Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Friday, February 27, 2015

How Did Joseph Do What He Did in Translating the Book of Mormon? Further Evidence for Early Modern English Influence

The mystery of Early Modern English (EModE) grammar in the original text of the Book of Mormon just became more interesting with Stanford Carmack's latest in-depth analysis, "The Implications of Past-Tense Syntax in the Book of Mormon" at MormonInterpreter.com.

Here Stanford explores the pervasive and archaic use of "did" in the Book of Mormon, particularly the "affirmative declarative periphrastic" did, or ADP did. Brace yourselves for some intense grammar and loads of intriguing data showing that the unusual usage of this grammatical form in the Book of Mormon strongly differs from the King James Bible and other books available to Joseph Smith, and differs strongly from the English of Joseph Smith's day, but is consistent with EModE patterns a few decades before the KJV was produced. There is a remarkable fingerprint in the Book of Mormon that defies common efforts to ascribe the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith's authorship.

Here is Stanford's abstract:
Abstract: In the middle of the 16th century there was a short-lived surge in the use of the auxiliary did to express the affirmative past tense in English, as in Moroni «did arrive» with his army to the land of Bountiful (Alma 52:18). The 1829 Book of Mormon contains nearly 2,000 instances of this particular syntax, using it 27% of the time in past-tense contexts. The 1611 King James Bible — which borrowed heavily from Tyndale’s biblical translations of the 1520s and ’30s — employs this syntax less than 2% of the time. While the Book of Mormon’s rate is significantly higher than the Bible’s, it is close to what is found in other English-language texts written mainly in the mid- to late 1500s. And the usage died out in the 1700s. So the Book of Mormon is unique for its time — this is especially apparent when features of adjacency, inversion, and intervening adverbial use are considered. Textual evidence and syntactic analysis argue strongly against both 19th-century composition and an imitative effort based on King James English. Book of Mormon past-tense syntax could have been achieved only by following the use of largely inaccessible 16th-century writings. But mimicry of lost syntax is difficult if not impossible, and so later writers who consciously sought to imitate biblical style failed to match its did-usage at a deep, systematic level. This includes Ethan Smith who in 1823 wrote View of the Hebrews, a text very different from both the Bible and the Book of Mormon in this respect. The same may be said about Hunt’s The Late War and Snowden’s The American Revolution.
The fingerprint of EModE in the original text is fascinating and ably documented in this and Carmack's other works, and yet there are times when the translation may have been loose. See Brant Gardner’s 2011 book, The Gift and the Power. Gardner’s work on this topic has some weaknesses, as David Bokovoy has pointed out, but one example I find especially interesting is the reference to the “five Books of Moses” in the BOM text, which most likely were not a set of five books in Nephi’s day. I think the original text may have made a reference to the Torah or the books of Moses, and Joseph modified it in the translation process to refer to the five books of Moses as we know them. That’s a moment of loose translation.

I think the debate over tight and loose translation is a bit like the tension between the wave and particle properties of matter. Perhaps the translation process involves both to varying degrees, with the delivery of information to Joseph being provided with initial tight control that he then sometimes adjusted in his role as translator, resulting at times in loose control. When I see translations of Chinese, there are often parts where I feel there is "tight control" and parts where things are rather loose. I can imagine both occurring for a variety of reasons in a divinely inspired Book of Mormon with a tightly controlled pre-translation being available for Joseph to access and apply. But that's just my speculation.

I’d love to have a day-long panel discussion with Stanford Carmack, Brant Gardner, Royal Skousen, David Bokovoy, and maybe someone like Daniel Peterson, John Tvedtnes, and Bill Hamblin, etc., to discuss the ins and outs of tight vs. loose control and the implications of EModE. Who else would you like to see on such a panel?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Connecting Some Scattered Book of Mormon Dots

Those who enjoy puzzles, mysteries, and conspiracy theories might find some aspects of the Book of Mormon to be more rewarding than The Da Vinci Code or other modern thrillers. With a complex web of internal and external clues to decode, the mystery of Book of Mormon evidences can yield impressive results when one does the work to connect the many dots before us.
Here's an example of some recent random dots mostly linked to Alma 17-19 that I considered recently. There may be interesting connections, though not all of the leads end up being meaningful.

