Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Why Does the Book of Mormon Say the Nephites "Had Come Down to Believe in Their [the Gaddianton Robbers'] Works"?

No, I'm not saying anything in this post about secret combinations and how to identify them, but rather pointing out a minor detail that is part of a massive pattern in the Book of Mormon. 

Helaman 6:37-38 contains a description apparently written or at least edited by Mormon about the success of the conspiratorial, murderous, wealth-seeking "model citizens" and influencers in Nephite society, those aligned with the successful business model of the Gaddianton robbers. 

And it came to pass that the Lamanites did hunt the band of robbers of Gaddianton. And they did preach the word of God among the more wicked part of them, insomuch that this band of robbers was utterly destroyed from among the Lamanites. And it came to pass, on the other hand, that the Nephites did build them up and support them, beginning at the more wicked part of them, until they had overspread all the land of the Nephites and had seduced the more part of the righteous until they had come down to believe in their works and partake of their spoils and to join with them in their secret murders and combinations. (Helaman 6:37–38)

Curiously, the acceptance of these trendy connivers by the Nephites is described as "coming down," a term that strikes me as odd in English for this sentence.  Should it just be "had begun to believe"? Matthew L. Bowen helps us see the potential significance of this language in terms of what may be happening in the Hebrew, where "coming down" in its various forms can be a reference to the Jaredite people and their failure do to being dominated by secret societies. In his latest article,  "Coming Down and Bringing Down: Pejorative Onomastic Allusions to the Jaredites in Helaman 6:25, 6:38, and Ether 2:11," Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 42 (2021): 397-410, he notes that the likely Hebrew for in this passage for "had come down" is yārĕ or yordû, very similar to the Hebrew for "Jared." This follows a warning in Helaman 6:25 against sharing details of the secret oaths had among the Jaredites “lest they should be a means of bringing down [cf. lĕhôrîd] the people unto destruction.” In fact, there are three cases of  apparent wordplays in the Book of Mormon casting a negative light on the Jaredites and their descent due to secret combinations. Bowen writes:

All three of these onomastic allusions constitute an urgent and timely warning to latter-day Gentiles living upon the land of promise. They warn the Gentiles against “coming down” to believe in and partake of the works and spoils of secret combinations like the Jaredites and the Nephites did, and thus “bringing down” their own people to destruction and “bringing down” the “fullness of the wrath of God” upon themselves, as the Jaredites and the Nephites both did.

Bowen cites Brant Gardner's insightful view on how Mormon viewed the Jaredites, blaming the greatest problems of the Nephites on the Jaredites, as if their secret societies were an ancient infection that had spread among the Nephites. It makes sense, then, that Mormon would strengthen his case against the Jaredites with pejorative wordplays pointing to the danger that had come from their influence. We shold note that while two major Jaredite armies wiped each other out, there is evidence in the Book of Mormon that Jaredite influence remained in the land, as we see Jaredite names persisting among the Nephites, generally associated with rebels and wicked people. (Some of these names are listed in the Book of Mormon Onomasticon at https://onoma.lib.byu.edu/index.php/Reuse_of_Jaredite_Names_Among_the_Mulekites,_Lamanites_and_Nephites.)

All of this is a reminder that the Book of Mormon often has much more going on than meets the eye. There are allusions, wordplays, unusual phrases rich in meaning, and details that become more meaningful when viewed with the perspective of antiquity. This use of wordplays around the name ared are a very small but interesting aspect of this broad pattern in the Book of Mormon.


37 comments:

BrianG said...

After 1000 year history in America, do you really think Mormon would have been speaking Hebrew?

Jonathan A. Cavender said...

+After => Old English
1000 => Proto-Germanic
year => Proto-Germanic
history => Latin by way of French
in => Proto-Germanic
+America => Proper Noun, traceable to 1507
do => Proto-Germanic
you => Old Norse
+really => Old English
think => Proto-Germanic
+Mormon => Proper Noun
+would => Old English
have => Old Norse via Proto-Germanic
+been => relatively recent English
speaking => Old Norse via Proto-Germanic
Hebrew? => Aramaic? A long ways, in any event.

So in one brief sentence of 16 words you used 10 words with origins from multiple original languages over 1,000 years old. So yes...yes I do.

Jason S Comely said...

I'm certain the Gadianton robbers of our day are the Chinese Communist Party. The Nephites are akin to US and Canada, with our over-reliance and over-sharing with China, thereby compromising our national and global security.

Moroni warns us to not allow these secret combinations to get above us. Since the CCP are conducting a stealth war on all fronts, that possibility is real.

Jeff, you lived in China. What are your thoughts on this?

Anonymous said...

“with origins from multiple original languages over 1,000 years old”

I think you just proved BrianG’s point. Languages change and morph over time. They are influenced by outside languages, a fact which you just demonstrated.

