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

Friday, September 30, 2016

Internal Book of Mormon Evidence: The Lesson of Proto-Indo-European (Guest Post from Jamie Huston of Gently Hew Stone)

The following post is kindly provided by Jamie Huston, author of the blog Gently Hew Stone, where it was previously published. The points he makes are straightforward and valuable, and set the stage for some upcoming discussions of the important work of Brian Stubbs, particularly his new book, Changes in Languages from Nephi to Now (Blanding, UT: Four Corners Digital Design, 2016) and his 2016 FAIRMormon Conference presentation, "Changes in Languages from Nephi to Now."

Internal Book of Mormon Evidence: The Lesson of Proto-Indo-European

Critics of the Book of Mormon often deride it for its apparent lack of archaeological corroboration.  Indeed, most of the evidence that bears on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is “internal,” meaning evidence derived from the text of the book itself. Those given to rejecting an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon often denigrate the value of internal evidence, perhaps considering anything not in the purview of Indiana Jones to not be “real” evidence.  For some, it seems, physical remains are all that counts.

As someone whose interests are primarily linguistic, and as someone who loves and believes in the Book of Mormon, I find this intellectually and spiritually disingenuous.  Frankly, ignoring the importance of linguistic evidence in a study is unscientific.

Consider the study of the Indo-European language family, and its prehistoric origins among groups of people who spoke a language that we call Proto-Indo-European.

For those not familiar with this, here’s an introduction: European languages often have obvious cognates with each other.  For example, English and Spanish share many word roots that point to common influences; the Spanish word “pensar” means “to think,” and the English word “pensive” means “in a thoughtful mood.”

Going back through history, we see that many languages ranging from Western Europe even to India have such roots in common.  Here’s a fairly simple “family tree” of the Indo-European languages from Rutgers University, showing the relationships between tongues as seemingly-unrelated as Italian and Polish, Welsh and Sanskrit; you can see English evolving out of German.  Bet you didn’t know we had so many cousins!

(Old English, the language of Beowulf, sounds more like German than English to our ears.  Spanish cognates come from Latin’s later influence on English, mostly starting with the French invasion of England in 1066.  These two heavy influences are one reason why English has so many synonyms, such as the Germanic “handbook” and the Latinate “manual.”)

Analyzing enough languages far enough back in history, we find some very diverse early languages with common material.  This suggests that there were related tribes of early peoples who spoke a parent language that gave us many of the modern world’s languages.

Here’s what this has to do with Book of Mormon evidence: it’s by linguistic analysis that we learn about Proto-Indo-Europeans.  For instance, we can tell that they were familiar with cold climates, because multiple ancient languages in this family have common root words that mean “snow.”

But there’s very little archaeological evidence for their existence.  In fact, the earliest evidence for Proto-Indo-Europeans, and the bulk of what we know today, comes from the language material they left us in later languages.  It’s only been since the 1950’s that the scant, new physical evidence from proposed sites for these peoples has been able to bear on the study at all.

We don’t have a lot of artifacts or positive identification for sites where Proto-Indo-Europeans lived.  They didn’t even have writing, so our knowledge of their language is only based on reconstruction from second hand material.  Yet their existence is universally acknowledged, and has been for centuries, and that consensus is on the strength of linguistic evidence.

Someone wanting to discount the veracity of the Book of Mormon because most of what we know about its origin is textual rather than archaeological should reconsider their critical criteria.

Textual, linguistic evidence is real.  It’s scientific.  It counts.

Here is an updated version of the language tree from Jack Lynch of Rutgers that Jamie links to (click to enlarge):


C T said...

Linguistic evidence is real. And it's so tempting to take things that might be coincidence and see them as probative connections. For instance, I've been working my way through the Book of Mormon in Arabic recently and was surprised a few days ago in 1 Nephi 4 to see that the Arabic word for "waters" is "mee-yahm-mee." That's basically how the name of the city Miami sounds when pronounced by a Spanish speaker. The Spaniards were the first Europeans to try to settle in Miami, and the city name is said to come from the Mayaimi people who constructed ceremonial mounds and built their boats like the Central Americans rather than the pointed-end canoes in use by other Native American peoples in the Southeast. "Mayaimi" means "big water." Unfortunately, the Mayaoimi language went extinct and only 10 words from it are known. (At least if the wikipedia article https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayaimi is all accurate.)
Could this be a remnant of an Arabian peninsula word that survived into modern days? Sure. If there was a word that Nephi would have picked up while traveling along the side of the Arabian peninsula and embarking from it to the promised land, it would be a word for big waters, given Jerusalem's absence of an ocean coastline. Could it just be a coincidence? Sure. And I don't know how to tell which it is.

