Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Cumorah and languages

In the previous post, we observed that one reason why critics and LDS apologists alike have rejected the New York Cumorah is the absence of evidence of ancient written languages in western New York (or anywhere in the "Heartland" area of North America (east of the Mississippi).

This is a straw man logical fallacy. 

If we accept the Book of Mormon narrative, we should not expect to find evidence of such a written language. From the beginning (Enos 1:14) to the end (Mormon 6:6), the Lamanites were determined to destroy the records of the Nephites. Mormon had to move all the records from the hill Shim to the hill Cumorah precisely because the Lamanites would have destroyed them. The Lamanites did prevail, but they never found the records. As we know from Brigham Young, David Whitmer, Heber C. Kimball and others, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery saw and described the repository of Nephite records in the Hill Cumorah in New York.

Readers here know that I think Joseph and Oliver, along with Joseph's brothers, moved those records, probably back to the hill Shim. Unless and until those records are located, we shouldn't expect to find evidence of ancient written languages in eastern North America, at least not any Nephite written language.

This also explains why it makes no sense to find a solution in the Mayan glyphs, which are unrelated to Hebrew/Egyptian in any case. If the Nephites were Mayans, or lived among the Mayans, the Lamanites did a poor job of destroying their records because the Spanish found an abundance of records when they arrived. 

In Central America, it was the Spanish, not the Lamanites, who destroyed records.


A related prong of the language-based anti-New York Cumorah argument goes against the Book of Mormon as a whole. This is the argument that Native American languages in North America were too numerous and distinct to have all originated with a group of Hebrews who arrived in America around 580 BC.

That's another straw man fallacy. The Book of Mormon never claims the people spoke only one language, or that the language they spoke was Hebrew (or Egyptian). The text refers to these languages in connection with writing, not speaking.

There's a good example in the Old Testament of people speaking different languages even though the text says they "spoke" to one another. In Gen 42:7, Joseph meets his brothers for the first time. "And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food."

The text doesn't explain how Joseph "made himself strange" but presumably he had some sort of disguise so his brothers did not recognize him. A few verses later, we learn he spoke in a different language as well. 

Gen. 42:23 "And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spake unto them by an interpreter."

This precedent tells us that when scriptures refer to people speaking with one another, we cannot simply assume they spoke the same language. 

Here are some indications of the multiplicity of languages inferred by the text of the Book of Mormon.

First, we know from the Book of Mormon itself that the descendants of the people who accompanied Jared spread throughout the land. We also know that the Book of Ether describes the destruction only of the people who lived "in this north country," meaning around New York where Moroni lived.

We also presume that Jared, his brother, and their friends traversed Asia before crossing the Pacific to North America. (I realize others think they crossed the Atlantic, based on Native American origin legends, but those legends probably didn't refer to the Jaredite migration for several reasons.)

If Jared, his brother, and their friends crossed Asia, it seems likely they would have picked up Asian people as well to accompany them, intermarry, etc. Thus, the descendants who did not live "in this north country" would have had Asian origins, as the DNA in the Americas demonstrates. Obviously, there could have been additional migrations from Asia as well.

We see in the text that after Mosiah met Zarahemla, Jaredite-like names appeared, suggesting persistent cultural influences from the Jaredite groups that were not destroyed "in this north country." 

Readers here know that I also infer that when Lehi landed, although they did not encounter any "nations" (2 Nephi 1:8), they did encounter indigenous hunter/gatherer groups in what is now the southeastern US. These were the non-family members who followed Nephi (2 Ne 5:5-6), while others affiliated with Laman. These groups, like the other Native American groups, did not have written language. Nor, of course, did the people of Zarahemla, who far outnumbered Mosiah's group of exiles. 

The Book of Mormon distinguishes between "the language of the people" (Jacob 7:4), a spoken language, and "the language of our fathers" (1 Nephi 3:19), which was a written language. King Benjamin made a big point about having his sons "taught in all the language of his fathers," (Mosiah 1:2) so they could read the scriptures in the original language. Lehi himself had to be "taught in the language of the Egyptians" so he could read the engravings. (Mosiah 1:4) In both cases, this appears to be a special written language that only the elite learned, similar to the way people used to study Latin in the 1700s-1900s even though no one spoke it (outside of Latin classes and other academic settings). 

Zeniff emphasized that he had been "taught in all the language of the Nephites." (Mosiah 9:1). [Note: the Original Manuscript for Mosiah is not extant, but this could have originally read "all the languages (plural) of the Nephites." The only other place in the text that uses that phrase is Mosiah 1:2, which presumably refers to both Egyptian and Hebrew.] 

Amulon and his brethren taught the Lamanites "the language of Nephi." (Mosiah 24), but not "all the language of the Nephites." I infer this means they taught a spoken language. But in any case this was not described as the "language of the Egyptians" that Benjamin caused that his sons be taught.

That leads me to infer that the Nephites had a common language separate from the written scriptural language, while the Lamanites had their own language, and the people of Zarahemla had their own language. None of these languages was apparently written.