After 1000 years being isolated from their original Hebrew, there is little chance that Moroni spoke the same Hebrew (if he indeed spoke Hebrew) as Lehi would have (especially if you believe Jeff’s current claim, which goes against the claims of the text, that BoM peoples were one among many who lived in the “promised land” of America). Heck, we even have no proof that this nonexistent original document was even written in Hebrew. We know it was supposedly written in “reformed Egyptian.” It’s stated language is “the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” Did they write Hebrew with an Egyptian alphabet? Did they merely discuss Jewish ideas in Egyptian? Does the”language of my father” reference a whole new language conglomeration created by Lehi to record his sacred documents? Attempting linguistic reconstructions like the above is merely playing in a sandbox of your own making. That’s why you see Jeff cite some sources that show Hebrew when it fits, Egyptian when it fits, and a smattering of Coptic to make things even more interesting.

Just for fun, below is s sample of Middle English from less than a thousand years ago:

Forrþrihht anan se time comm
þatt ure Drihhtin wollde
ben borenn i þiss middellærd
forr all mannkinne nede
he chæs himm sone kinnessmenn
all swillke summ he wollde
and whær he wollde borenn ben
he chæs all att hiss wille.

Or the text of Beowulf, which could be 1000 to 1300 years ago:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde

John Robertson said...

I think there are some considerations of language change that must be taken into account here. I'm referring to religious language as against the regular flow of language change through time. Religious language tends to be more conservative than the garden-variety type of language change Anonymous so ably illustrated above.

Consider the fact that the Sanskrit Vedas date from around 1500 B.C.: "It is difficult enough to explain how Vedic literature could have survived from 1500 B.C. to the time when the Indians created their own delicate script on the basis of the Semitic alphabet, apparently about 800 B.C. The explanation is to be found in the constant care with which the Indians watched over the correctness of the sacred words, even down to the finest shades of pronunciation in the belief that otherwise their religious sacrifices would fail to prove a beneficial effect, or might even work harm." The Discovery of Language by Holger Pedersen.p.14

The preservation of religious language should not be underestimated. Consider the memorization of the Koran:

"Although there are various definitions for the keeper of the Quran that examine the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the person keeping the Quran, generally, the keeper of the Quran is capable of fluent, eloquent recitation of all the verses of the Quran. The hafiz should also understand the meaning of each verse without referring to the text or asking for help from others." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hafiz_(Quran)

Typologically, it is fact that old, if not ancient, sacred language is preserved in later religious settings. Because the Book of Mormon claims to have sacred scriptures from the Middle East, and because there are so many examples of religious language that conserves earlier language use, an example of language change from Anglo-Saxon to modern English might not might not have a place in this discussion.

Anonymous said...

John,

That’s a great explanation and would make sense. The text has outwitted itself in this instance however (emphasis added by me):

32 And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.
33 And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record.
34 But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.

The book claims to be written in a language altered from the original Hebrew to such an extent that it has become an unknown language. Refer to my sandbox statement above.

John Robertson said...

Hi Anonymous,

THE VALUE OF WRITTEN RECORDS FOR THE PRIESTLY CLASS
One might ask: How did Mormon know that “the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech,” and that “Hebrew hath been altered by us also,” — if there were not written records to compare to? Let us see.

The generations of the priestly, Nephite class were particular about passing on the “records of our fathers,” possibly in the same way the Jews of the diaspora were particular about preserving the Torah with all its traditions — or that Islam is very particular about preserving the sacred Koran in the face of inevitable language differences, and even changes in script.

1 Nephi 3:19 And behold, it is wisdom in God that we should obtain these records, that we may preserve unto our children the language of our fathers.

1 Nephi 5:21 And we had obtained the records which the Lord had commanded us, and searched them and found that they were desirable; yea, even of great worth unto us, insomuch that we could preserve the commandments of the Lord unto our children.

Mosiah 1:4 For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time (circa 124 B.C.).

FURTHER EVIDENCE
Apparently you assume that the alteration of scripts and speech through time precludes any possibility of the preservation of unaltered religious usage. But is that true?

“Sanskrit quickly became the learned tongue … and has maintained itself as such among the Bhramans to the present day. … It survived longest [as a spoken language] among the higher castes, as late as the time of the famous Indian grammarian Panini, probably about 300 B.C. But among the people in general, the language changed considerably. … And in Indian drama it is the general rule that only men of the higher castes speak Sanskrit, while members of the lower castes and women speak Prakrit. (Holdgar Pedersen). (Note that Prakrit, by 250 B.C., was a different language from ancestral Sanskrit.)

“The Brahmi script for writing Sanskrit is a ‘modified consonant-syllabic’ script. ...The Brahmi script evolved into ‘a vast number of forms and derivatives.’..., Sanskrit ‘can be represented in virtually any of the main Brahmi-based scripts. ...It can be written in any precise script that efficiently maps unique human sounds to unique symbols.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskrit#Writing_system

“Besides Aramaic, when Arabic began to be the dominant spoken language in the Fertile Crescent after the Islamic conquest, texts were often written in Arabic using the Syriac script as knowledge of the Arabic alphabet was not yet widespread; such writings are usually called Karshuni or Garshuni”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syriac_alphabet#”

Arabic writing was derived from Nabataean and then Syriac, and then Arabic. The evolution is nicely illustrated in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Arabic_alphabet

There is sufficient evidence that languages and scripts can change, but religious language can nonetheless be maintained. Yiddish and Hebrew can be written in block script (which replaced paleo-Hebrew), but that does not mean that the Torah cannot be written in any other written form capable of having sufficient phoneticism.
TO SUMMARIZE:
Languages and even scripts do change through time, but change is no barrier to the preservation of the sacred, religious language of a culture that itself lives through time.

