It Supposeth Me

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?

As I begin to write this post, I honestly have no idea what the answer is. So let’s investigate it together. I’ll go as far as I can in the analysis, and you see if you can add to what I find, and let’s try to come up with a useful answer.

Let’s begin by cataloging the BoM occurrences:

1. But behold, it supposeth me that I talk to you concerning these things in vain; or it supposeth me that thou art a child of hell
[Alma 54:11]

2. And it supposeth me that they have come up hither to hear the pleasing word of God [Jacob 2:8]

3. and it supposeth me that he will witness the entire destruction of my people [WoM 1:2]

There is another possible example we should mention for completeness. P in Alma 56:5 has “it supposeth me that I tell you that two thousand of these young men”. The Tanners complained that that was changed in later editions to “it sufficeth me.” Now, Royal Skousen’s textual commentary volumes do not yet reach Alma 56 (the first three have been published to date, reaching Alma 20), but it seems pretty obvious to me that the change from “supposeth” to “sufficeth” is correct. This is shown by O, which has at this point “supf{e/i}ceth”. The word was intended to be “sufficeth,” but a stray “p” in the copying led OC to copy “supposeth” into P. The context here clearly supports “sufficeth.”

This odd construction does not appear in Joseph’s other scriptural writings, nor does it seem to appear in his non-scriptural writings.

It does not occur in the KJV. Without this construction, the verb suppose occurs 10 times and supposed 8 times in the KJV. Almost all of these come from the NT. Although I didn’t check them all, many of these occurrences are rendering the Greek nomizO “deem, think, suppose.”

The one OT instance was 2 Sam. 13:32, where the word “suppose” is a rendering of Hebrew amar. This word’s most basic meaning is “say, speak,” but it can also mean “think, think in one’s heart,” and thus “suppose.”

Could the BoM usage be a Hebraism? It is possible. It reminds me of the construction “it repented the LORD,” which is a familiar Hebraism attested in the KJV, where the translators tried overliterally to represent the niphal (passive) verb stem of the verb. An analogous construction is attested in Numbers 23:23, which reads in part “according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought?” The italicized portion is ye’amer leya’aqob uleyisra’el, which uses an imperfect niphal of amar followed by the preposition le-. So we could posit a construction ye’amer liy “it is supposed of me” or “it supposes me,” which would of course more naturally be translated into English as “I suppose.” But this is all completely hypothetical, as no such expression is actually attested in the Hebrew Bible. So while it remains a possibility, it cannot be demonstrated.

Based on a quick google search, I could not find another attestation of this construction in English literature. If anyone can find one, that would go a long way to solving this puzzle.

The English verb suppose derives from Latin supponere, from sub + ponere, lit. “to put under” (cf. English posit, which is a form of this same verb). Linguistically, “it supposeth me” would appear to be an impersonal third person indicative with a first person pronominal object. Looking quickly, I couldn’t find a comparable usage in the OED s.v. “suppose,” but the type is so small and my eyes are so bad I did not look at all carefully.

It looks to me like a faux archaism, constructed along lines analogous to “it repenteth the LORD” or “it seems to me.”

OK, that’s a start. Someone pick up the ball and advance it down the field for us.

Comments

  1. Christopher Smith says:

    Kevin,

    I found twelve occurrences, all dating to the 19th c.

    http://books.google.com/books?q=%22it+supposes+me%22&as_brr=1

    This is not a Hebraism. It is a 19th c. Englishism.

  2. Christopher Smith says:

    Whoops, I spoke too quickly. In all twelve of those cases, the “supposes” is transitive, with “me” as a direct object. E.g.: “His reply supposes me to be an idiot for commenting so confidently on a subject I don’t know anything about.”

  3. If I remember correctly from some college classes long ago, German uses that type of grammar. “It wonders me,” etc.

  4. Clair is correct: “Ich wundere mich ob . . .” means, “I am wondering if . . ..” One could also translate it as “I am asking myself if . . .,” which preserves the reflexive construction.

  5. My CDROM version of the OED, which has larger print that I can read, does not appear to have any instances of the “it supposes(eth) me” construction. Perhaps I looked too quickly over the oldest entries, but I’ll leave the reading of all those to younger eyes who enjoy Old (or is it Middle) English.

  6. Christopher Smith says:

    The Whitmers were German. Perhaps Joseph picked this up from them.

  7. Jonathan Green says:

    German has an even closer parallel in the construction es dünkt mich, ‘it seems to me,’ with ‘it’ as subject and ‘me’ as direct object, and the verb a derivative of denken ‘to think’. Like the BoM examples, it typically introduces a subordinate clause with dass ‘that’. What was the influence of German immigration on the English of Pennsylvania and surrounding areas? Or are there other parallels for English usage that haven’t turned up yet?