When Mosiah met Zarahemla, we have this explanation:

  • 17 And at the time that Mosiah discovered them, they had become exceedingly numerous. Nevertheless, they had had many wars and serious contentions, and had fallen by the sword from time to time; and their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them.
  • 18 But it came to pass that Mosiah caused that they should be taught in his language. And it came to pass that after they were taught in the language of Mosiah, Zarahemla gave a genealogy of his fathers, according to his memory; and they are written, but not in these plates.
  • (Omni 1:17–18)

Notice this passage does not specify in what language the genealogy of Zarahemla was written. The passage could be interpreted to mean that whatever the "language of Mosiah" was, it was written, but that's not the only possible interpretation, and it would conflict with Mosiah 1:2. Benjamin's sons would naturally learn the language of Mosiah and the Nephites, but they needed special training to "be taught in all the language of his fathers." 

Therefore, it is more likely that the genealogy of Zarahemla was written in the special sacred written language like other records.

Several times the text refers to scriptures in the context of the elite who presumably could read written languages. On one occasion, in Alma 33:2 when Alma told the people they "ought to search the scriptures," we can't tell if he was addressing the poor, presumably illiterate people or perhaps a leader among them who "they sent forth unto him" to ask doctrinal questions.   

In Alma 14:8, they burned and destroyed the records "which contained the holy scriptures." That context suggests these were a single set of records, or a limited number of sets (whether engraved on metal plates or written on scrolls of some sort) that would have been read by the elite who then taught them to the people.

Another suggestion of a written language arises from the 17 times the text refers to a proclamation being made or sent among the people. A proclamation can be made orally or in writing. The root word, "proclaim," means to "declare publicly." 

To "proclaim" means to "make known by public announcement, promulgate," especially by herald or crier, late 14c., proclamen, from Latin proclamare "cry or call out," from pro "forth" (from PIE root *per- (1) "forward") + clamare "to cry out" (from PIE root *kele- (2) "to shout"). 

The Old Testament uses the term "proclamation" 9 times. A passage in Ezra suggests that normally the term meant an oral declaration because on this occasion, they "put it also in writing."

1 Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying,
(Ezra 1:1)

This is similar to the passage in Mosiah 29:4 that explains two messages King Mosiah sent throughout the land. The first does not appear to have been written, but the second was written, likely with the intention that it be read by local leaders.

 1 Now when Mosiah had done this he sent out throughout all the land, among all the people, desiring to know their will concerning who should be their king.
 2 And it came to pass that the voice of the people came, saying: We are desirous that Aaron thy son should be our king and our ruler.
3 Now Aaron had gone up to the land of Nephi, therefore the king could not confer the kingdom upon him; neither would Aaron take upon him the kingdom; neither were any of the sons of Mosiah willing to take upon them the kingdom.
 4 Therefore king Mosiah sent again among the people; yea, even a written word sent he among the people. And these were the words that were written, saying:
(Mosiah 29:1–4)

Mosiah convinced the people, but when the voted, they apparently used a voice vote:

39 Therefore, it came to pass that they assembled themselves together in bodies throughout the land, to cast in their voices concerning who should be their judges, to judge them according to the law which had been given them; and they were exceedingly rejoiced because of the liberty which had been granted unto them.
(Mosiah 29:39)

The Book of Mormon refers uses the term "epistle" 42 times. That term derives from the Greek word for message that can also be either verbal or in writing.

epistle (n.) partly from Old English epistol and in part directly from Old French epistle, epistre (Modern French ├ępitre), from Latin epistola "a letter," from Greek epistole "message, letter, command, commission," whether verbal or in writing, from epistellein "send to, send as a message or letter," from epi "to" (see epi-) + stellein in its secondary sense of "to dispatch, send," from PIE *stel-yo-, suffixed form of root *stel- "to put, stand, put in order," with derivatives referring to a standing object or place. Also acquired in Old English directly from Latin as pistol. Specific sense of "letter from an apostle forming part of canonical scripture" is c. 1200.

Unlike in the case of the proclamations, the text specifies that the epistles were written, such as the exchange of epistles between Ammoron and Moroni mentioned in Alma 54:11. "Therefore he wrote an epistle, and sent it by the servant of Ammoron." We have epistles between Moroni and Pahoran, between Lachoneus and Giddianhi and between Mormon and the king of the Lamanites, all of whom were among the elite and thus expected to be educated in a written language. Even among the Jaredites, we have an exchange of epistles between Shiz and Coriantumr, but we already knew the elite among the Jaredites had a written record because Ether kept a written record, and Coriantumr wrote upon the stone that he left with Zarahemla.

After he was struck dumb, Korihor wrote his responses to the chief judge. But we also know that Korihor was among the elite educated class. (Alma 30:51-2)

To summarize this brief introduction, the text consistently mentions written language as special knowledge for the elite, with multiple common spoken languages. Assuming that Mormon deposited all the Nephite records in Cumorah, and that the Lamanites were determined to destroy any written records they found, we would expect to few if any artifacts of written language in the land of the Nephites--which is what we find in North America. 

We would also expect a legacy of a variety of languages with various influences, which is also what we find.

Most LDS scholarship has focused on Mesoamerican languages. Brian Stubbs has focused on Uto-Aztecan languages and claims to have found Egyptian and Hebrew influences. His work is easily found on the Internet and I recommend it for those interested. 



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