Anonymous said...

John Robertson, your comments above seem to miss the most important point here, which is that Jeff's/Bowen's analysis assumes the Book of Mormon was written in Hebrew, whereas the BoM itself says it was not written in Hebrew.

If we accept that the BoM was not written in Hebrew, then pretty much all of Jeff's supposed "Hebrew word plays" need to be tossed out.

-- OK

Anonymous said...

“you assume that the alteration of scripts and speech through time precludes any possibility of the preservation of unaltered religious usage”

I don’t have to assume anything of the sort since the text itself tells us this isn’t the case.

“the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech”

“the Hebrew hath been altered by us also”

“none other people knoweth our language”

“he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof”

John Robertson said...

Dear Anonymous,
I've been down this path before. When you find my previous offering — 4:31 PM, February 15, 2021 — worth commenting on, I'll pay attention. Thanks and best, John

Anonymous said...

Dear John,

If you look back, you’ll note that you did nothing to demonstrate how your claims of religious linguistic purity are supported by the BoM text. The BoM claims the exact opposite. Are you saying you know better than Moroni the manner and the means by which he wrote?

John Robertson said...

Dear Anonymous,
How do you know that Modern English changed from earlier times if you had no written record of, say, Anglo-Saxon? Lots of people have no idea that English has changed — short of being like you — educated.

How did Moroni know that Hebrew had changed if he had no way of knowing what an earlier Hebrew was like? (See below.)

Recall the timeline of how the Book of Mormon was translated: "From Nephi to Mosiah was translated after "from Mosiah to Mormon/Moroni."

(Circa 400 A.D.)Words of Mormon: “And now I, Mormon, [am] about to deliver up the record which I have been making into the hands of my son Moroni. … I searched among the records [which he could read @ 400 A.S.] which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi. … Wherefore, I chose these things, to finish my record. ...I, Mormon, proceed to finish out my record, which I take from the plates of Nephi. … Amaleki had delivered up these plates into the hands of king Benjamin [and] … They were handed down from king Benjamin, from generation to generation until they have fallen into my hands.”

Mosiah 1:4 For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time.[The clergy was able to read the ancient plates as late as 124 B.C.]
(continued)

John Robertson said...

So how about Moroni saying that the script and language had changed from Lehi’s time to his day?
“the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech” “the Hebrew hath been altered by us also” “none other people knoweth our language” “he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof”

What Moroni was referring to was the simple fact that language changes over time. With Moroni’s preserving the ancient documents, he simply noted what anyone would note — that the ancient language and scripts inevitably changed from 6oo B.C. to 400 A.D. Moroni was referring to the vernacular, the colloquial language of his day. Specifically, he was referring to what linguists these days know as “diglossia:”

“In linguistics, diglossia is a situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community. In addition to the community's everyday or vernacular language variety (labeled "L" or "low" variety), a second, highly codified lect (labeled "H" or "high") is used in certain situations such as literature, formal education, or other specific settings, but not used normally for ordinary conversation.[4] In most cases, the H variety has no native speakers but various degrees of fluency of the low speakers .
The high variety may be an older stage of the same language (as in medieval Europe, where Latin remained in formal use even as colloquial speech diverged), an unrelated language, or a distinct yet closely related present-day dialect, for example Hindustani (L) alongside the standard registers of Hindi (H) and Urdu (H); or Modern Standard Arabic alongside other varieties of Arabic; or Chinese, with Mandarin as the official, literary standard and local varieties of Chinese used in everyday communication.[1][5] Other examples include literary Katharevousa versus spoken Demotic Greek; Indonesian, with its Baku and Gaul forms;[6] and literary versus spoken Welsh. “ (Wikipedia on Diglossia; my italics)


I do appreciate our little discussion, Anonymous, largely because it brought me to an understanding of the diglossic situation apparent in the Book of Mormon. If Joseph Smith somehow concocted the Book, he must have been an inadvertent genius by giving evidence of what today linguists understand to be a fine case of diglossia, an analogue of what happened "in medieval Europe, where Latin remained in formal use even as colloquial speech diverged": high ancient records and low the vernacular in Moroni’s time.

Anonymous said...

Glad I could help bolster your personal sand castle. :^)

I’m a little confused by your discussion of diglossia. Which is the high and which is the low in your opinion?

John Robertson said...

Dear Anonymous,
Again, thanks again for your kind help. Sorry you're a little confused. I doubt anything I might say further would be apt to bring you along. I'd be repeating myself. I've done my best. Anyway —
Best,
John Robertson

Anonymous said...

