They Were Exceedingly Rejoiced

In 1999 someone posed the following question to me:

This evening our family read the following verse in our family scripture study: “. . . the people of Nephi were exceedingly rejoiced, . . .” (Alma 45:1).

Even our young ones went, “Huh! What kind of English is that?”

So what’s up with that? Is it a typo? A printer’s error? An obscure usage of the verb “to rejoice”?

My (edited) response follows:

I initially wondered whether “the people of Nephi were exceedingly rejoiced” in Alma 45:1 might possibly be a Hebraism. Now that I’m home and have a chance to check my trusty books, I don’t think so. The normal verb for “to rejoice,” gil, does not occur in the passive so far as I can see.

Of your three options, I would pick C, an obscure usage of the verb “to rejoice.” This sounds strained to us because we generally use “rejoice” as an intransitive verb only. “Instransitive” is just a fancy grammarian’s way of saying that the verb doesn’t take an object. In this sense, the verb means “to feel joy.” We can say “Dick felt joy,” but we can’t say “Dick felt joy Jane” [punch line here] Trying to put on object on the verb doesn’t work.

Now, if the verb is truly intransitive, then a passive construction (as in our Alma passage) doesn’t work either, because the subject of a passive verb receives the action of the verb, and an intransitive verb doesn’t have any action to give. This is why the construction feels odd to us.

While I was still at work I looked “rejoice” up in my Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary (i.e., just a desk dictionary, nowhere close to unabridged), and it reported that rejoice can be used either transitively or intransitively. (I will acknowledge that in modern English I think the transitive use is fairly rare.) Such a verb is called ambitransitive, such as “I am eating” [intransitive use] and “I am eating an apple” [transitive use]. To grasp the transitive meaning of the verb rejoice, try replacing it with “give joy to” or “gladden.” Now a passive construction will make sense. The meaning is “now the people of Nephi were exceedingly gladdened.”

The OED gives a number of examples of the transitive use of “rejoice” in passive transformation, such as “You do not. . .look half so rejoiced when we meet as I do” and “The king was rejoiced at seeing him.”

Of course, an option you didn’t put on your menu is that the construction is a grammatical error. That is always a possibility in the BoM. But I’m inclined to give the text the benefit of the doubt and read it as normative, if somewhat rare, English.

(Just for fun, I checked the Easy-to-Read BoM, which renders “the Nephites were very happy.”)

Comments

  1. (is rejoiced at this post)

  2. The Book of Mormon, while written by Mormon, was translated by Joseph Smith. Does the OED provide any guidance as to the first occurence of “rejoiced?”

    Joseph Smith translated the BOM in the language he knew. I think that “rejoiced” was the best way he could understand the meaning of the original word on the golden plates.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    The examples of a passive “were rejoiced” given in the OED range from 1375 to 1841.

    On BoM archaisms, Royal Skousen has recently argued that some of the vocabulary and usage in the BoM derives from the 1500s and 1600s rather than the 1800s. See his “The Archaic Vocabulary of the BoM,” Insights 25/5 (2005), here. I suspect at least part of the reason for this may be the persistence of archaisms in backwoods America, but this is a recent finding and I don’t think anyone, including Skousen himself, has a very good handle yet on what it means.

  4. Plus, archaisms are just cool. Maybe God struggles to keep up with the changes in human languages that occur over eyeblinks of time like centuries. =) Maybe he deliberately speaks in ways that link us to our brethren across the aeons. Or maybe he just knows we connect in the right way with that sort of language.

    When Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings, he also chose archaic language. It just feels right that way, doesn’t it? I’ve never been able to enjoy reading updated versions of scriptures. It comes across to me as faintly ridiculous sounding, like translating things into current slang, “Yo! friends, Romans, homies, listen up!”

  5. Another data point: Webster’s 1828 dictionary includes transitive and intransitive forms of “rejoice” with no comment on their relative obscurity.

  6. Is there a similar explanation for the BoM’s odd use of “suppose” — as in “it supposeth me that thou art a child of hell”?

Trackbacks

  1. [...] In my They Were Exceedingly Rejoiced thread, Wm Jas asks this question: “Is there a similar explanation for the BoM’s odd use of “suppose” — as in “it supposeth me that thou art a child of hell”?” Baneemy at ZLMB asked a similar question without receiving any useful response: In several places the BoM uses the word suppose anomalously, using “it supposeth me” to mean “I suppose.” As far as I can tell, the BoM is the only place the word is used that way. I haven’t been able to find “it supposeth me” or “it supposes me” used this way anywhere else. Is it just a little grammatical error by JS, or is it some archaic form analogous to “methinks”? Does anyone happen to know? [...]

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