Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Language of Nephi (Part 2)

by David G. Woolley

Editor’s Note: The staff here at Top of the Morning is excited about our second installment on the Language of Nephi. You can read Part I of this series right here. Thanks for joining us for another look at the Language of Nephi which we believe you'll enjoy even more if we sub-titled it the alphabet included logographic system. Don't worry. We'll explain.

The Book of Mormon mentions two languages, the Language of Nephi and the Language of the Egyptians. Were they related? Was one used by the Lamanites and the other by the Nephites? Or were they different names for essentially the same language? Were they a collection of written characters or a spoken tongue? To understand the obsession Book of Mormon scribes had for their language you may want to view language as they viewed it, as an almost exclusive reference to written characters. For ancient Nephites and Lamanites the spoken tongue was another matter, but it likely wasn't considered their language or what today linguists define as a system of symbols for communicating ideas.

Written language doesn't evolve as quickly as the spoken tongue, but changes do occur over time, influenced almost entirely by the more volatile changes in the phonetic language. Once the Nephites were established in the New World, the term Language of Nephi was a logical distinction for their evolving written language. Moroni’s declaration that their reformed Egyptian characters were influenced by changes in the spoken tongue is an authentic expectation of the written Nephite language evolving in geographic isolation from the mother script.

What we usually refer to as Egyptian hieroglyphics began as a collection of characters, each one representing a whole concept. Symbols were later developed to represent the sounds in the spoken language, what we call an alphabet. Instead of discarding the hieroglyphic characters for the newly developed alphabet, Egyptians combined the two by inserting letters from the alphabet alongside hieroglyphic characters. The result is what scholars refer to as the alphabet included logographic system. For three thousand years the Egyptians wrote in a jumble of phonetic and pictographic characters. Writing was a difficult skill to acquire and the ancient Egyptian school children fortunate enough to afford an education were schooled in the difficult skills of letters.

Egyptian children weren't the only students. Around 610 BC, Egypt reached its pinnacle of influence across the ancient world. Similar to the Lamanite educational experience, the written language of choice in Lehi's day was tied to economics. English in our modern world won that same enviable status. An understanding of Egyptian script carried with it the possibility of wealth and every Phoenician, Assyrian, Greek, Arab, and Babylonian clamored to learn the language of prosperity. Egyptian teachers found employment in the homes of wealthy Hebrews, Assyrians, Ethiopians, and Greek businessmen where they taught the language of commerce—the Language of the Egyptians. The Book of Mormon begins with a very authentic reference to the education of the sons of Lehi. Though Laman, Lemuel, Sam and Nephi spoke Hebrew, they were instructed in the written characters of Egyptian origin.

Chinese scripts, like the ones pictured above, and Mayan scripts pictured below, are further excelent examples of alphabet included logographic systems. In order to read the scripts you must first learn the meaning of hundreds of characters. It's a difficult challenge. It’s also considered an achievement. The difficulty inherent in these complex writing systems makes the spread of literacy in the general population difficult, but the numerous benefits include a sense of multilingual capacity. Chinese and Japanese speakers can't communicate orally, but since both groups use the same characters they can write to one another. Educated peoples of the ancient near east followed the same pattern. They spoke different languages, but they shared the same written characters.

Nephi spoke Hebrew, but wrote using Egyptian characters. A thousand years later it’s likely that Moroni knew nothing of Hebrew. In fact his name, Moroni, is a Jaredite name likely from the Zoquean/Olmec language spoken along the Atlantic Gulf Coast north of the narrow neck of land. It means one from Moron, the ancient Jaredite Capital and also the general location from which his father Mormon migrated to Zarahmela. Nephi's Hebrew tongue was swallowed up by the lingual tide of the much larger Meso American populations speaking the dominant dialects of the Pacific coastal highland regions. If spoken Hebrew survived all the way down to Moroni's day it was preserved among very few in the royal ruling class of Nephites--a difficult and highly unlikely preservation of a linguistic artifact that required a thousand years of vigilance. Throughout history the spoken tongue of the smaller population is nearly always lost in the language of the larger, dominant population and it’s likely that Moroni, if he were to meet Nephi, would not have been able to communicate orally. However, by using the alphabet included logographic system of the Language of Nephi, Moroni could have written to his prophet colleague.