Let me begin with an exciting breakthrough just announced at the Book of Mormon Archaelogical Forum, BMAF.org. See "Excerpts from the 400-page book Exploring the Explanatory Power of Egyptian and Semitic in Uto-Aztecan." Linguist Brian Stubbs has greatly extended his early work that identified connections between Hebrew and Uto-Aztecan languages, a family of New World languages that extend from the Western United States down into southern Mexico and El Salvador (Mayan, by the way, is not part of that family). Now Stubbs has produced a new book with numerous correlations between Uto-Aztecan and three Old World languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Egyptian. (The book will be available on Amazon shortly.) For each of these languages, he offers several hundred correlations.

While false cognates can occur between any two languages just due to chance, significant numbers of apparently related words can be used by linguists (not necessarily amateurs) to identify language groups. Stubbs points out that many Native American language groups were established with around 100 or so correlations, so the finding of 400 to 700 correlations each for three Old World languages in Stubbs' latest work should merit attention. Stubbs recognizes that some of the proposed correlations may be a stretch, but the majority appear noteworthy.

The linkage to three different Semitic languages could have come from two or more infusions from the Old World, such as one migration from Israel with speakers of a Phoenician-like Northwest Semitic and an Aramaic-like Northwest Semitic, with one or both groups of speakers also bringing some knowledge of Egyptian. If Stubbs' work withstands further scrutiny and leads to even more insights and solved mysteries when applied by other scholars, it could prove to be a monumental advance in Book of Mormon studies. Of course, demonstrating strong Middle Eastern influences in New World languages does not prove anything divine in the Book of Mormon, but rather increases the case for plausibility and may help overcome some common objections.

Stubbs' earlier work has received the attention of other non-LDS scholars. For example, Roger Williams Westcott, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at Drew University, New Jersey (Ph.D. in linguistics from Princeton, a Rhodes scholar, founder of Drew's anthropology program and author of 500 publications, including 40 books, and past president of the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States) speaks positively of Stubbs' work in his article, "Early Eurasian Linguistic Links with North America" in Across Before Columbus?, ed. by Donald Y. Gilmore and Linda S. McElroy, Laconia, New Hampshire: New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA), 1998, pp. 193-197. Dr. Westcott writes:
Perhaps the most surprising of all Eurasian-American linguistic connections, at least in geographic terms, is that proposed by Brian Stubbs: a strong link between the Uto-Aztecan and Afro-Asiatic (or Hamito-Semitic) languages. The Uto-Aztecan languages are, or have been, spoken in western North America from Idaho to El Salvador. One would expect that, if Semites or their linguistic kinsmen from northern Africa were to reach the New World by water, their route would be trans-Altantic. Indeed, what graphonomic evidence there is indicates exactly that: Canaanite inscriptions are found in Georgia and Tennessee as well as in Brazil; and Mediterranean coins, some Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic, are found in Kentucky as well as Venezuela [citing Cyrus Gordon].

But we must follow the evidence wherever it leads. And lexically, at least, it points to the Pacific rather than the Atlantic coast. Stubbs finds Semitic and (more rarely) Egyptian vocabulary in about 20 of 25 extant Uto-Aztecan languages. Of the word-bases in these vernaculars, he finds about 40 percent to be derivable from nearly 500 triliteral Semitic stems. Despite this striking proportion, however, he does not regard Uto-Aztecan as a branch of Semitic or Afro-Asiatic. Indeed, he treats Uto-Aztecan Semitisms as borrowings. But, because these borrowings are at once so numerous and so well "nativized," he prefers to regard them as an example of linguistic creolization - that is, of massive lexical adaptation of one language group to another. (By way of analogy, . . . historical linguists regard the heavy importation of French vocabulary into Middle English as a process of creolization.)

