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The Language of the Book of Mormon

Part of the "learning of my father" which Nephi referred to in 1 Nephi 1:1 must certainly have been the schooling he received from Lehi in a special manner of writing which Nephi and the other Book of Mormon prophets would use to record the events and teachings contained in the Book of Mormon. Nephi gives his father Lehi credit for teaching him this language system. Subsequent Book of Mormon prophets will express gratitude to their fathers for the same privilege (Enos 1:1; Mosiah 1:2).

In what language were entries made onto the Book of Mormon plates? It is referred to by the prophet Moroni as "reformed Egyptian" (see Mormon 9:32-33). Nephi, whose writings became the pattern for the records constituting the Book of Mormon, wrote: "Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians. And I know that the record which I make is true; and I make it with mine own hand; and I make it according to my knowledge" (1 Nephi 1:2-3). What exactly is the "learning of the Jews," and what is the "language of the Egyptians?"

If the record of Lehi's descendants is to be kept in the Egyptian language, why is it necessary to mention the "learning of the Jews?" This "learning" is essentially Jewish culture prior to Babylonian captivity (see 2 Nephi 25:5) communicated in the Hebrew tongue.

And what is the "language of the Egyptians"? The most commonly known form of Egyptian writing is a set of Egyptian signs or hieroglyphics. The Egyptian system was not an alphabet. Most single Egyptian glyphs stood for whole concepts, though signs representing sounds comparable to our letters were also used. Therefore, in order to read and write using this system, one had to learn many hundreds of characters. Mastering this system was a difficult challenge and certainly prevented widespread literacy. More than just having to learn hundreds of characters, in order to successfully interpret Egyptian glyphs, one actually had to have a knowledge of Egyptian culture, mythology, and history, as the meaning of the glyphs were often framed around that knowledge.

Whatever reformed Egyptian was, the Book of Mormon writers seemed to have some misgivings about it. Mormon lamented that "there are many things which, according to our language, we are not able to write (3 Nephi 5:18)." His son Moroni echoed the point in the book of Ether: "Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing . . . thou hast not made us mighty in writing. . . . Thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. . . . Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words (Ether 12:23-25)." Jacob, the son of Lehi, felt the same limitation: "I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates" (Jacob 4:1). What could these writers have meant by their complaints?

Oral phrasing was not the problem. They had superior conceptual and spiritual ability to speak powerfully, for Moroni recorded, "Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith . . . thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them" (Ether 12:23). Nor was the problem merely mechanical. When Moroni spoke of "the awkwardness of our hands" and Jacob mentioned "the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates," we can suppose that with practice they could have learned to manage their engraving tools precisely enough that they could represent such characters as they desired.

We learn the real problem from Moroni's comment that "if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew . . . and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record" (Mormon 9:33). In other words, the Book of Mormon writers were obliged to use a form of writing that was less precise than alphabetical Hebrew because of space considerations.

So what exactly is this "reformed Egyptian" utilized by the Book of Mormon prophets? There are perhaps two separate theories worth considering:

1. The first is that they wrote in Hebrew, but rather than writing in the complete alphabetical Hebrew, they used a set of Egyptian-like glyphs. When Hebrew is written wholly alphabetically, the sounds of each word can be exactly and explicitly spelled out, and ambiguity is reduced to a minimum. But this is only accomplished at the cost of using more space. Hence, the necessity of "reformed Egyptian." Like the original hieroglyphic system in Egypt, this "reformed Egyptian" allowed the writer to pack the linguistic information into fewer signs or glyphs, although clarity was inevitably compromised. Many Egyptian-style signs signified broad concepts that lacked precision. So the lack of clarity in language that bothered Moroni was inherent in the hieroglyphic-style script he and the other Book of Mormon writers felt obliged to use.

It would have been no easy matter to write the Hebrew language using Egyptian hieroglyphics. To accomplish this task one needed, at least in part, a command of a unique form of Egyptian-like glyphs which represented concepts that were uniquely Hebrew. This might have required learning hundreds of different glyphic symbols, as well as an extensive education in Hebrew culture, history, and metaphors.

Did such a set of glyphs exist? Was, in fact, the Egyptian form of writing used in Palestine to write to those who spoke and read the Hebrew language? In fact, a number of examples have been found in Palestine demonstrating that Egyptian characters were used in Old Testament times to write the Hebrew language (John A. Tvedtnes and Stephen D. Ricks, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/2 [1996] 156-63).

A compelling bit of evidence for this type of reformed Egyptian is that fact that the Maya and other surrounding peoples of Mesoamerica have been discovered to have used glyphic writing. Has this form of writing somehow descended from the Book of Mormon tradition which began in the same area? Scholars have observed that, like the ancient Egyptian, Mayan writings suffered from some ambiguity. Their characters represented whole concepts, and sometimes more than one concept, so subtle distinctions in meaning could be missed by those who read only literally. The Mayan writer, and even the reader of ancient Mayan script had to be schooled extensively in literary forms, mythic lore, and history. One scholar has noted that "many Maya words . . . sometimes can be reconciled with totally different text interpretations. Intended ambiguity in meaning, enhanced by metaphorical expressions, seems to be one of the crucial features of the Maya texts . . . [that] severey restricts . . . attempts towards decipherment" (Dieter Dutting, Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie 103 [1978]: 53). Fortunately Joseph Smith had the benefit, in his translation, of laboring with "the gift and power of God."

2. There are now known, two additional forms of Egyptian writing which are cursive or "reformed" versions of the hieroglyphic characters. These are Hieratic and Demotic. Could one of these be the Book of Mormon's "reformed Egyptian"? There is a third form of Egyptian cursive writing form which originated more recently. This is Coptic, which is an afro-asiatic language which has been associated with the Coptics, the Egyptian Christian church.