Frank Mcleskey said...

I am all for linguistic evidences for the case for BOM historicity- I was hoping for a few examples and a pointer to a deeper study/analysis.

BTW is there any way to tell if the first Lehi colony spoke Hebrew ? If not what language? And can it be said that mixing with a large nearby population changed the spoken language from Hebrew to XXXX?

Orbiting Kolob said...

Over at Sic et Non, Dan Peterson writes (re Brian Stubbs): If he’s right ... it will require a massive reevaluation of what mainstream scholarship thinks it knows about Pre-Columbian America.

Actually, most likely, Stubbs' will have no effect whatsoever on mainstream scholarship. Mainstream scholarship will remain completely unaware of his work because he will never submit it for publication in a peer reviewed academic journal.

What are the odds Stubbs will get this work published in a peer-reviewed journal? About the same as the odds for Stanford Carmack.

Neither of these apologists seem in any hurry to invite non-LDS experts to review their work. How odd that they should thus hide their light under a bushel! How odd that these amazing discoveries should be shared only with the faithful but kept from the wider world!

Well, so it goes. Such is the difference between cheap apologetics and genuine scholarship.

Hate to return (briefly, I promise!) only to bang on the same old drum, but peer review really is the coin of the realm. Without peer review, ya got nothin'.

Anonymous said...

For those who want linguistic evidence supporting the Book of Mormon. Dr. Brian Stubbs, who literally wrote the book on the Uto-Aztecan language family, has established very compelling links between the Uto-Aztecan language family (which includes the Nahuatal languages in Guatemala) and Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Phoenician. The evidence he's accumulated has been published and so far he has a number of non-LDS Uto-Aztecan linguists on board with it. His approach is scientific and carefully follows the best practices of the field in which he is an expert. The number of correspondences he shows in both meaning and form more than meet the bench-mark for establishing a linkage between languages in the field of linguistics. Here's an overview:


...and him giving a similar presentation:


Anonymous said...

Just have to point out that Brian Stubbs isn't some hack. He is literally THE expert on Uto-Aztecan as a language family. Of course there aren't very many people who study Uto-Aztecan languages, and even fewer that study the entire language family, but still. He's a respected guy. His work has been published numerous times in the International Journal of American Linguistics and he's cited in practically every publication that discusses the Uto-Aztecan Language Family.

I would say that if he were positing a link that didn't support the Book of Mormon, nobody would have any problem jumping on board. The only reason anybody would assume it's bogus is because it supports the Book of Mormon. Then everybody seems to think they're enough of an expert to just dismiss the work apparently without reading it and without any expertise in the field.

JR said...

Populations that have language, culture, food, religious differences do borrow all these from one another, especially if contact is constant for decades.

Book of Mormon critics always ask where are the remains of the people, where are remains of weapons and other items.

Even without the Book of Mormon, one can see the once great cities,

Jerrome said...

The analogy between whatever group of people spoke protoindoeuropean and the Nephites fails in several important respects. One is that the protoindoeuropean culture would have existed around 3500 BC, while the Nephites would have existed until 400 AD. There is also no historical record of the protoindoeuropean culture against which we can compare archaeological evidence, while there is for the Nephites. A much better analog to the Nephite civilization would be the Romans, who would have been their contemporaries in the eastern hemisphere. Needless to say, by comparison with the Romans, the Nephites did a very good job of hiding evidence for their own existence.

agkcrbs said...

Stubbs' theory and evidence are very exciting, at least to those whom knowledge excites. Perhaps some of his many suggested word relationships seem less concrete than others, but if one accepts -any- as correct (and if they can be subjected to further dating analysis to more strongly rule out later language contact -- though showing this, too, would be a positive enough academic contribution), they are hard evidence not for the Book of Mormon itself, but for the type of voyage and group interaction described in the Book. Stubbs did some dating with his discussion of Phoenician sound mergers, and provided a basic logical framework not only for how Middle-Eastern language contact can explain his data, but, for the interested, how the Book of Mormon can explain that contact. Peer review can take place at the editorial stage; more broadly and importantly, it occurs after publication, through the medium of academic debate -- reviews, citations, responses, continued research. (Contrary to the personal convictions of 'Orbiting Kolob', Stubbs already described his correspondence with other scholars.) Unfortunately for many of us, unwilling to acquaint ourselves with the subject, this process will take place over our heads, like so much of science, and we, the second-hand knowers, will have to choose which of our fellow men we will place our faith in as 'experts', and then resort to tribalism.

