Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Studies of the Book of Mormon/Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study/Linguistics

Table of Contents

Response to Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study- Linguistics

A FairMormon Analysis of: Criticism of Mormonism/Books, a work by author: B.H. Roberts, edited by Brigham D. Madsen

Response to hypotheses proposed in Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study- Linguistics

Jump to Subtopic:

And we place our revealed truths in the Book of Mormon against the alleged facts resulting from the investigations of Ethnologists and Philogists and the deductions of their science, and calmly await the vindication we feel sure that time will bring to the Book of Mormon.
—B.H. Roberts, “Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study,” ‘’Studies of the Book of Mormon’’, p. 94.
∗       ∗       ∗

Response to hypothesis: 63 - "The current diversity of Native American tongues would not exist if they were all the descendants of ancient Hebrews"

The author(s) of Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study present(s) the following hypothesis:

The current diversity of Native American tongues would not exist if they were all the descendants of ancient Hebrews. The time period between Lehi's landing and the present is not sufficient to account for this diversity.

FairMormon Response

  • This claim assumes a hemispheric geography and that the people of Lehi and Mulek occupied an empty continent. Although B.H. Roberts believed in a hemispheric geography, the Book of Mormon does not support this assumption.
  • For a detailed response, see: Book of Mormon/Geography/New World/Limited Geography Theory


Response to hypothesis: 65 - "It should be remarked that there was contact with no other people or source of literature that would influence the character of Nephite and Lamanite language than this national literature of the Jews"

The author(s) of Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study present(s) the following hypothesis:

B.H. Roberts notes, "It should be remarked that there was contact with no other people or source of literature that would influence the character of Nephite and Lamanite language than this national literature of the Jews."

FairMormon Response

Response to hypothesis: 66 - "this people of Zarahemla came in contact with the last survivor of the race which had previously occupied the region of what we now call Central America"

The author(s) of Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study present(s) the following hypothesis:

Roberts notes, "this people of Zarahemla came in contact with the last survivor of the race which had previously occupied the region of what we now call Central America and northward for about sixteen centuries.

FairMormon Response

  • It is interesting to note that Roberts places the Jaredites in Central America.
  • Robert's assumes that Coriantumr was indeed the one and only survivor of the Jaredite nation.

Response to hypothesis: 91 - "there are a large number of separate language stocks in America that show very little relationship to each other"

The author(s) of Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study present(s) the following hypothesis:

"[T]here are a large number of separate language stocks in America that show very little relationship to each other—not more than that between English and German."

FairMormon Response

Response to hypothesis: 91- "it would take a long time...to develop these dialects and stocks where the development is conceived of as arising from a common source of origin"

The author(s) of Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study present(s) the following hypothesis:

"[I]t would take a long time—much longer than that recognized as 'historic times'—to develop these dialects and stocks where the development is conceived of as arising from a common source of origin—some primitive language."

FairMormon Response

  • Roberts is again presuming that all Amerindian peoples and languages must descend only from Lehite stock, and that the Lehite group reached an empty continent.
  • For a detailed response, see: Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Demographics

Response to hypothesis: 91 - "there is no connection between the American languages and the language of any people of the Old World"

The author(s) of Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study present(s) the following hypothesis:

"[T]here is no connection between the American languages and the language of any people of the Old World. New World lanugages appear to be indigenous to the New world."

FairMormon Response

  • Roberts is again presuming that all Amerindian peoples and languages must descend only from Lehite stock, and that the Lehite group reached an empty continent.
  • Roberts also assumes that the small Lehite group's language would predominate, instead of the more likely scenario in which they were assimilated into Amerindian culture(s) already present.

Question: Is finding links between Hebrew and ancient American languages realistic?

The Lehite’s mother tongue all-but-disappeared shortly after their arrival in the New World

It is important to note that we may never find traces of Hebrew language among American languages for the simple fact that the Lehite’s mother tongue all-but-disappeared shortly after their arrival in the New World. When Moroni writes about reformed Egyptian, he also explains that the “Hebrew hath been altered by us also” (Mormon 9:33).

