are correct. No way to know for sure since we don’t have an audio or video recording to go by. We also don’t know if Parrish had a parrot perched on his shoulder as he wrote. The evidence for a dittographic error isn’t strong. Also we have historic precedence of Joseph dictating to scribes. Why should we assume this is any different?

K. R. Rasmussen said...

"With a quill and maintaining legibility and straight lines as he writes? Very difficult—especially for such an amateur penman whose spelling vacillates."

I assume you can talk and drive straight at the same time. I don't see the difficulty, except the potential difficulty in remembering what he just read.

"I suppose if you had a large body of text he produced and you could show that his spelling was generally consistent except in this case you may have something."

Agreed that this would be the best way to settle it.

"Also we have historic precedence of Joseph dictating to scribes"

We have historic precedence of him dictating revelations to ONE scribe, without punctuation or paragraphing. That these manuscripts diverge from that pattern should be the primary indication that this isn't dictation. That the spelling errors are consistent with Jeff's hypothesized copying process is just a handy bonus.

Anonymous said...

“I assume you can talk and drive straight at the same time.”

I can, but I can’t drive and text (or read a text) at the same time, which would be more equivalent.

“We have historic precedence of him dictating revelations to ONE scribe.”

So the number of scribes makes a difference? Need I remind you Joseph was between scribes at the time? This was likely a scribal audition in which two potential applicants for the job were being assessed. Also, this is a momentous occasion. The prophet was translating ancient text for the first time since the BoM—I would bet there was a bit of excitement to be involved.

“That the spelling errors are consistent with Jeff's hypothesized copying process”

I thought you already agreed that isn’t the case: “Agreed that this would be the best way to settle it.”

K. R. Rasmussen said...

"I can, but I can’t drive and text (or read a text) at the same time, which would be more equivalent."

Those would be two visual tasks at the same time, instead of an auditory and a visual task.

"This was likely a scribal audition in which two potential applicants for the job were being assessed."

I love when people make things up out of the blue. If you have something solid to demonstrate this I'd love to see it.

"I thought you already agreed that isn’t the case"

The evidence can be consistent with a theory without conclusively ruling out other theories. We'd need that additional evidence base to conclusively rule out that it could be done by dictation. I still maintain that the pattern of errors fits the broader narrative of Parrish copying and reading off a doc.

K. R. Rasmussen said...

"So the number of scribes makes a difference?"

Also, I enjoy your side-stepping of the punctuation issue, as if that wasn't the most problematic part of this being a live dictation, in comparison to how the BofM, D&C, and Book of Moses were dictated.

Anonymous said...

“Those would be two visual tasks at the same time, instead of an auditory and a visual task.”

No, they are equivalent. If I’m trying to read or write a text at the same time as I’m attempting to drive, I will look up to find myself drifting out of my lane or off the road and possibly speeding or holding up traffic. Inevitably (this has been shown time and time again in distracted driving tests) my driving would suffer as a result of my attention and vision being shifted to reading/typing. The same occurs if one attempts to read and write at the same time. You finish reading and realize your writing has strayed down or up the page and is possibly also illegible. Humans aren’t made to multitask effectively in such a manner.


“I love when people make things up out of the blue. If you have something solid to demonstrate this I'd love to see it.”

I admit this is my own take on the situation based on the circumstances. Do you have a better explanation that fits the known circumstances and history?

“I still maintain that the pattern of errors fits the broader narrative of Parrish copying and reading off a doc.”

You still haven’t shown how or why that would be the case.

“Also, I enjoy your side-stepping of the punctuation issue”

I’m not sure what issue there is? Both scribes attempted to insert punctuation where they thought fit. Parrish often over-punctuates, and Williams under. If the punctuation were consistent between one another, you could make an argument that it has something to do with copying from a pre-punctuated text, but where there is little consistency between the two, it’s like your spelling argument—all it proves is they were both bad at it in their own way.

K. R. Rasmussen said...

"The same occurs if one attempts to read and write at the same time."

You misunderstand what I'm proposing. I'm suggesting that he's reads the text from the extant manuscript, and then turns to his own sheet and, on the basis of memory, attempts to write down the part he read. At the same time, he reads the words that he's writing. As he reads the words, the words he speaks interferes with his verbal memory store, making it difficult to remember the rest of the sentence he just read. But since his eyes are on the words he's writing, he has no manual difficulty in the writing process.

"Do you have a better explanation that fits the known circumstances and history?"