Really, John? The Book of Mormon says that if the plates had been larger the record would have been written in Hebrew. But the plates were too small, so the record was written in Reformed Egyptian.

This is not at all analogous to medieval European diglossia. Medieval writers did not decide which language to use based on the amount of paper at their disposal.

-- OK

Anonymous said...

I read this today: The 1993 Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharma. case declared that forensic test should not just be published in a peer-reviewed journal, but gain "widespread acceptance with a relevant scientific community" and have a known error rate. If the relevant expert community can't apply an error rate, then a jury should not even consider it.

Funny, first thing I thought of was this entire blog.

Anonymous said...

This quote is what is confusing:

“high ancient records and low the vernacular in Moroni’s time"

Is your claim that Hebrew was the low and Reformed Egyptian the high? Or are you claiming there was a low and high form of each? The reason I ask is you seem to be implying that the high form (Reformed Egyptian?) remained unchanged throughout the history of the BoM, which still doesn’t square with Moroni. I’m struggling to see how what you have shared would explain what Moroni wrote.

Susan Ralston said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comment John. Give Barbara my greetings.

John Robertson said...

Dear Anonymous,
Sorry if I was unclear. What I meant was that the language represented by the ancient writing of reformed Egyptian at 600 B.C. was the high language even down to 400 A.D. It was read by the priestly class throughout the entire history. By 400 A.D., it was not a spoken language. The spoken language was Hebrew, which according to Moroni, “ hath been altered by us.” Therefore, “none other people knoweth our language.” Again, think of the analogue: “in medieval Europe, ... Latin remained in formal use even as colloquial speech diverged,” as, e.g., Latin versus French.

The written language, reformed Egyptian, was also “altered by us, according to our manner of speech.” Exactly how it was altered is unknowable, but there are examples of “epistles” being written throughout the book of Mormon, which apparently diverged from the writing at 600 B.C.

There are many examples of writing being altered “according to a manner of speech.” Mayan hieroglyphic writing offers such an example. A paper I co-authored in 2004 discusses an example of “disharmonic” versus “synharmonic spellings.” To simplify, synharmonic spellings referenced short vowels and disharmonic spellings referenced long vowels (roughly equivalent to English mat “synharmonic” versus mate “disharmonic” spelling.

“The spellings from Temple 11, Copan, are especially noteworthy. In half-jest, we have considered labelling this structure the ‘Temple of the Short Vowel,’ given its pronounced (and temporally precocious) tendency to employ synharmonic spellings in place of the expected disharmonic ones.”

Of course, the distance between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D. gives more time not only for language change but also changes in the written language. The timespan for Classic Mayan writing was about 250 A.D. to 900 A.D.

Another example I am familiar with is found in an article treating the origin and development of the Germanic Futhark: “2012. “How the Germanic Futhark Came from the Roman Alphabet” Futhark. Vol. 2:7-26.​​” There was a dramatic change in the writing system from the earliest Futhark to the later Futhark. If you are interested, you can look it up online.
Best,
John Robertson

Anonymous said...

This helps a lot, John -- thanks. There's one thing I would still like a little more clarity on, though, because it has such a direct bearing on Jeff's/Bowen's argument:

What was "the language that was represented by the ancient writing of reformed Egyptian"?

Was this language Hebrew, or at least some descendant close enough to Hebrew that we could still detect Hebrew wordplay in it?

If it was Hebrew, or something close, how do we know that?

If it was not Hebrew or something close, how do we know that? And what sense could it possibly make to speak of Hebrew wordplay in a language that is not Hebrew?

It just seems odd to me that I read through all these detailed analyses but never see a clear, straightforward statement that the original language was in fact Hebrew. Yet clearly this is being assumed by anyone scouring the text for Hebrew wordplays and allusions.

-- OK

Jeff Lindsay said...

"This is not at all analogous to medieval European diglossia." It seems that Mormon had two writing systems for sacred records that he could chose from, both based on ancient scribal practices, both of which he could see had drifted relative to the ancient records before him. They had both drifted in ways relevant to their speech, a subtle insight reflecting the reality of language change over time, but that certainly doesn't mean that both of the scribal systems were identical to the spoken language. As John Robertson points out, it took special education to be able to read the ancient records and obviously to write them, especially for the reformed Egyptian system if they considered their spoken language to be a derivative of Hebrew. The fact that one of the two scribal systems available for sacred records was more practical for the realities of engraving on precious metals does not detract from John Robertson's observation that diglossia may be at play here. If the text simply said "I'm writing these sacred records in reformed Egyptian, which is a pain for me as a speaker of Hebraic language," that would certainly point to diglossia. It's just that here there was yet another scribal system he could have chosen.