  8. Alexander Campbell didn’t think much of the expression:

    The Book of Mormon, they tell us, was written and translated by inspiration of God! and, of course, they were inspired when carrying it through the press. But this inspiration was not sufficient to save them from some of the veriest blunders and Jonathanisms, like the following:–

    “Bearing down against the church, p. 221. All manner of good homely cloth, p. 234. Were placed in most dangerous circumstances, p. 375. Sent forth to preach among the people, &c. p. 362. [This is the first time we ever knew that God revealed his will by an "&c."] Somewhat, p. 375. It supposeth me…”

    Apparently, a “Jonathanism” is not equivalent to a “Stapleyism” nor a “Greenism” but means “an excessive overtone of expression.”

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Guys, these are good points about the Germanic parallel construction. Royal Skousen has pointed out that there is significant usage in the BoM that is even more archaic than the Jacobean of the KJV, and I suspect that these are local usages that conservatively persisted in New England and New York. So the idea of a Germanic influence on the construction strikes me as a real possibility.

  10. In other words, might Joseph be “overreaching” for an archaic turn of phrase? (Unlike Campbell, however, I don’t think this fact has any bearing on what the source text of the Book of Mormon actually is.)

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    So our options so far seem to be:

    1. It’s a Hebraism (but this can only be suggested by analogy; no such actual formation exists in the Hebrew Bible).

    2. It’s a Germanism (and thus an English archaism, which perhaps persisted in Joseph’s backwoods northeastern culture).

    3. It’s a faux archaism (IE an attempt to sound archaic but not based on an actually attested English archaism).

  12. Nice post Kevin.

    I’m just surprised that “it supposeth me that thou art a child of hell” hasn’t made it into ‘Naclespeak yet. Such a juicy nasty thing to say to someone.

  13. The OED does have a single example of an analogous construction: “1390 GOWER Conf. II. 128 Bot al to lytel him supposeth, Thogh he mihte al the world pourchace.” This was evidently a Surrey provincialism.

  14. And I have a new insult. “It supposeth me to believe that you are a (fill in the blank).”

    I like the line from Les Miserables, “I consider them dead.”

    My mind goes right to people who irritate me in this type of discussion.

  15. I don’t know nearly enough about 19th century language, or English, or German, to bring much light to this. But I know a lot of new speakers of Russian mistranslate “it seems” in exactly this way, because they don’t yet understand (or, aren’t yet comfortable with) case usage:

    Kажется мне, что…

    ought to be read as:

    (To) me it seems, that… (or, in natural English, “it seems to me that…”)

    But because of the word order, learners see it as:

    It seems me, that…

    They have the same problem with other Dative constructions — “(to) me (there are) 15 years” [Мне 15 лет] gets read as “Me 15 years.” It’s complicated in part because they usually already see constructions that they think mean “to me,” as in possession: “У меня есть книги” (means “I have books,” but is easy to read as a literal “to me (there) are books.”) Translation is tough, especially for native English speakers translating stuff from a language with lots of cases. None of my classmates in Russian are very comfortable with “it seems to me” and we’ve been using it for two academic terms now.

    Anyway, it doesn’t seem very unusual to me to translate something in this manner, especially if you’re thinking the whole time about how something is “old” and “foreign” and “from God.” Aren’t there any instances of “suppose” in the Book of Mormon that are parallel to the usages in the KJV? I say: Joseph saw something that seemed odd, and decided how to render it, and rendered it that way each of the other times he saw it, having solved the puzzle to his satisfaction.

    (I left my Russian Book of Mormon in my car, so I don’t know, but I’d think that they used that impersonal кажется construction for those verses — or a similar Dative construction that means “in my opinion” in modern texts. Darn it all, now I have to go look.)

  16. Interesting Russian stuff.

    Forms of the word “suppose” appear 117 times in the Book of Mormon. Most are in common sentence constructions.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Sarah, I’m impressed that you got those Cyrillic fonts to display properly in #15 above. Good work!

  18. I spent a good year trying to read the Book of Mormon in Russian. After several months, I called the MTC and spoke to the guy who teaches it there and he told me how to do it. I actually got through 2nd Nephi, and got sidetracked.

    I had a lot of trouble because of the archaic terms and like Sarah says, the differences in English and Russian (who knew, huh?).

    On the other hand, I like that “it supposeth me.”

  19. any mouse says:

    so, annegb, how DO you do it???

  20. I came across a transcript of an 1862 letter from a SLC resident to his brother in New York containing the construction “it supposes me.” Perhaps the writer picked it up from reading the BoM.

    “But it supposes me that I am now talking to those that will not thank me for these things So I will now forebear.”

  21. Oh, you have to use your English Book of Mormon and compare phrases. It’s sort of tedious, but less tedious than looking up words in a dictionary. When you do it quickly, you sort of pick up the words and remember them.

    I used a notebook and listed them alphabetically. It went pretty fast when I started comparing my English and Russian Books of Mormon.

  22. Interesting speculations so far. Thanks for addressing it, Kevin. (Incidentally, the reason Baneemy and I asked similar questions is that we are the same person.)

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