There are 16 thoughts on “Learning Nephi’s Language: Creating a Context for 1 Nephi 1:2”.

  1. Neal, thank you for your research!
    I wonder if Nephi’s training in Egyptian also had a temporal purpose. We know that Lehi was wealthy, probably from successful business ventures, and Nephi states he was “taught somewhat in all the learning of [his] father.” I imagine Lehi taught his sons how to be successful business men, which may include teaching them Egyptian if it was important for local commerce. My understanding is that in some locations Demotic was a popular shorthand Egyptian for trade during Lehi’s time.
    Are you aware of any evidence that suggests Demotic (or some other form of “trade” Egyptian) played an important commercial role in Jerusalem?

  2. Really enjoyed this, makes perfect sense to this non-scholar! I’d previously read Jerry Grover’s paper on translating the Caractors document, which I also enjoyed favorably, and think y’all are moving in the right direction. Keep going!

  3. One topic that I am not aware of being addressed in relation to the written language of the Book of Mormon is that the small plates of Nephi were written about 1000 years before Mormon started making his compilation and that Mormon just appended the small plates to his much later abridgement without modification. My understanding is that language changes over time, so it seems reasonable to me that the characters and language usage on the small plates would have been different from those used by Mormon in the rest of Mormon’s abridged record. Has anyone done research to understand what implications that may have on our understanding of the Book of Mormon?

    • Cameron:
      That seems like an impossible question to ask since it is based on too many unknowns, namely: no one knows what the “reformed egyptian” even looked like; you have to assume it changed; and then how drastic were the changes, if any? So, how would one even begin research on this question when the plates were taken up by the angel? You would have to ask Nephi/Moroni in order to find out.

      • Obviously there are many unknowns related to the reformed Egyptian and it would be difficult if not impossible to learn any detailed information. My question was really trying to ask if anyone has looked for clues in the historical record indicating that a portion of the plates might have looked different from other portions, either in shape, color, or characters used.
        It would appear to be a strange coincidence if the metal used by Nephi was identical in color and shape to the metal used by Mormon and Moroni. Unless Mormon had made a conscious attempt to make his plates identical in size and color to those of Nephi, the small plate portion might have stuck out, or have been indented from the other plates. My reading of his statement leads me to believe that he had already engraved the first part of the record before he decided to include the small plates, so it seems to me that the two sets of plates being the exact same size and color would have been pure luck. Plus, I have read in other places(I think in Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling) that there is evidence that the small plates may have been after the book of Moroni in the plate stack (kind of like an appendix) based on the fact that some of the handwriting in the original Book of Mormon translation manuscript for portions of 1 & 2 Nephi was that of someone in the Wittmer family(I can’t remember who), which would have been near the end of the translation process. That would mean that Joseph consciously put the writings of the small plates at the beginning of the printed version of the Book of Mormon even though it was the last thing translated.
        If the 3 & 8 witnesses handled all of the leaves that had been translated they may have mentioned that a part looked different in shape, thickness, color, or style of characters. Such type of info might be another evidence beyond the scribal handwriting as to where they were really located in the plate stack.
        Also, other interesting items might come to light based on using that paradigm(that the language was probably somewhat different) . Have statements made by Mormon/Moroni about the language used, and modifications made to that language, been thought about in light of the fact that Nephi’s language would have been more pure and less modified? Are there more evidence of Hebraisms in the small plate section than in the Mormon abridged section? These are the kinds of questions I was trying to get at by asking if any research has been done on this topic.

        • I’m not a Book of Mormon scholar by any means. But I’ll like to add a few thoughts:
          1. There is nothing to prohibit Mormon from copying the small plates into his script. This would allow Mormon to keep consistent plate sizes and script characters. This is why there is no evidence for misshaped plates.
          2. Evidence suggests that the Book of Mormon was translated in order of Book of Lehi, Mosiah – Moroni, 1 Nephi – Omni. But this doesn’t have to be the order it’s written in. My impression is that it’s possible that after Mormon was done abridging Lehi (through the now missing original Mosiah chapter 1), he added the Small Plates, then Words of Mormon and then finished Mosiah through Mormon 7.
          I guess there is no easy way to see how exactly the message of Mormon and Moroni became English. There is a whole lot of speculative reasoning simply because we don’t really have a huge amount of evidence of how things were done – just a lot of guesses.