Perhaps that other language, the Hebrew, was a form of Hebrew for scriptural use that relative to their spoken language was something like Early Modern English is to us. Still "modern," still different than the language of 1000 years ago, but still not the vernacular tongue and something more reserved for scripture and for educated scribes. Just speculating there. But whatever the state of their spoken and written Hebrew was, writing sacred records in a special modified form of Egyptian seems like a case of diglossia, IMO.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jeff. Just to be clear: if we had the golden plates before us, we would see reformed Egyptian characters representing Hebrew words. Is that correct?

-- OK

Jeff Lindsay said...

That's a great question and one that may still be in need of further research. What we see on the small plates of Nephi may not be the same thing we see in Mormon's abridgement and Moroni's writings. It's a complex question, just as it is for the Old Testament: it's not all Hebrew and scans many centuries as well. Based on what the Book of Mormon tells us, there's room for a couple of theories to describe with what Nephi or what Mormon were doing (and they need not be the same), ranging from just transliterating or representing Hebrew, or writing entirely in a different language, or following scribal practices the blended both (similar to some of the scribal practices we can see through recent scholarship from Israel and environs in Nephi's day).

I'm not sure, but suspect that some element of Hebrew was often involved because of the abundance of Hebraic elements that appear embedded in the text, especially with respect to names, though that can also be conveyed without having all the text directly linked to Hebrew. We definitely have a text with significant Hebraic influence, but there's still much to figure out. The easiest theory is to just say that Joseph was a clumsy dunce making it all up. But it also has the least explanatory power.

Anonymous said...

Just for the record, I've never advanced any "theory" that "Joseph was a clumsy dunce making it all up." Nor have any of the scholars who consider the Book of Mormon to be a 19th-century creation. That's a straw man.

-- OK

John Robertson said...

Hi Jeff and Anonymous,
So what was the language of the conversations common to Lehi, Nephi, Laban and his fifty, Zoram, Ishmael, the Elders of the Jews and so on?

• “Laman went in unto the house of Laban, and he talked with him as he sat in his house.”

•”I saw the servant of Laban who had the keys of the treasury. And I commanded him in the voice of Laban.”

Zoram ... “spake unto me concerning the elders of the Jews, he knowing that his master, Laban, had been out by night among them” (I have to believe the Laban’s conversations with the Elders of the Jews were in Hebrew).

•”I also spake unto him [Zoram]”

•”insomuch that we did speak unto him [Ishmael] the words of the Lord.”

•”the plates of brass which contained the record of the Jews”

•”Nephi often read from the plates of brass to his brethren, “which contained the records of the Jews.” Obviously, his interlocutors understood the language Nephi was reading.

I would be surprised if these reported conversations were not in Hebrew, the language common to Jerusalem — but not common to a Jerusalem Egyptian, nor to a Jerusalem Aramaic.
I would further suggest that by 400 A.D. Hebrew was still the language of the Nephites, else why would Moroni have said, “the Hebrew hath been altered by us also .” What altered language was he talking about, if not a transformed-by-time, spoken Hebrew?

What role does Egyptian take that is relevant to this discussion?
•Mosiah 1:3 And he [King Benjamin] also taught them [his sons] concerning the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, saying: My sons, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates, which contain these records and these commandments, we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God” (like the Mulekites).

•Mosiah 1:4 For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates [of brass];
for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time. (This, by the way, is a perfect example of the persistence of a high language, in tact, as it is passed on through time.)
(Continued)

John Robertson said...

Apparently Lehi was not a native speaker of Egyptian — he was taught in the language of the Egyptians, which means he “could read the engravings” of the plates of brass in order to “teach them to his children”

Paying attention to Moroni's statement, "[W]e have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters [to quote King Benjamin — the engravings ] which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech [which by the conservations mentioned above, was Hebrew] (See my previous post regarding the Mayan hieroglyphs ).

“Reformed Egyptian,” not any old Egyptian ancient, hieratic, or demotic — but a script that had been literally re-formed, “according to our manner of our speech;” reformed enough to accommodate the speech sounds of Hebrew (see below).
I believe that this sheds light on Nephi’s introductory, which never made sense to me before now: “Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews [Hebrew] and the language of the Egyptians [reformed Egyptian] (1 Nephi 1:2). That is, Nephi introduces us to the language that his father was taught. As with the plates of brass, he was putting down “engravings or characters” on the plates of Nephi which were reformed Egyptian, and teaching the content of the Brass Plates — the learning of the Jews.