Of the various Afro-Asiatic languages represented in Uto-Aztecan vocabulary, the following occur in descending order of frequency:
  1. Canaanite (cited in its Hebrew form)
  2. Aramaic
  3. Arabic
  4. Ethiopic
  5. Akkadian (usually in its Assyrian form)
  6. Ancient Egyptian
Among the many Semitic loan-words in Uto-Aztecan, the following, listed by Stubbs, seems unexceptionable as regards both form and meaning:

Hebrewbaraqlightning> Papagoberoklightning
Aramaickatpashoulder> Papagokotvashoulder
Hebrewhiskalbe prudent> Nahuaiskalbe prudent
Hebrewyesïvähsitting> Hopiyesivacamp

Lest sceptics should attribute these correspondences to coincidence, however, Stubbs takes care to note that there are systematic sound-shifts, analogous to those covered in Indo-European by Grimm's Law, which recur consistently in loans from Afro-Asiatic to Uto-Aztecan. One of these is the unvoicing of voiced stops in the more southerly receiving languages. Another is the velarization of voiced labial stops and glides in the same languages.
One of the examples showing possible links to Egyptian involves the crocodile: Egyptian sbk / *subak "crocodile" appears related to Uto-Atecan *supak / *sipak "crocodile." (The asterisk "marks a proto-form or original sound or word as reconstructed by linguists.) This example follows a pattern seen in many apparent Hebrew-UA connections in which the Hebrew b is changed to a p in UA). Many of you seeing Egyptian sbk/subak might immediately think of the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek, which I discussed in my previous post "Of Crocodiles and Kings."

Sobek is of interest in the Book of Abraham since Joseph Smith's identification of a crocodile in Facs. 1 as the "idolatrous god of Pharaoh" can be considered as one of the many interesting evidences of authenticity for that work. When I saw that this Egyptian root had a cognate in UA, I wondered if the name Sebus in the Book of Mormon, as in the waters of Sebus, might be related to the crocodile. Could there have been a crocodile infested watering hole? But that conjecture is easy to dismiss since the final "s" really doesn't fit the "k" of Sobek and I don't think final "k" sounds are likely to morph into aspirants.

Though the crocodile-Sebus hypothesis was a false lead, my question led me to a new tangent and more dots to connect as I reviewed review some valuable work from others related to the place named the waters of Sebus.

By way of background, one of my favorite scenes in the Book of Mormon involves Ammon defending a Lamanite king's flocks at the waters of Sebus. The king's name is Lamoni, a name which corresponds well (yes, here's another tangent) with one of the few ancient place names in Mesoamerica whose ancient pronunciation has survived. Most ancient sites in the region are known by Spanish names like La Venta, with little to go on regarding how the name was known anciently. But in Belize, the ancient place name Lamanai has been preserved. This is an ancient city with impressive fortifications around it, similar to those described in the Book of Mormon.

You can learn more about the ancient Mayan city of Lamanai in a Youtube video. You might also enjoy the video that refers to the ancient Mayan city Pan cha'lib', which literally means "Bountiful." This may be a coincidence, but it's possible that the city was named after the ancient New World place called Bountiful in the Book of Mormon (which may have been named after the Old World Bountiful discussed above). Watch the text call-outs on the video in the first couple of minutes. The video is a re-enactment of an ancient ritual related to one that told of a warrior who visited Bountiful (Pan cha'lib').

The name Sebus is somewhat unusual for both Book of Mormon and Hebrew names, which usually don't begin and end with the same letter. It's the only example of such a name in the Book of Mormon. Paul Hoskisson in "What’s in a Name? Sebus" in the Maxwell Institute's Insights, vol. 32, no. 1 (2012), p. 3, explores some possible Semitic connections. He finds a plausible fit with an ancient Semitic root that could give this word the meaning of "to be gathered," which would be an appropriate name for a watering hole where animals are gathered. The potential for Semitic wordplay is then present in Alma 17:26, where we learn that Sebus is where the Lamanites drove their flocks (i.e., gathered or assembled them). Naturally, there is the contrast with the scattering that routinely occurred there as Lamanite troublemakers scattered the king's flocks--and seemed to get away with it time and again. Relying on divine power and some great combat skills, Ammon tells his fellow servants not to lose heart regarding the scattered flocks, for "we will gather them together and bring them back unto the place of water" (Alma 17:31). The waters of Sebus is mentioned twice more in Alma 19, verses 20 and 21, and in both cases that name is juxtaposed with the word "scattered."