  4. Very much enjoyed the read. Thank you.
    Some folks demand proof but I doubt that even if an archaeologist uncovered a stone in Meso-America inscribed with “Lehi slept here” would convince them. In 1830, ancient Jews writing on metal was ridiculous. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and specifically the Copper Scroll, that issue is resolved. I recently read that the Cave of Letters is described on the Copper Scroll and indicates the place where Yadin found “Alma ben Yahoud”. Some folks just can’t be convinced. They won’t believe even if an Angel appeared to them and handed them the gold plates.

  5. Neal:
    Was Joseph Fielding Smith wrong then when he compiled the teachings of the prophet joseph smith? Is it always going to change or is there anything that can relied upon? I got to tell you, Neal, assuming authority is giving me a headache. Good luck against Mr. Jenkins when you and your friend get around to answering his request for proof.

    • Perplexed, I can see why you might be perplexed. You appear to have adopted a an inerrantist view of history. That is a difficult position to take even on scripture, but for history it is really quite impossible. Your question about Joseph Fielding Smith as Church Historian appears to conflate that with his position as Prophet. They are different time periods, and his later position couldn’t inform his earlier one. As for relying on things, I would suggest you rely on scripture and prophets. Of course, I also suggest that you are more critical about how you understand either of those.
      As for Mr. Jenkins, I don’t know if you are aware of the rather drawn out discussion William Hamblin had/tried to have with him. As a simple reply, the request for proof is a rather silly thing for a historian to require. What proof do we have of the cause of the civil war? What proof do we have of the cause of World War I? We know that there were certain events, but historians construct explanations of history that provide evidence for their conclusions, not proof. The question of Book of Mormon historicity is similarly a question of evidence. The only known proof is spiritual and clearly not what he was looking for.
      All of that having been said, do you have anything substantive to say about Neal’s article?

      • Brant:
        I guess Mr. Rappleye’s proposal is possible for the old world given the proximity of the two peoples, but it still doesn’t put the egyptian/hebrew language in the new world. If you could do that, then that would obviously be news to all including Mr. Jenkins.

        • Perplexed-well, at least we have some agreement at the beginning. Since Neil’s article discussed the reason that the text would have been written in something that said it was the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians, then he met his goal.
          The question about finding such a language in the New World is a very different one. Perhaps you might provide a list of the texts available in the Americas that predate, say, AD 400? I’ll give you a hint that there is information that writing was known, but there are very few examples and not all of those from the same peoples and languages. Why is that important? It makes it easier to talk about why a given script doesn’t have much or any attestation when we understand that very few scripts have very much or any attestation. That doesn’t mean they weren’t there. It means they didn’t survive.
          One of the very real problems with Mr. Jenkin’s suggestions is that the very nature of evidence in the New World (quite apart from anything to do with the Book of Mormon) is dramatically different from the Old World. Using Old World expectations of what should be possible and imputing those ideas onto the New World simply demonstrates a lack of understanding of the problems of history we have for the New World.
          I’m guessing, however, that you really aren’t interested in Neil’s thesis, but rather Book of Mormon polemics. There must be a better place. His article is interesting, let’s discuss that, shall we?

          • Brant:
            When does your latest book come out? I’m interested in what you have to say because I find you very engaging and intelligent. Nevertheless, I am interested in BofM polemics because that is where the game seems to be played right now with the recent disclosures of the peep stone and the recent essays. How do we deal with the loose v. tight translation polemic? I want to see how those on this site respond to the hard questions because I view those here as the cream of the crop.
            How do you reconcile what Dr. Bushman said regarding finding 19th century religious preacher texts in the BofM with the tight translation? Was it as Ostler said? Then what of the stories of seeing words on the stone?
            With respect to Neal and his work, he seems to be as Dr. Hamblin claims, an up and coming scholar. I just get frustrated with the assumption of truth that seems to pervade here. We should question everything regardless of whether certain people agree or not. I think only that way can we come to an answer to the tough questions.