There is a difference, however, between script and speech. A “spoken language" can be represented in any script, even a made up script, if it has the capacity to approximate the speech sounds of the language it represents. For example:

“Besides Aramaic, when Arabic began to be the dominant spoken language in the Fertile Crescent after the Islamic conquest, texts were often written in Arabic using the Syriac script as knowledge of the Arabic alphabet was not yet widespread; such writings are usually called Karshuni or Garshuni”
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syriac_alphabet#”

If this is right, and as far as I can make out up to this point, it takes into account everything I can find about language in the Book of Mormon. Briefly:
It takes into the language spoken by the Judahites in the 7th Century B.C. Jerusalem, viz. the attested conversations of Nephi, Laban, etc., clear down to Moroni’s in the form of an altered Hebrew.
It takes into account, via the language of the same 7th Century conversations, that were intact in written form in the thousand years that the Book of Mormon records.
It takes into account the here-to-fore mysterious role of Egyptian in the Book of Mormon. Lehi was taught Egyptian, could read engravings of the Brass Plates, and teach them to the priest class going forward.
It makes sense of the only script mentioned in the Book of Mormon: Reformed Egyptian — which is consistent from the Plates of Brass to Moroni’s last syllable.
It makes sense of Moroni’s statements regarding Reformed Egyptian being the “characters” that accommodated their manner of speech, which was not Egyptian.
It makes sense of Nephi’s otherwise mysterious introduction of how, going forward, he was going to use his father’s “language:” the language of the (reformed) Egyptian script, and the learning of the Jews, which when when Nephi read out loud from the brass plates, the language was the Hebrew language.
It also makes sense of what I said in an earlier comment that this is a great example of diglossia: As per Moroni, written, high language passed down from the Brass Plates of before the 7th Century B.C. to the 4th Century A.D. — and a spoken language, also Hebrew, that evolved as languages do, ultimately becoming a low language: diglossia.

Best,
John

Anonymous said...

Thank you, John. This is very helpful. It's good to see these extremely fundamental scholarly questions addressed in this way. I have long thought that Book of Mormon scholars have been putting the cart before the horse by exploring all manner of supposed linguistic intricacies without first establishing just what language(s) the book was composed in. It seemed to me rather like reading an English translation of The Inferno and then discussing its most subtle textual allusions without having an Italian-language original at hand, indeed without even knowing whether the poem was originally composed in Italian or Greek.

So I thank you for attending with such care to the basics.

I have to say, however, that "Nephi’s introductory" still makes little sense to me, and if I have time later today I'll try to explain some of the reasons why.

For now, just one minor question. You write above that Nephi transliterated spoken Hebrew using "reformed Egyptian" characters. But in his time, wouldn't the Egyptian have simply been Egyptian, rather than reformed Egyptian? It seems to me that the "reforming" of Egyptian, like the "alteration" of Hebrew, would have taken place during the centuries of isolation leading up to Moroni. Or do you mean that the Egyptian characters used by Nephi to represent Hebrew were already "reformed"?

This and similar questions might seem needlessly pedantic, but I think they need to be addressed if the scholarship of the LDS faithful hopes to be taken seriously by secular scholars.

-- OK

John Robertson said...

Thank you for your kind response, Anonymous.
As for your question:
“You write above that Nephi transliterated spoken Hebrew using "reformed Egyptian" characters. But in his time, wouldn't the Egyptian have simply been Egyptian, rather than reformed Egyptian? It seems to me that the "reforming" of Egyptian, like the "alteration" of Hebrew, would have taken place during the centuries of isolation leading up to Moroni. Or do you mean that the Egyptian characters used by Nephi to represent Hebrew were already ‘reformed’?”
 
As you said, “Nephi transliterated spoken Hebrew using “reformed Egyptian” characters,” and that’s an important point:
“The Brahmi script for writing Sanskrit is a ‘modified consonant-syllabic’ script. ...The Brahmi script evolved into ‘a vast number of forms and derivatives.’..., Sanskrit ‘can be represented in virtually any of the main Brahmi-based scripts. ...It can be written in any precise script that efficiently maps unique human sounds to unique symbols.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanskrit#Writing_system
 
Any spoken language can be represented by any script that “efficiently maps unique human sounds to unique symbols” — even if a given script is somewhat modified to accommodate certain speech sounds. 
 
But your question was where re-formed Egyptian came from: before Nephi or after Nephi?
The proposed answer surprised me. It came to my attention when I was writing my last entry. It has to do with the content of the plates of brass, the explanation of which I included in the last entry. I’ll try to clarify here by repeating some of what I said earlier and then commenting:
 
What role does Egyptian take that is relevant to this discussion?
•Mosiah 1:3 And he [King Benjamin] also taught them [his sons] concerning the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, saying: My sons, I would that ye should remember that were it not for these plates, which contain these records [written] and these commandments [referenced], we must have suffered in ignorance, even at this present time, not knowing the mysteries of God” (like the Mulekites).
 
•Mosiah 1:4 For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates [of brass]; 
 
for he, having been taught in the language of the Egyptians, therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time.  (circa 126 B.C.)
 (continued)

John Robertson said...

The point here is that first, Lehi was not a native speaker or writer of Egyptian; he was taught (who knows by whom — if memory serves, I believe there was a scribal tradition when Egypt occupied Israel — it still survived in the counting system. But I’m flailing here). Second, he could read the “engravings,” engraved on the plates of brass. Third, when he, Nephi, or anyone was reading the “engravings,” the content had to have come out as Hebrew and not Egyptian — for obvious reasons. 
 
Moroni gives us the term “reformed Egyptian” when he says, “And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech.” So it makes sense that when Lehi (see Mosiah 1:4 above), who was taught Egyptian, could read the “engravings,” on the plates of brass, he was, in effect, reading the “reformed Egyptian,” script, as per Moroni.
 