Like other ancient civilizations (such as Egypt) most New World inhabitants would not have been literate. While ancient Americans had a sophisticated writing system, it is likely that knowledge of this system was limited to the civic officials or the priestly class. In the Book of Mormon we infer that training and devotion were necessary to competently master their difficult writing system. King Benjamin, for example, “caused that [his princely sons] should be taught all the languages of his fathers, that thereby they might become men of understanding” (Mosiah 1:3). Moroni, who had mastered the art himself, lamented that the Lord had not made the Nephites “mighty in writing” (Ether 12:23).

The most likely scenario is that the Lehites—who were a small incursion into a larger existing native populace—embraced the habits, culture, and language of their neighbors within a very short period after their arrival in the New World

The most likely scenario is that the Lehites—who were a small incursion into a larger existing native populace—embraced the habits, culture, and language of their neighbors within a very short period after their arrival in the New World. This is what we generally find when a small group melds with a larger group. The smaller group usually takes on the traits of the larger (or, at least, the more powerful) group—not the other way around. It is not unusual, however, for at least some of the characteristics of the smaller group to show up in the larger group’s culture. Typically, however, the smaller group becomes part of the larger group with which they merge. Thus, the Lehites would have become Mesoamericans. We see, therefore, the necessity to teach the Old World language to a few elite in order to preserve, not only the traditions, but also to maintain a continuation of scribes who could read the writings of past generations.

Even with such instruction, however, the script was most likely an altered form of Egyptian—perhaps adapted to Mesoamerican scripts—and altered according to their language. This suggests that ideas and motifs that originated in the Old World were adapted to a script that could be conveyed with New World motifs, or at least New World glyphs. Under such conditions, would there be any reason to expect that we’d find “Hebrew” among the Native Americans?


Question: Have any relationships been found between New World languages and Hebrew?

Recent scholarly research suggests a possible link between Uto-Aztecan (a family of about 30 Native American languages) and Hebrew

The Book of Mormon text suggests that Lehite language had a relatively minor impact on the speech of the Americas. It may be that Old World languages formed a type of "elite" language, used only by a few for religious purposes.

If, however, one is persuaded that the Book of Mormon text implies that some Hebrew links should still exist, preliminary linguistic data suggest that there are some intriguing links.

For example, Dr. Brian Stubbs argues for numerous parallels between Hebrew and Uto-Aztecan. As a professional linguist, Dr. Stubbs avoids the pitfalls of amateurs who simply point at similar words between two different languages. As he points out,

Any two languages can have a few similar words by pure chance. What is called the comparative method is the linguist's tool for eliminating chance similarities and determining with confidence whether two languages are historically—that is, genetically—related. This method consists of testing for three criteria. First, consistent sound correspondences must be established, for linguists have found that sounds change in consistent patterns in related languages; for example, German tag and English day are cognates (related words), as well as German tür and English door. So one rule about sound change in this case is that German initial t corresponds to English initial d. Some general rules of sound change that occur in family after family help the linguist feel more confident about reconstructing original forms from the descendant words or cognates, although a certain amount of guesswork is always involved.

Second, related languages show parallels in specific structures of grammar and morphology, that is, in rules that govern sentence and word formation.

Third, a sizable lexicon (vocabulary list) should demonstrate these sound correspondences and grammatical parallels.

When consistent parallels of these sorts are extensively demonstrated, we can be confident that there was a sister-sister connection between the two tongues at some earlier time.[1]

A few of Stubbs' many examples are:

Hebrew/Semitic Uto-Aztecan
kilyah/kolyah 'kidney' kali 'kidney'
baraq 'lightning' berok (derived from *pïrok) 'lightning'
sekem/sikm- 'shoulder' sikum/sïka 'shoulder'
mayim/meem 'water' meme-t 'ocean'

Rhodes Scholar Dr. Roger Westcott, non-LDS Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at Drew University, has made positive comments about Dr. Stubbs' research:

Perhaps the most surprising of all Eurasian-American linguistic connections, at least in geographic terms, is that proposed by Brian Stubbs: a strong link between the Uto-Aztecan and Afro-Asiatic (or Hamito-Semitic) languages. The Uto-Aztecan languages are, or have been, spoken in western North America from Idaho to El Salvador. One would expect that, if Semites or their linguistic kinsmen from northern Africa were to reach the New World by water, their route would be trans-Atlantic. Indeed, what graphonomic evidence there is indicates exactly that: Canaanite inscriptions are found in Georgia and Tennessee as well as in Brazil; and Mediterranean coins, some Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic, are found in Kentucky as well as Venezuela [citing Cyrus Gordon].