It appears that the characters in the Language of Nephi were likely used by speakers of different tongues which would explain the fundamental lack of any reference for the need of interpreters as the Nephites governed what became a multilingual nation no later than 130 BC and likely as early as Nephi's inland migration from the Pacific coast to the highlands at the City of Nephi. This early multilingual diversity among Nephi and his people recalls the account of Sherem, an outsider who likely learned the phoenetic Hebrew tongue and the pictographic written Nephite script and used his acquired skills to study the Laws of Moses and his oral skills to counter the doctrines taught by the Prophet Jacob.

Ancient Meso Americans contemporary to the Nephite Civilization (580 BC to 400 AD) are refered to by archeologists as pre-classic Mayans (550 BC to 450 AD) living in southern Mexico and Guatemela. The overlapping time periods for the rise of these civilizations are identical and evidence from both cultures suggest their language systems were similar if not the same. The Mayans spoke hundreds of dialects in four major language groups. Quiche, Chol, Yucatec, and Tzeltal. We know that the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations, taken together, spoke at least three dialects. Nephite, Lamanite, and Mulekite. The Book of Mormon also hints at multiple spoken dialects among the Lamanites. And Alma's mission to the out-post city of Amonihah high in the Pacific Coastal mountains in the extreme northern territories of the Nephite Kingdom may have been, for him, a foreign language mission. Its likely that the larger Lamanite population spoke many languages. Despite their lingual diversity, Book of Mormon civilizations and Mayan civilizations used a similar alphabet included logographic system which may explain why Book of Mormon scribes remain silent about any need for translation when Nephites encountered Lamanites. It also explains the fascination for Lamanite scribes for teaching the written Language of Nephi throughout the Lamanite kingdom as a means to breakdown language barriers between multilingual subjects, improve communication, expand trade, and increase wealth.

The alphabet included logographic system of writing is beset with exponential ambiguity. Take the Egyptian character for Lotus flower. It’s also the character for the numerical concept of a thousand. And then there is the sheer problem with language capacity. Ancient scribes couldn't create pictures for every expression of thought. When they determined that the number of characters didn't begin to match the countless ideas requiring expression or the ever-expanding lexicon of words in the spoken language, Chinese, Mayan and Egyptian scribes did what Nephite and Lamanite scribes likely did. They assigned different meanings to the same characters. It was a formula for confusion and to fix the increasing number of ambiguities additional characters were placed alongside the characters of double meaning. It's a classic case of determinative modifiers. The additional characters provide the context, essentially requiring the reader to read the entire phrase in the text to understand the intended meaning of a single character or risk serious misunderstanding. Speed reading was next to impossible. Moroni was likely referring to this determinative modifier frustration when he very authentically recorded that wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words; and I fear lest the Gentiles shall mock at our words. (Ether 12:25)

Mayan writing lacked the same precision that elicited Moroni's complaint. Linguist Sir Eric Thompson informs us that, "the reader had to have a good background of mythology and folklore to comprehend the texts." It’s that same idea Nephi was trying to convey when he tells us that a background in Jewish culture was needed to understand the context of Isaiah's writings(2 Nephi 25: 1-2,5).

In Part I of this series I pointed out that Hebrew words, grammar and the conceptualization of Hebrew ideas has been identified in Mayan writing like the glyphs you see pictured below. That makes sense to readers of the Book of Mormon if indeed it was Hebrew speakers who introduced the new communication tool of a written language into a multilingual population already living in the Land of Nephi when Lehi and his family arrived. What has not been identified in Mayan writings is any Egyptian word or phrase. The lack of any Egyptian word would suggest caution on the part of researchers unless, of course, you consider the entire alphabet included logographic system of the Mayans nothing less than the prodigal son of the Egyptian mother language.

Join us next week for Part III of this series, the Language of Nephi, when we take a closer look at the beginnings of the Mayan Language at Kaminal Juyu in highland Guatemala around 550 BC and why, among many other factors, those Mayan glyphic writings like the ones you see pictured to the right, led Book of Mormon scholars to suggest this location as the original City of Nephi. The language that disseminated from this location was the civilizing force that catapulted Mayan culture into the most advanced civilization of the ancient New World. Is it possible that the Language of Nephi influenced the only ancient American culture between Alaska and Tierra Del Fuego to develop a written language? Join us next week when we explore the language artifacts surrounding the City of Nephi.


  1. I had to wait until I had some quiet time to think before reading this article, and I am so glad I found the time. It was very interesting, even more so perhpas because I have traveled through Mexico where they Mayans lived as well as in Guatemala. And I have always found the study of languages to be fascinating. Thanks for posting this.

  2. I really enjoyed this. I was very intrested to read about the way the Egyptian Children learned. I enjoyed the whole post. Thank you!


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