Finally, Nephi’s statement 
But first, it bears noting that the casual use of the word “language” in the context of spoken and written language is ambiguous: We both speak and write the English language, for example. So when Nephi uses “the language of his father,” the reference could be either to the spoken or written language:
 
“Yea, I make a record in the language of my father” … Is this why Lehi voraciously read the plates of brass — and found out he was a descendant of Joseph?, etc.; was this when Lehi had to learn the language [script] of the Egyptians? — which when engraved on the plates of brass consists of the “learning of the Jews [spoken Hebrew] and the “language” of the Egyptians” [reformed Egyptian] (1 Nephi 1:2). 
 
Moroni calls the engraved characters, passed down from generation to generation, “re-formed Egyptian,” because it was Egyptian writing, but apparently modified (re-formed) to map unique Hebrew speech sounds not covered by Egyptian characters. (An example of that is my futhark article, where the early Latin alphabet whose speech sounds not found in Nordic  Germanic were repurposed to cover sounds that were unique to Nordic Germanic speech sounds.)
 
That is, Nephi introduces us to the language of his father, who was taught “Egyptian.” As with the plates of brass, Nephi began putting down “engravings or characters” on the plates of Nephi which were reformed Egyptian, but reflecting the Hebrew content — the learning of the Jews. 

So to answer your earlier question, yes, if the gold plates were laid out before us, we would find that, like the plates of brass, the script was re-formed Egyptian whose reference was the Hebrew language. At least that’s my thinking.
Best,
John Robertson

Anonymous said...

A few questions your explanation raises.

1. Do we have other examples of high religious texts being written in a language (or script) which is foreign to the native speakers? I know Latin/English appears to be a layup here but that is not the sort of thing I’m referring to. Biblical texts are not native to English speakers and Latin was not the language in which the original events supposedly took place. As you know, language is very strongly cultural—most communities would not deign to blaspheme the words of their god by writing them in the language of another culture, especially those with a diglossic tradition. Do we have historical precedence of this happening elsewhere?

2. Do we have evidence of diglossia in other Hebraic communities where Hebrew was the low form?

3. Being as we have two independent sources, Laban who possessed the brass plates purportedly written in reformed Egyptian, and Lehi/Nephi who were trained in reading and writing the text, we must assume that reformed Egyptian writing was a somewhat common practice (at least to the religious or leadership community at the time). Where are the other examples of it from history?

Anonymous said...

Thanks again, John. I don't have time to get into Nephi's introductory right now, but here are a few observations that seem relevant at this point:

(1) When reading a transliteration, it's not necessary to know the language whose characters are being used to transliterate, e.g., a Hebrew speaker can read and understand an English transliteration of Hebrew without actually knowing English. They only need to know how to sound out the letters. As long as they could sound out the letters, a Hebrew speaker could understand the written phrase Baruch atah Adonai even if they couldn't understand the written phrase I saw a zebra. Which is to say the Nephite scribes might not have known anything of reformed Egyptian beyond its phonetics. Given the only known use they made of it, they would have no need to understand its semantics, syntax, etc.

Why might this matter? First, it would be much easier to pass on such a stripped-down "language" (really just a script) from generation to generation. Give someone an hour's worth of instruction in sounding out Cyrillic characters, and they could immediately start reading a book written in English using Cyrillic characters. It might take years of study to read the same book in Russian.

(2) An obvious point, but worth stating explicitly: whatever it is, reformed Egyptian writing is consonantal, not hieroglyphic.

(3) Along with Anon 1:36 above, I find it hard to believe that ancient Jews would adopt anything Egyptian as a high language over Hebrew, particularly for any kind of religious text, and especially given the role of Egypt in the Jews' mythic self-conception. It would be a bit like modern American conservatism, born in the anticommunism of the Cold War, adopting Russian as a preferred register for writing about political philosophy.

(4) As far as I know, the only time the Book of Mormon explicitly mentions the reason for using reformed Egyptian, that reason is compactness, not the existence of a special high language. And this seems more than passing strange, partly because Hebrew is already highly compact, and partly because writers/editors concerned about space would not be as prolix as Nephi et al.

More important to the immediate discussion, however, is Moroni's statement that, gosh darn it, if only he'd had more room, he would have written in Hebrew. If he were adhering to a diglossic tradition in which reformed Egyptian was the preferred script, why would he say this? No one makes excuses for doing what they're supposed to do anyway.

-- OK

John Robertson said...

I've spent so much time on answers to your questions, I've swearing off for a while. I'll stop with this for a while:

Do we have other examples of high religious texts being written in a language (or script) which is foreign to the native speakers?

Lots of examples. Sumerian is one:
Sumerian is a language isolate. Akkadian gradually replaced Sumerian as a spoken language around 2000 BC (the exact dating being subject to debate),[4] but Sumerian continued to be used as a sacred, ceremonial, literary and scientific language in Akkadian-speaking Mesopotamian states such as Assyria and Babylonia until the 1st century AD.