It was not until the twentieth century that ancient Hebrew texts written in Egyptian script became known to scholars. A detailing of these is beyond the scope of this brief review, but a few examples will suffice. One text is the Ostracon 25759 which dates to the eleventh century BC The text on one side is purely Egyptian Hieratic, while the text on the other is an early form of Hebrew. Another is the Amherst Papyrus 63, a document of the fourth century BC written in Demotic but whose underlying language is Aramaic, a sister language to Hebrew ("Ancient Manuscripts Fit Book of Mormon Pattern," Insights [February 1999]: 3-4). These documents, along with several others in the same category, were discovered well after the time of Joseph Smith.

To most of Joseph Smith's contemporaries, the term "reformed Egyptian" seemed to be so much nonsense. Alexander Campbell, who wrote the first book critical of the Book of Mormon, scoffed at the fact that it had been translated "from the reformed Egyptian!!!" (Campbell published a series of articles critical of the Book of Mormon in his paper, The Millennial Harbinger, at Bethany, Virginia, beginning in February 1831. The articles were later collected into a book entitled Delusions, published by E. H. Green & Co. of Boston in 1832).

We know very little else about the written language of the Book of Mormon. Moroni referred to the language as "being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech." It seems likely that Nephi's reformed Egyptian was not exactly the same as that used by Mormon and Moroni.

It was thus essential that through the period of the Book of Mormon history each prophet father had to pass on to his son a working knowledge of "reformed Egyptian." Indeed this was done-see Enos 1:1 and Mosiah 1:2.

In view of Mormon 9:34, what would you predict that Professor Charles Anthon's reaction might have been when shown the Book of Mormon characters by Martin Harris? Are you a little surprised, as I am, that Martin Harris came away satisfied that Dr. Anthon had confirmed their authenticity? It is likely that Professor Anthon saw similarities between the Book of Mormon characters and what he knew as Egyptian glyphs, though surely he had never previously encountered characters exactly like those used by Mormon in engraving the plates of Mormon.

How did Lehi happen to know the language of the Egyptians so that he could teach it to his children (see Mosiah 1:4)? There was in his day considerable commercial and cultural interchange between Judah and Egypt. Anciently, Abraham and Joseph had been in Egypt. And, of course, the Jews themselves had spent centuries in captivity there. Moses, the author of the Pentateuch, of course, was thoroughly versed in Egyptian writing as well as Hebrew culture. Hugh Nibley has suggested that Lehi had been closely associated with Egypt as a merchant and thus had traveled between the two countries (Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites, 8, 12-13, 36-38).

One major piece of vital Hebrew scripture was written in some form of Egyptian writing. Can you identify it? See Mosiah 1:3-4-the brass plates of Laban were written in Egyptian!

What language or languages did the Book of Mormon people speak? Did the Nephites, Lamanites, and Mulekites all speak the same language? Probably not. In the first centuries after Nephi's landing, the group probably maintained their Hebrew speech. When the elder King Mosiah's group of refugees left the land of Nephi and came upon the Mulekites in the land of Zarahemla just before 200 BC, the two groups spoke distinct languages (Omni 1:17-18), though neither language is named. The scripture says that after the arrival of King Mosiah and his people, the Zarahemlaites were then taught the language of Mosiah-at least their leader, Zarahemla, was so taught. It seems less likely that the more numerous people of Zarahemla or "Mulekites" learned the language (probable Hebrew, or an adaptation thereof) that Mosiah brought among them. However, Benjamin, a generation later, was able to speak to all his people so that they understood. A knowledge of spoken Hebrew possibly continued among the Nephite rulers for a time, but it is unlikely that it persisted down to the time of Cumorah.

It is a bit perplexing to contemplate why there weren't more problems with the spoken communication between the Nephites and Lamanites in the later periods of Book of Mormon history. Certainly the people were sufficiently separated, and sufficient time had lapsed to allow for the evolving of major changes in the dialects used by different groups of people. Perhaps the leaders of both major groups maintained the ability to communicate in Hebrew or some form of it. Or, perhaps there was sufficient intercourse among the more common peoples that some universal hybrid form of language-a so-called "lingua franca"-existed. One investigator, Dr. Joseph L. Allen, has suggested that while a written language was preserved and handed down exclusively by Nephite royalty from generation to generation, the spoken language was a different matter (Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 73). Dr. Allen speculates: "Clearly, the Nephites and Lamanites, during the 600 BC to 300 BC time period, adopted the spoken language of the people who already lived in the area of Highland Guatemala. The spoken language of Highland Guatemala was likely a derivative of the original language spoken by the early [?Jaredite] culture."

It is likely that Mosiah's Nephites, the Zarahemlaites, and even the Lamanites shared the same writing system termed "the language of Nephi" (Mosiah 24:4), even though they may have spoken different tongues. Linguists have observed that two cultures speaking quite distinct languages may use a written language that shares many common features. It has been discovered, for example, that signs with similar meanings were used in Mesoamerica by speakers of several languages-including Chol, Yucatec, Tzeltal, Quiche, and others. Also, the same characters are used in some cases by Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese, yet their spoken languages are quite different from one another.

There is no reason to think that the Egyptian tongue was ever spoken in the Nephite promised land, and indeed scholars have never found evidence in the languages of the area that it was. However, a glyphic writing system is widespread in Mesoamerica and is identical in principle to Egyptian writing. Hebrew speech must have been used, at least by the earliest Nephites, so we might expect to find some Hebrew words preserved in the some two hundred languages that have been spoken in that area. Similarities have indeed been found.

Little can be said about the language of the Jaredites.

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