It's fascinating how many times Semitic wordplays occur in the Book of Mormon. Not bad for a book allegedly fabricated by an unschooled conman years before he had a chance to actually study Hebrew.

One of the most recently discovered apparent wordplays involves the name Abish, a Lamanite servant woman who plays a role in the aftermath of Ammon's victory and successful gathering (both of flocks and arms) at the waters of Sebus, which resulted in the gathering in of many Lamanites to the fold of believers. See Matthew Bowen, "Father is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the name Abish in Alma 19:16 and Its Narrative Context," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 14 (2015): 77-93. And brace yourself for another tangent.

In a text that rarely reports woman's names, rarely reports Lamanite names, and almost never reports the names of servants, to have the name of a female Lamanite servant given is highly unusual. Yet Bowen points out how well the name fits the context and reinforces important themes in addition to providing a classic Hebrew wordplay. The name can be interpreted as Hebrew for "Father is a man," which relates well to Abish's status as a believer in God due to a "a remarkable vision of her father" (Alma 19:16). Bowen's abstract suffices for this tangent, but his case is greatly strengthened by the details he explores in his thorough article:
As a Hebrew/Lehite name, “Abish” suggests the meaning “Father is a man,” the midrashic components ʾab- (“father”) and ʾîš(“man”) being phonologically evident. Thus, the immediate juxtaposition of the name “Abish” with the terms “her father” and “women” raises the possibility of wordplay on her name in the underlying text. Since ʾab-names were frequently theophoric — i.e., they had reference to a divine Father (or could be so understood) — the mention of “Abish” (“Father is a man”) takes on additional theological significance in the context of Lamoni’s vision of the Redeemer being “born of a woman and … redeem[ing] all mankind” (Alma 19:13). The wordplay on “Abish” thus contributes thematically to the narrative’s presentation of Ammon’s typological ministrations among the Lamanites as a “man” endowed with great power, which helped the Lamanites understand the concept of “the Great Spirit” (Yahweh) becoming “man.” Moreover, this wordplay accords with the consistent Book of Mormon doctrine that the “very Eternal Father” would (and did) condescend to become “man” and Suffering Servant.
OK, the potential Semitic wordplay is cool, but what's going on with a king who couldn't stop a persistent threat at the waters of Sebus? And how can several of the surviving bad guys, drawn in by news from Abish in her attempt to get others to be witnesses of the miracle taking place with Ammon, the king, and the queen, dare to show up in the king's court and even attempt to slay the unconscious Ammon (see Alma 19)? It's the kind of security gap and cluelessness that might be par for the course for certain modern governments, but would seem to be a stretch in the presumably more sane ancient world. Brant Gardner has shown that the many seemingly ridiculous elements in the story of Ammon become quite plausible once we important Mesoamerican culture into the background. See his presentation at the 2004 FAIRMormon Conference, "The Case for Historicity: Discerning the Book of Mormon’s Production Culture."

Gardner explains that we may be looking at a family feud in which one Mesoamerican family is at odds with another powerful group, and can't simply kill off the trouble makers who roam his courts and slay his animals. To save face, he makes servants take the blame, and to upset the balance of power, he cleverly throws in a Nephite wild card with surprising results. This is one of many examples in the Book of Mormon where a knowledge of Mesoamerica helps fill in mysteries in the text. (Also see the related discussion of Gardner's hypothesis at Book of Mormon Notes, Feb. 2010).

Looking to Mesoamerica culture helps us appreciate what's happening in the Book of Mormon.

Interestingly, at least part of Abish's name, the Hebrew word for man, may be found in Uto-Aztecan. One of the finds reported by Brian Stubbs in his latest work, is correlation #572: Hebrew ’iiš "man, person" > UA *wïsi "person". But I'm not aware of "ab" or "abba" from Hebrew being proposed as a source for anything in UA. If Brother Stubbs sees this, perhaps he might have something more to say on the topic of possible linkages between Old World and New World names.

Coming back to the waters of Sebus, we've looked at the name Sebus and its role in a possible Semitic wordplay, the ensuing court scene and the whole scenario as a Mesoamerican intrigue, and interesting linguistic issues involving the name Abish. Now what about the "waters" aspect of the waters of Sebus?