            • Perplexed:
              The book is now available, thank you for asking.
              I’ll give you my answers to your questions, of course others will have different opinions. If you have read Interpreter you will have seen that it has published some articles I have written and specifically articles on translation by Stanford Carmack and Royal Skousen. I mention them specifically because we differ in our interpretation of the data for translation. I found that the loose vs. tight translation paradigm Skousen suggests wasn’t useful because our ideas of what Joseph was doing were so different. Skousen and Carmack have Joseph as a reader, not a translator. The tight vs. loose paradigm appears to apply only to the transmission from Joseph to Oliver. Since they remove the translation process to some other agent a step away from Joseph, we still wouldn’t know much about how that translator worked.
              You might have seen that I published a book on that topic, The Gift and Power. Translating the Book of Mormon. My suggestion, based on the way I see the data, is that there are three types of translation process that can be seen in the text, and they appear in some rather specific circumstances. The translation of names appears to have been literalist (tight), but the majority of the text functionalist (loose, but still adhering to meaning and representing structural patterns. Finally, there are a couple of places which appear to be conceptual, places where there is a prophetic addition (similar to the revelatory expansion of Moses). In other words, I see Joseph as a translator, and the vocabulary and phrasing representing his available understanding as a translator. Interestingly, I agree with Skousen that Joseph saw words. Saying that he saw words on the stone is an interpretation that I believe to be incorrect. As for how that happened, I suggest the book.
              While you are correct that Interpreter intentionally has an assumption of the truthfulness of the LDS gospel message and scriptures, that doesn’t mean that serious discussion is not allowed or discouraged. If you follow the comments on various papers, you will see that respectful and substantive disagreement is allowed. What I hope happens through Interpreter (and I am not to be seen as speaking on Interpreter’sbehalf) is that good scholarship is encouraged, and questioned, so that quality scholarship can be polished through questions. To have that happen requires specific interactions with the papers, so that is encouraged.

  6. “No such explanatory context can reasonably be fashioned out of Joseph Smith’s world … ”
    Can’t the word “mormon” be explained as coming from Joseph Smith’s world? He says the “mor” part of “mormon” comes from english, which did not exist in the “nephite world.”
    This is from the teachings of the prophet joseph smith, pp 299-300:
    Sir:–Through the medium of your paper, I wish to correct an error among men that profess to be learned, liberal and wise; and I do it the more cheerfully, because I hope sober-thinking and sound-reasoning people will sooner listen to the voice of truth, than be led astray by the vain pretensions of the self-wise. the error I speak of, is the definition of the word “Mormon.” I has been stated that this word was derived from the Greek word “mormo.” This is not the case. There was no Greek or Latin upon the plates from which I, through the grace of God, translated the Book of Mormon. Let the language of that book speak for itself. On the 523rd page, of the fourth edition, it reads: “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; 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, but the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also, that none other people knoweth our language; therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.”
    Here then the subject is put to silence, for “none other people knoweth our language,” therefore the Lord, and not man, had to interpret, after the people were all dead. And as Paul said, “the world by wisdom know not God,” so the world by speculation are destitute of revelation; and as God in his superior wisdom, has always given his Saints, wherever he had any on the earth, the same spirit, and that spirit, as John says, is the true spirit of prophecy, which is the testimony of Jesus. I may safely say that the word Mormon stands independent of the learning and wisdom of this generation.–Before I give a definition, however, to the word, let me say that the Bible in its widest sense, means good; for the Savior says according to the gospel of John, “I am the good shepherd;” and it will not be beyond the common use of terms, to say that good is among the most important in use, and though known by various names in different languages, still its meaning is the same, and is ever in opposition to “bad.” We say from the Saxon, “good”; the Dane, “god”; the Goth, “goda”; the German, “gut”; the Dutch, “goed”; the Latin, “bonus”; the Greek, “kalos”; the Hebrew, “tob”; and the “Egyptian, “mon.” Hence, with the addition of “more,” or the contraction, “mor,” we have the word “mormon”; which means, literally, “more good.”
    Yours,
    JOSEPH SMITH.
    So, it looks like J.S. is saying the ancient nephite name “mormon” is derived in part from english? Looks like it comes from his world, or was J.S. mistaken like he obviously was with “Zelph” and the hemispheric geography model?
    Also, when will there be an actual response to Professor Jenkins? Is this considered a response?

    • Perplexed,
      I should hope that it is obvious that my comment about there being no explanatory context from Joseph’s world is in regards to the phrase “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians,” since that is the subject of the paper.
      The etymology of the name Mormon is off-topic, but you can pursue the Book of Mormon Onomasticon (Google search it to find it) for proposals on its meaning. For what it is worth, though, the article you refer to is generally believed to be ghost written by W.W. Phelps, and the meaning of Mormon given in the article is considered to be tongue-in-cheek.

  7. I highly enjoyed your article Neal. It reminds me of an discussion I had on my mission back in 2005 with a Baptist minister who confidently asserted that scholars have proven there is no such thing as Reformed Egyptian. If only I had this article handy then!

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