2. Do we have evidence of diglossia in other Hebraic communities where Hebrew was the low form?

3. Since " we have two independent sources, Laban who possessed the brass plates purportedly written in reformed Egyptian, and Lehi/Nephi who were trained in reading and writing the text, we must assume that reformed Egyptian writing was a somewhat common practice (at least to the religious or leadership community at the time). Where are the other examples of it from history?

There's a great article in the Interpreter the speaks to this question:

David Calabro, though not writing about the Book of Mormon, had some of these same questions in view while working on his MA thesis, which was on the use of hieratic during the period of the late monarchy. 6 In an article summarizing his findings, he carefully examines Judahite ostraca that include hieratic writing to see what can be determined about the use of hieratic (an Egyptian script) by Israelite, and more specifically Judahite, scribes. He finds that the data “point to the development within Judah of a unified, extensive hieratic tradition. Further, from a paleographic standpoint, this tradition appears to have been independent of those attested in Egypt during that time.” 7 On one ostracon, which contains an intermixture of Hebrew and hieratic, Calabro notices that “the use of hieratic signs here extends beyond simply inserting them as symbols to substitute for Hebrew words.” 8 In other words, this is not simply Hebrew written with an Egyptian script. Still, Calabro points out something interesting: he detects that in some places, the order of hieratic signs is “contrary to common Egyptian practice … but in accordance with expected Hebrew word order as well the probable word order in spoken Egyptian.” 9 On another ostracon from the same collection, which is fully written in hieratic, Calabro observes key differences in the paleography of the hieratic signs and contemporary hieratic from Egypt, noting that the examples from Judah appear more similar to earlier Egyptian writing, “which again points to an independent Judahite development of hieratic script.” 10 Calabro finds that the writing is closer to New Kingdom scripts (ca. 1550–1070 bc ), and more specifically the eighteenth dynasty (ca. 1543–1292 bc ). This may suggest that the use of hieratic in Israel began close to that time, and subsequently developed independently.

Interesting scribal practice. Source of reformed Egyptian script?

Anonymous said...

John,

First, I would like to thank you for your time and responses. You are not the only one who has gained new insight and/or knowledge as a result of our exchanges here.

It seems to me that your Sumerian example is not an apt comparison—it actually bolsters my dubiety. Sumerian was the original language. It was replaced by Akkadian in speech but remained the language of the educated class, much like Latin did with English. An apples-to-apples comparison would be if Sumerian remained the spoken language, but the Sumerians, despite having their own writing system, adopted the Akkadian writing system and used it to record their most sacred documents.

It seems that the best explanation, which goes along with OK’s point above, is the erroneous belief that Egyptian hieroglyphics conveyed more ideas in less space because they are pictograms, not phonetic.

Your reference to Calabro’s work piqued my interest. Instead of going to the Interpreter for someone else’s thoughts on his work however, I did what any good scholar should do and I looked up his published work available at https://www.academia.edu/8029642/The_Hieratic_Scribal_Tradition_in_Preexilic_Judah .

I must say that his analysis there was much less ground shaking than I had expected. He noted heiratic usages in three different ancient documents which were all related to the logging of commodities either being shipped or received. Several of his interpretations, as shown by his responsible scholarship, were either new or non-traditional. I saw nothing that would come close to demonstrating the situations we are discussing above.

Anonymous said...

It's useful to examine Joseph Smith's transcription of the characters and consider the claim that this was a compact form of written language. There are hash marks, for heaven's sake. Written Hebrew is much more compact by simple, inexpert observation.

Anonymous said...

Good point, Anon 12:09, though I suppose it's possible that reformed Egyptian is more compact than Hebrew. Some have suggested it was something analogous to Gregg shorthand, and who can say for sure? In the absence of any original, all sorts of things are possible. That's one of the apologetic conveniences of having the gold plates spirited away by an angel.

But I think the main problem with John's diglossia theory is Moroni's statement that "if our plates had been sufficiently large we would have written in Hebrew."

According to John, if I'm reading him correctly, Hebrew was the "low language" of ordinary Nephite conversation, while reformed Egyptian was the "high language" reserved for religious writing.

If John is right, then Moroni's statement makes no sense. If John is right, then Moroni is basically saying this:

"If our plates had been sufficiently large I would have written in the low language that's not supposed to be used for religious texts like this one. But because our plates are so small, I have to use the high language that I'm supposed to be using anyway."

If I only could have, I would have done the wrong thing, but alas the plates are so small I've compromised and done the right thing!

It's a bit like an Italian chef saying "If the market were not out of beef liver I would have made this chicken cacciatore out of beef liver. But alas, since I couldn't get any beef liver, I'm using chicken."

Maybe when John returns he can show us how Moroni's statement is compatible with his diglossia thesis.

-- OK

Anonymous said...

OK, I just want to say I always appreciate your input around here. If not for you I'm not sure I'd bother with this blog anymore. Thank you.