The Book of Mormon Resources blog examines the many uses of the term "waters" in the Book of Mormon, and finds remarkable consistency with the way that term was used in--here we go again--Early Modern English (EModE).

By way of background, one of the most perplexing but data-rich and evidence-driven discoveries about the original Book of Mormon text is that much of what we thought was just bad grammar or imitation of KJV language is actually good English that predates the KJV substantially. There appears to be a strong current of obsolete grammatical patterns in the Book of Mormon that derive from roughly a century before the KJV was begun, adding a perplexing factor to Book of Mormon studies that at least helps us demonstrate that the Book of Mormon cannot be readily explained as a product based on copying KJV language and plagiarizing from contemporary sources or even relying on secret teams of contemporary writers trying to imitate KJV language. It's not clear why this would be the case and what mechanism would lead to the results, but the data demand to be considered and not just dismissed with an eye roll, or with mere assumptions about pockets of archaic grammar persisting as the frontier language of Joseph Smith's community. Something more than just bad grammar from Joseph himself is going on here, and Carmack offers abundant data to support that claim.

The discoveries in this vein began when Royal Skousen, the scholar most familiar with the intricate details of the earliest Book of Mormon text, noted that some of the grammatical structures in the early Book of Mormon manuscripts that looked like bad grammar and often were corrected out of the Book of Mormon actually were good grammar in Early Modern English from around 1500 AD. See Royal Skousen, "The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon," Insights 25/5 (2005). The initial discovery came after Christian Gellinek suggested to Royal Skousen in 2003 that "pleading bar" may be a good reading for the problematic "pleasing bar" in Jacob 6:13. "Pleading bar" is not found in the KJV and is obsolete in modern English, but was a term used in EModE. This surprising observation led Royal Skousen to open-mindedly examine other aspects of the text, connecting more dots and pursuing more puzzles, until he came to the conclusion that EModE somehow played an important role in the original text. (Also see "Early Modern English" at the Book of Mormon Resources blog, Sept. 2014.)

Skousen's observations and discoveries were greatly strengthened by a linguist, Stanford Carmack, who has provided extensive data and statistics for certain aspects of the Book of Mormon further strengthening the case for EModE influence in the dictated text from Joseph Smith--an impossible feat for Joseph Smith on his own or I think anyone he had access to. See "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar" in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 11 (2014): 209-262, and "What Command Syntax Tells Us About Book of Mormon Authorship," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 13 (2015): 175-217. A third article on this topic should be published any day now (possibly this Friday) at MormonInterpreter.com. I look forward to digesting that new contribution, and congratulate Stanford Carmack for his detailed analysis and investigative work. This is a vein rich in data and filled with surprises.

I think it's hard to argue that Joseph Smith was deliberately trying to add EModE elements to impress anyone (what, nearly two centuries later, when we finally noticed?) since he took pains to edit out some of the awkward sounding phraseology that resulted.

Now, coming back to the waters of Sebus, Book of Mormon Resources in Sept. 2014 had this to say about an EModE connection, after listing the many verses using the plural "waters" in the Book of Mormon:
These passages show the pervasive Book of Mormon characteristic of duality. Waters are either associated with life, peace, righteousness and deliverance or they connote death, peril, sin and captivity. All of these ideas are found commingled in the single verse 1 Nephi 4:2.

All unambiguous passages refer to either a) a salt water ocean b) a flowing stream or c) symbolic spirituality, life and healing. The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] confirms that during the Early Modern English era (see the blog article "Early Modern English") "waters" plural referred either to a) water moving in waves [the ocean], b) flowing water [rivers] or c) healing water from medicinal, thermal or therapeutic springs. In this case, the OED strikingly corroborates what we find in the text….

So, evidence from the text and the OED suggests the waters of Mormon, Sebus and Ripliancum are all streams or rivers as in Joshua 3:13. Fountains are generally considered springs as in Deuteronomy 8:7. The fountain mentioned in Mosiah 18:5 is almost certainly a spring feeding a flowing stream. Trees grow along stream beds as in Numbers 24:6 which explains the thicket near the water in Mosiah 18:5. The fountain/tree connection was part of the Nephite worldview 1 Nephi 11:25. The image of waters that flow and gush associated with the actions of a prophet is attested in the text 1 Nephi 20:21 citing Isaiah 48:21. River Jordan was the quintessential baptistery in the New Testament Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5. The most noted baptistery in the Book of Mormon is probably a flowing stream as well. In the land of Zarahemla, Alma1 probably baptized in the river Sidon as his son did decades later Alma 4:4. Alma1's baptisms in Zarahemla were expressly "after the manner" of his iconic baptisms earlier in the waters of Mormon Mosiah 25:18.