I find the suggestion that they're making multiple copies with which to participate in Phelps' grammar and alphabet project by far the most coherent suggestion for why there's multiple copies of the same manuscript.

"You still haven’t shown how or why that would be the case."

I've made suggestions as to the how and the why. We'll let other people reading it decide the strength of my suggestions for themselves, perhaps some more open-minded than yourself. I didn't present it as proof, but as an interesting observation deserving of further study.

"If the punctuation were consistent between one another, you could make an argument that it has something to do with copying from a pre-punctuated text"

Or, I could make the argument that Williams' lack of punctuation, particularly at the beginning, is yet another indication that Parrish was dictating from an extant manuscript.

K. R. Rasmussen said...

As I'm looking through the manuscripts again, I'm also noticing some interesting changes when compared to Richards' 1842 manuscript, changes that look to my like indications of visual rather than auditory errors on the part of Parrish.

By 1842, we have Richards writing "Libnah", where both Parrish and Williams have "Zibnah". Both Parrish and Williams are also missing the "God of Ko[r]ash". Zibnah makes much more sense as a visual error than an auditory one. And it would be much easier for Parrish to have just visually passed over the god of Korash in the listing of gods than for Joseph to have somehow inserted it later (we have it by Manuscript C as a regular part of the text--it doesn't appear as an insertion either there or in Richards' manuscript).

We also have "regular" changed to "royal" in Man B. One could argue that this is a change in Joseph's word choice (though "regular" makes little sense in the surrounding context), it would be an easy visual error to make.

Apologies if others have pointed these out before, but I might have to sit down at some point and see where else this line of thinking takes me.

Seatimer said...

I'm not a linguist, nor particularly adept at linguistical analysis, but I am pretty good at spotting sophistries, especially when they're explicitly pointed out.

In the comments above, Kyler calls anonymous out for making something up out of whole cloth:

Kyler quotes anonymouse,
"This was likely a scribal audition in which two potential applicants for the job were being assessed."

and then Kyler responds, "
I love when people make things up out of the blue. If you have something solid to demonstrate this I'd love to see it.
"
After which anonymous makes some cavalier remark about how, "I admit this is my own take... Do you have a better explanation...?"

Number one, he's not really admitting that he's just made a huge mistake, and then number two, attempting to place the onus of the burden of proof back upon Kyler for some explanation other than his own lame-brained one. And here I insert my own comments that this hypothesis is indeed a lame-brained one, and one that bears no historical relation to actual events as far as we know them, but seems indeed to be a "modern-day" approach to how one might go about selecting between two applicants to a job during an interview. Not only ludicrous, it actually made me smile at the egg left on his face for the lame attempt at asserting it in the first place.

Finally, back to what Kyler was attempting to show in the first place, and that anonymous conveniently swept away without considering: Joseph Smith historically only used one scribe at a time. There is no historical evidence to the contrary. This is germane and foundational to Kyler's argument regarding the sequence of the creation of manuscripts A, B & C. No wonder anonymous didn't want to touch it.

If this is standard methodology and standard practice of how antagonists stretch actual historical event to make their argument fit, then no wonder we're battling revisionist history with every outtake, comment and posting.

Anonymous said...

“he's not really admitting that he's just made a huge mistake, and then number two, attempting to place the onus of the burden of proof back upon Kyler for some explanation”

One need not admit of a mistake if no evidence of a mistake is present. Do we have other precedent of multiple scribes from Joseph’s camp sitting down to make their own copies of an already revealed text? I’m wondering why my take on the situation is unreasonable and not supported by the available evidence? Just asserting that it is a “lame brained” explanation without demonstrating why is pretty weak. I was asking for enlightenment—admitting that it was my own theory and looking for a better explanation that fits the evidence. We know Parrish was officially hired as Joseph’s scribe during this same time—perhaps that decision was prompted in some way by this scribing experience.


“Joseph Smith historically only used one scribe at a time.”

Joseph historically had a designated scribe. At this point in time, he was using different scribes at different times—he eventually settled on Parrish.

He also historically only had one wife, until he didn’t. Just sayin’. . . (Coincidentally, that was happening around this time, too).

We know this translation process was more collaborative than his previous efforts. Historical precedence may not apply:

“October 1, 1835. This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr O[liver] Cowdery and W[illiam] W. Phelps: The system of astronomy was unfolded.”

He says “labored in company with” OC & WWP. Two scribes? Were they all translating? We can’t know for sure.

