I ordered an ancestor’s will from England one day and was dismayed to discover it wasn’t written in English…at least it didn’t look like English at first glance. It looked like scribbles. From Chicken. Greek Chicken. If they had been writing with their claws. Thus I was introduced to Secretary Hand.
I set the so-called English will aside and turned to my French ancestors instead. How hard could it be to find 8th great-grandmother Vincente Droulet? I knew she was born in the spring of 1670 in Combourg…it shouldn’t be that hard to decipher the entry in the Catholic Church’s register.
The Prophet Isaiah’s writings in the my English Bible, like the writing in the Secretary Hand wills, seems to be written in a different language. It helps to understand the basics of the language.
Isaiah’s Three Accents
Isaiah’s English has three accents…
There is the beautiful accent of Jewish literary devices. A lot of teaching at this time was verbal so to highlight something they would repeat what they wanted to emphasize backwards. This is called parallelism.
I went to the [a]store, in the [b]dark.
It was [b]dark when I went to the [a]store.
Or they would sandwich what they wanted to underscore between two phrases that said the same thing—this is called chiasmus:
“I went to the store in the dark[a].
I bought peaches[b].
It was dark when I went to the store[a].”
Except Isaiah, having gone to school and studied and practised, could do the chiasmus with whole paragraphs and chapters.
If you have ever seen any of those little compact grocery bags that look like a pocket but get bigger when you take them out that is like symbolism. One word or phrase can unpack into a whole story…if you know the story behind the one word. In our day, for example, if you hear the phrase “slow and steady wins the race” you might recall the story of the tortoise and the hare.
A third accent Isaiah has is 400-year-old English. This is the English of the King James’ Translators. This is the English of Shakespeare.
Just like with the old French records that are written in the squished, swirly, faint brown writing of a few centuries ago, the more I study Isaiah the more I understand.
Transcriptions & Interpretations
With the french records it helps if someone who knows the languages has gone ahead and transcribed the record. With the teaching of Isaiah it helps that Nephi (who lived about a hundred and fifty years after Isaiah) knew his manner of teaching and interpreted some of it for us, as did other prophets.
Here are some great articles that I found useful:
- Technicolor Isaiah—This article provides a good overview on studying Isaiah.
- Ten Keys to Understanding Isaiah—Bruce R. McConkie’s classic article on Isaiah.
And some books if you want to study further:
- Isaiah: Prophet, Seer and Poet by Victor L. Ludlow
- Isaiah Made Easier In The Bible and The Book of Mormon, 2nd Edition by David J. Ridges
- Isaiah For Airheads by John Bytheway
- Women of the Old Testament by Elspeth Young, Camille Fronk Olson
- Jehovah and the World of the Old Testament by David R. Seely, Dana M. Pike, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel
In the next post I will explore how to synthesize this information.