Most LDS Mesoamericanists who deal with the Book of Mormon correlate the waters of Ripliancum with the extensive wetlands at the mouth of the Papaloapan River in Veracruz. Our analysis confirms this correlation as highly likely. [The author then explores several geographical correspondences with the Book of Mormon and offers further examples from EModE texts.]

We know the "waters of Sidon" refers to a large river. The "waters of Ripliancum" probably refers to a large river. The "many waters" in land Ramah-Cumorah probably refer to multiple rivers. This makes it likely the "waters of Mormon" refers to a flowing stream of water since as Royal Skousen frequently reminds us, the original text is very consistent in its usage patterns (See the Editor's Preface to the Yale Edition, page xxxix). In the 1981 LDS edition, Mosiah 18:8 reads "here are the waters of Mormon" which in modern English could potentially refer to any body of water. The Yale edition restores this phrase to its original "here is the waters of Mormon" which in Early Modern English implied a flowing stream.
So what of the waters of Sebus? Perhaps it was a watering hole that was part of a stream or river. Nothing too surprising there, but I do like the way Book of Mormon usage of "waters" fits well with EModE usage. However, I'm not sure that treating "waters" as a singular noun was common in EModE or signals a pre-KJV connection. While the consistency in meanings for "waters" between the Book of Mormon and early English is interesting, I don't think any of those meanings are obsolete today, making this less interesting than the highlights of Carmack's and Skousen's finds.

Finally, turning back to Brant Gardner's insights about Mesoamerican culture and royal intrigues in the story of Ammon, I am interested in the Book of Mormon insights we may obtain from examination of ancient Mesoamerican royal courts. The Book of Mormon's brief information about kings and royal households among the Lamanites in the story of Ammon and the sons of Mosiah shows a hierarchical system of kings under a top king. We also learn of royal household and courts that appear to offer broad public access. Compare that to the following information from Wikipedia's entry, "Maya Civilization" under the section on "King and Court":
A typical Classic Maya polity was a small hierarchical state (ajawil, ajawlel, or ajawlil) headed by a hereditary ruler known as an ajaw (later k’uhul ajaw). Such kingdoms were usually no more than a capital city with its neighborhood and several lesser towns, although there were greater kingdoms, which controlled larger territories and extended patronage over smaller polities. Each kingdom had a name that did not necessarily correspond to any locality within its territory. Its identity was that of a political unit associated with a particular ruling dynasty….
Mayanists have been increasingly accepting a "court paradigm" of Classic Maya societies which puts the emphasis on the centrality of the royal household and especially the person of the king. This approach focuses on Maya monumental spaces as the embodiment of the diverse activities of the royal household. It considers the role of places and spaces (including dwellings of royalty and nobles, throne rooms, temples, halls and plazas for public ceremonies) in establishing power and social hierarchy, and also in projecting aesthetic and moral values to define the wider social realm.
Spanish sources invariably describe even the largest Maya settlements as dispersed collections of dwellings grouped around the temples and palaces of the ruling dynasty and lesser nobles. None of the Classic Maya cities shows evidence of economic specialization and commerce of the scale of Mexican Tenochtitlan. Instead, Maya cities could be seen as enormous royal households, the locales of the administrative and ritual activities of the royal court. They were the places where privileged nobles could approach the holy ruler, where aesthetic values of the high culture were formulated and disseminated and where aesthetic items were consumed. They were the self-proclaimed centers and the sources of social, moral, and cosmic order. The fall of a royal court as in the well-documented cases of Piedras Negras or Copan would cause the inevitable "death" of the associated settlement.
To me, the passage of time since Joseph Smith's day has made the Book of Mormon far more plausible, when placed in a Mesoamerican setting, than it was in light of common knowledge about Native Americans in Joseph's day. Looking for Mesoamerican cultural clues, linguistic clues, and other internal and external clues in the text can point us to many rich and long-buried treasures in this precious volume. There are many more dots to connect and puzzles to solve or resolve. Keep on sleuthing!