Anonymous said...

“To me this is very consistent with the theory that there's an extant written manuscript keeping him on point (and occasionally correcting him, as is clearly the case with ‘harts’).”

You may want to review the latter portion of Joseph’s journal 1835-1836 after Parrish is designated as the scribe. You’ll note Parrish inconsistently spells “heart” & “hart” throughout. I’m not sure your case is as clear as you had hoped.

https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/1

Anonymous said...

Note similar inconsistencies in his usage of “sacrafice” and “sacrifice” in his other works as well.

JoePeaceman said...

Hi Anon, been a while. Just browsing. Missed you and especially Jeff. Someone may have explained this...but just in case...Parrish was already hired as a scribe on Oct. 29, 1835. He’d made it through the interview process, background check and etc. before working on the copies, and before the other Nov. translation sessions (and Gee rightly asks, where are the manuscripts?) Muhlestein has supplied evidence showing that the Oct. “research” session was likely when the separate alphabets originated. If so, then Phelps would probably be the one with two scribes and Joseph’s labors would have been as a scribe. Either way, we know Joseph worked as a scribe since his handwriting is there and his spellings aren’t the ones in the GAEL, etc.

If this was another Oct. BofA translation session as you may imply (as opposed to GAEL translation to the existing BofA, where Joseph evidently wasn’t dictating and final was
in the hand of Phelps) then, once again, we have further evidence (adding to the overwhelming evidence, including that supplied by Jeff, K.R. and other kind good guys 😊, that manuscript copies A,B, and C, (or JSPP 1-3) are not original dictation by Joseph (since October comes before JSPP 1-3 were made (when Parrish was scribe)).

The KEP or etc. provide evidence for multiple scribes used while making multiple copies of the alphabets, BofA, etc but not for original dictation.

The early July translation sessions did involve two scribes...so yay 😀 for u, however, since some evidence indicates that this may have involved an all night session, it may be that the scribes took turns.
I suppose you’re aware of everything though (with all that knowledge that could be much better applied if used for good things) but perhaps you don’t want to go there since it would only lead us TBM to question your faith 😊, and someone might wonder why they’d need two scribes to record nothing....? 💡 Perhaps Joseph was just interviewing and testing in July? Perhaps Phelps and Cowdery failed the test (forgetting to record anything would probably be frowned upon) and so Joseph abandoned translation of the BofA until Parrish arrived...this may explain why he worked on the GAEL for the rest of July, (to the BofA that didn’t exist yet, etc. and didn’t use it for anything (just buying time so he could secretly memorize thousands of pages from Jeff’s frontier Library and Plato, etc., so he could dictate from his hat...or wait, oops, we’re supposed to forget about that for this one, right??? So confusing....😉 luv and miss u!

JoePeaceman said...

My understanding is that K.R. and Jeff are thinking Parrish spelled things his way when listening to others reading and was perhaps correct when his turn to read came...but, as I think about it, this might also include the idea that, as KR implies, sometimes, as he looked from original to his copy, he may have forgotten the spelling in the original and reverted.
Either way, there’s no situation that couldn’t arise from reading the original to make copies. And, several clues support Jeff’s theory. Combined with the other evidence, everything strongly (almost certainly) supports the idea that BofA 1-2:18 existed before Nov.

Y’all might have to come up with a new best of anti-faithism 😊

Anonymous said...

“Either way, there’s no situation that couldn’t arise from reading the original to make copies. And, several clues support Jeff’s theory.”

Welcome back Joe. I enjoy reading your unreasonable reasoning. :^) You are correct—it’s all speculation. The point is that the “evidence” that was put forth above isn’t. It’s obvious if you read Parrish’s other scribery that his spelling had no consistency. The theory that his spelling differences are evidence that he was copying a text isn’t a sound one.

Anonymous said...

“Someone may have explained this...but just in case...Parrish was already hired as a scribe on Oct. 29, 1835. He’d made it through the interview process, background check and etc. before working on the copies”

No need to explain—I’m well aware. You think you have the date nailed down for the creation of these documents? You may want to let the JSP project know and provide them with your proof so they can update their website. They currently have this as describing when the documents in question were created:

“Book of Abraham Manuscript, circa July–circa November 1835”

Keep in mind that there are a lot of days in this range before October 29, 1835–some would even say most of them. I’m proposing that this exercise could have been the decider for Parrish getting the job full time—speculation, admittedly, without any solid proof.