...At any rate, I am with Frank Mcleskey, who wanted a summary of relevant examples (but was unwilling to find and post them himself!). The PIE analogy is good, but Brian Stubbs' studies, with only a few exceptions, are not internal reconstructions from within the BoM text; they are surveys of languages that could possibly be done with or without the Book. (Whether they -would- be done without it is another question.)

CT - great comment. Absent recorded history, that's may something you could only demonstrate in statistical aggregate. If there were several or many such words in the area (see Stubbs' UA!), or more cultural links such as the boats you mentioned, you could build a case. Otherwise, like Stubbs' referral to Cyrus Gordon's spotting the Egyptian crocodile god 'Sbk' (not crocodile itself, 'msh') in Nahuatl crocodile 'supak', it must remain an appetizing hint dangling into the future.

Jerrome - yes, Nephites would be more recent, but this was not a comparison between PIE and Nephites; it was a comparison of linguistic data with linguistic data. A Nephite analogy with Rome also fails, of course, simply by the difference in archaeological exposure. The 'Western' study of Roman culture has been going on since there was a Roman culture. If the Italian peninsula had been some distant, overgrown, post-apocalyptic, recently rediscovered and reconquered island continent, we could compare our level of historical knowledge with that of ancient Meso-America.

Anonymous said...

Hi Orbiting Kolob,

My borther knows Brian Stubs and my brother is also a linguistic professor of the Uto-Aztecan languages. I asked him why Brian would not publish his paper in a journal. Basically, the answer that I got was that Brian was academically "tired" of the process that one has to go through to get the paper in a readable format for journal publication and it is not because the paper is academically weak.


Anonymous said...

Hi CT,

You would actually have to compare proto-Arabic with what Lehi spoke. Also, it sounds like ma-yam-ee is the prepositional form of the word for waters (or possesive depending on the context) in which case I would doubt that a noun like that would be preserved in a form like that thousands of years later in Florida.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious about Stubbs' work on the Algonquin language family. The Uto-Aztecan is interesting, but so far as I know he hasn't published his findings about Algonquin connections.

Jerome said...


You're right about difference in archaeological exposure, but that fails to account for the current dearth of Nephite artifacts. Even if the Italian peninsula were only recently discovered, the existence of Romans would be obvious and noncontroversial. The Nephite civilization would have been at least as large as the Romans and of equal duration. At its height, the Roman military was about 450,000. The Nephite military must have been larger at its height, since half that number was wiped out in a single battle. A military the size of the Nephites' would have required a large economy to sustain it. It would have surpassed the Romans and dwarfed anything seen in Europe following the Romans.

Jerome said...

Just to clarify, I mean the size of the Nephite military exceeds that of European militaries up until Napoleon and the industrial revolution. This would have required a commensurately large economy. The fact that the Italian peninsula isn't a "distant, overgrown, post-apocalyptic recently discovered island continent" is not unrelated to the existence of a Roman empire. Such a thing couldn't happen. A complex civilization like that doesn't simply vanish without influencing subsequent history.

C T said...

First, the Romans had a professional military. There is no indication from the Book of Mormon that there was a sizeable class of professional soldiers being supported by the rest of the populace during times of peace. Educated leaders (lawyers and priests), merchants, and farming peasants seem to form nearly all the population hierarchy. That the education included military tactics is indicated by some of the details we know about Nephite military leaders.
Second, the Peten Basin used to be very densely populated. Combine its population with the apparent tendency for most all the Nephite/Lamanite men (including adolescents) to leave the fields and go fight when called up, an army of only half a million seems rather small.

Anonymous said...

There are all sorts of variations of numbers of soldiers in the Old Testament. There may have been similar issues when writing the Book of Mormon records:



Anonymous said...

It's too bad the first prophet, Joseph Smith himself taught that Book of Mormon geography took place in north America. But what does he know, right?

Jeff Lindsay said...

Are you referring to his comment that we would do well to compare the cities of the Nephites with those discussed by John Lloyd Stephens in Incidents of Travels in Yucatan? And the repeated favorable reviews of that work, endorsing it as evidence relevant to the Book of Mormon, published with his approval if not authorship in early LDS publications? Yes, that's North America, but the Mesoamerican portion which most LDS scholars think is the only plausible location for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon.

Anonymous said...

"Mesoamerican portion which most LDS scholars think is the only plausible location for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon"
It's too bad "Most LDS scholars" contradict the teaching of actual LDS prophets.
But let's be honest, when it comes to the teachings of LDS prophets (Brigham Young in particular) the modern church simply disavows what they no longer agree with anyways.