Update, Feb. 26: As I rushed to prepare this post, I had the persistent feeling that I needed to find and add one more interesting connection to these meanderings around Alma 17, so I wondered if the Mayan word for crocodile might be relevant. That was actually the question on my mind as I awoke early this morning after returning to China from the U.S. last night, but the online resources I found did not include crocodile or alligator. Out of time, I posted this, but then moments later heard back from Kathy Kidd, editor of the Nauvoo Times where I am cross-posting this. She mentioned that a Mesoamerican tour guide had told her that Lamanai means crocodile in Mayan. OK, there's my missing connection, and it has slightly more authority than hearsay since I just noticed Wikipedia identifies the ancient place name Lamanai as meaning "submerged crocodile" in Yucatan Mayan. Of crocodiles and kings indeed!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Friend of the Slain Muslims in North Carolina: An Example of Calmness, Courage, and Kindness in Grief

On Wednesday morning at a technical conference I attended in Miami, the female CEO of an impressive nanotech company from North Carolina gave the first presentation of the day, a departure from the printed schedule. She appeared to be Muslim since she was wearing a hijab (a traditional head wrap). The presentation had been moved up since there was an emergency that required her to fly back to North Carolina right away.

She gave one of the more interesting presentations, but was somewhat quiet and subdued, I felt. She then excused herself and left swiftly instead of taking any questions. The session chair explained that she would not have time for questions since she had to rush to the airport. Only later did I glean a hint about the nature of the emergency: three friends of hers had just been murdered. On Thursday I would see the headlines in the newspaper about the slayings of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So terrible--how do I even begin to grasp what this kind of loss must feel like?

It was thoughtful of her to share as much as she did with us before her flight. I caught her on the way out and congratulated her for a great presentation, not yet knowing that there had been a tragedy. I had missed the announcement about the reasons for the change in schedule since I had been chatting out in the lobby. Had I known, I might not have wanted to bother her at all.

Her composure and kindness to the audience while facing such terrible news about her friends was very professional, but what pain she must have been facing! I am surprised at how calm and courageous she had been. Even if the victims of the murder had not been friends, just to have fellow Muslims from one's town be murdered would have been a terribly troubling burden to face. This might be a good time for all of us to reach out in kindness to our Muslim friends as they face a trying time. They may face other cases of hatred and misunderstanding. May we help prevent such hatred and violence, and be a comfort and help to those who are at risk in our violent world. 

We Latter-day Saints often recall the stories of past discrimination and persecution, but what our ancestors  suffered many decades ago is minor compared to the pains of many in the world today. There are Muslims wishing to stand for peace who are slain by extremists. There are whole communities of Christians being driven out of their nations. There are minority religions and ethnic groups in many lands that are violently persecuted. May we not forget these brothers and sisters in their pain.

When it becomes our turn to face the wrath of bigots and madmen, may we remain calm and courageous, not seeking vengeance and not forgetting the need for charity even when there is cause for anger.

Monday, February 09, 2015

What About Those Who Can't Sing?

For some people, singing is a challenging part of worship. For those who feel they can't sing well or who fear to sing around others, music can sometimes be a barrier rather than aid to worship.

This was a challenge for me in my early days. I think part of the problem was that toward the end of my second-grade year in Boise, Idaho, my teacher worked with school officials to get me instantly promoted to third grade. They told my parents I needed to move up a grade because I was so smart. Mom and Dad were so proud of me. But there are other theories. Perhaps my sweet second-grade teacher was spared a nervous breakdown by throwing me into third grade. Whatever the cause, I skipped most of third grade, and I fully forgive all those involved. Actually, I think it was good for me and gave me opportunities later that I am grateful for, but it came at a price.

Parents, if you have children in third grade, please make sure they attend and pay great attention. Third grade, from what I can tell, is where some of life's most important skills are developed. This must be where kids become athletes, develop social graces, learn how to write legibly, and also learn how to sing. I pretty much skipped all that.

Without the benefit of a third-grade education (yes, I can see this statement being used against me), I soon found myself in fourth grade. The eager and overly confident little second grader still dwelling in me, so used to getting straight A's and being praised for minor accomplishments, was about to face a complete shock on his report card with a "D" for handwriting and a "D" for singing. The nice fourth-grade teacher I started with took time off to have a baby and was replaced with a harsh substitute for several very long weeks.

One day she announced that we needed to have a singing test, and that each of us needed to prepare by choosing a song that we would sing to her. What? This was a total surprise to me. She reminded us one day that the test would be tomorrow. Yikes. So I went home and sought help from my father, who sings beautifully, as does my mother, neither of whom bothered to pass on any musical genes to me. I had turned to the one source of vocal music I could find at home, the LDS hymnbook, and dutifully searched for a really short song. "Upon the Cross of Calvary" was the fateful choice. Another crucifixion song such as "There Is a Green Hill Far Away" would have done just as well for brevity and thematic content.

My father had me sing it, tried hard not no chuckle, and spend some time giving me helpful tips. After another try or two, he gave me some encouragement and hoped I would do OK.

I tried to imagine how the test would go. I wondered if she would bring us into her office or take us out into the hallway or some other remote room for the individual singing evaluations. When the topic of the test came up the next day, she announced that each child would stand, one at a time, and sing in front of the entire class of 30-something children (my estimate). This was to be a very public shaming, and my row was first.

I suppose that the four or five kids who sang before I did were all budding Josh Grobans and Whitney Houstons. I could hardly concentrate on what they were singing, but it sounded better than what I could do. When I finally stood to accept my fate, I tried to sing but felt it was somewhat worse than how I had sung for my father, but maybe, hopefully maybe OK. The two verses I sang were over quickly (I seem to recall she let me finish sooner than I expected, with no complaints from me) and I sat down, glad that I had survived. Well, that wasn't so bad, was it? I felt OK about it somehow, until a few weeks later when I got the report card with my first ever "D." Two of them, one of singing and one for handwriting. I don't recall, but perhaps some kind of writing test was conducted right after the singing test. Trembling does not make for a steady hand.

After that, my response to public singing became one of evasion for several years. I remember in fifth grade, now in Salt Lake City, the teacher caught me trying to hide behind the piano when it was singing time. Silly. I was a vocal and enthusiastic student for the most part, just not for vocal music. I recognized that singing was part of worship and wanted to do better, but didn't spend a lot of time at it and really felt I just lacked the talent to improve much. I can do better now and sometimes really enjoy it, but don't give me a public test, please, at least not a solo.

Fortunately, for those of who you share my awkwardness about singing, there is new hope from scholars. My favorite science news service offers this headline based on newly published research at Northwestern University: "Can't sing? Do it more often." The tagline is "Regular practice may be as crucial to singing on pitch as it is for learning an instrument." A new study published in a February volume of the journal Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal offers new hope for me and others. The online information doesn't yet include the February issue, so be patient. For now, we can rely on the printed version or third-party commentary such as the report at Eurekalert.org, from which the following excerpt is taken:
Published in a special February issue of the journal Music Perception, the study compared the singing accuracy of three groups: kindergarteners, sixth graders and college-aged adults. One test asked the volunteers to listen to four repetitions of a single pitch and then sing back the sequence. Another asked them to sing back at intervals.

The three groups were scored using similar procedures for measuring singing accuracy.

The study showed considerable improvement in accuracy from kindergarten to late elementary school, when most children are receiving regular music instruction. But in the adult group, the gains were reversed -- to the point that college students performed at the level of the kindergarteners on two of the three tasks, suggesting the "use it or lose it" effect.

Singing on key is likely easier for some people than others. "But it's also a skill that can be taught and developed, and much of it has to do with using the voice regularly," Demorest said. "Our study suggests that adults who may have performed better as children lost the ability when they stopped singing."
Great news!  Science has once again given me something to sing about.

Meanwhile, I would encourage Latter-day Saints and all of us to be sensitive to the challenges that some people may face when they are shy about singing. One positive thing parents and teachers can do is encourage people to practice. All that singing in Primary and elsewhere can make a difference and help people do better.