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

Lest skeptics should attribute these correspondences to coincidence, however, Stubbs takes care to note that there are systematic sound-shifts, analogous to those covered in Indo-European by Grimm's Law, which recur consistently in loans from Afro-Asiatic to Uto-Aztecan. One of these is the unvoicing of voiced stops in the more southerly receiving languages. Another is the velarization of voiced labial stops and glides in the same languages.[2]

While the conclusions remain tentative, some of the details of this on-going research look promising. Certainly, nothing in the linguistic evidence provides plausible arguments against the Book of Mormon narrative.

Question: Have any relationships been found between New World languages and Hebrew?

Recent scholarly research suggests a possible link between Uto-Aztecan (a family of about 30 Native American languages) and Hebrew

The Book of Mormon text suggests that Lehite language had a relatively minor impact on the speech of the Americas. It may be that Old World languages formed a type of "elite" language, used only by a few for religious purposes.

If, however, one is persuaded that the Book of Mormon text implies that some Hebrew links should still exist, preliminary linguistic data suggest that there are some intriguing links.

For example, Dr. Brian Stubbs argues for numerous parallels between Hebrew and Uto-Aztecan. As a professional linguist, Dr. Stubbs avoids the pitfalls of amateurs who simply point at similar words between two different languages. As he points out,

Any two languages can have a few similar words by pure chance. What is called the comparative method is the linguist's tool for eliminating chance similarities and determining with confidence whether two languages are historically—that is, genetically—related. This method consists of testing for three criteria. First, consistent sound correspondences must be established, for linguists have found that sounds change in consistent patterns in related languages; for example, German tag and English day are cognates (related words), as well as German tür and English door. So one rule about sound change in this case is that German initial t corresponds to English initial d. Some general rules of sound change that occur in family after family help the linguist feel more confident about reconstructing original forms from the descendant words or cognates, although a certain amount of guesswork is always involved.

Second, related languages show parallels in specific structures of grammar and morphology, that is, in rules that govern sentence and word formation.

Third, a sizable lexicon (vocabulary list) should demonstrate these sound correspondences and grammatical parallels.

When consistent parallels of these sorts are extensively demonstrated, we can be confident that there was a sister-sister connection between the two tongues at some earlier time.[3]

A few of Stubbs' many examples are:

Hebrew/Semitic Uto-Aztecan
kilyah/kolyah 'kidney' kali 'kidney'
baraq 'lightning' berok (derived from *pïrok) 'lightning'
sekem/sikm- 'shoulder' sikum/sïka 'shoulder'
mayim/meem 'water' meme-t 'ocean'

Rhodes Scholar Dr. Roger Westcott, non-LDS Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at Drew University, has made positive comments about Dr. Stubbs' research:

Perhaps the most surprising of all Eurasian-American linguistic connections, at least in geographic terms, is that proposed by Brian Stubbs: a strong link between the Uto-Aztecan and Afro-Asiatic (or Hamito-Semitic) languages. The Uto-Aztecan languages are, or have been, spoken in western North America from Idaho to El Salvador. One would expect that, if Semites or their linguistic kinsmen from northern Africa were to reach the New World by water, their route would be trans-Atlantic. Indeed, what graphonomic evidence there is indicates exactly that: Canaanite inscriptions are found in Georgia and Tennessee as well as in Brazil; and Mediterranean coins, some Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic, are found in Kentucky as well as Venezuela [citing Cyrus Gordon].

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

Lest skeptics should attribute these correspondences to coincidence, however, Stubbs takes care to note that there are systematic sound-shifts, analogous to those covered in Indo-European by Grimm's Law, which recur consistently in loans from Afro-Asiatic to Uto-Aztecan. One of these is the unvoicing of voiced stops in the more southerly receiving languages. Another is the velarization of voiced labial stops and glides in the same languages.[4]

While the conclusions remain tentative, some of the details of this on-going research look promising. Certainly, nothing in the linguistic evidence provides plausible arguments against the Book of Mormon narrative.


Response to hypothesis: 92 - "the time limits named in the Book of Mormon...is not sufficient to allow of these divergencies into the American langauge stocks and their dialects"

The author(s) of Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study present(s) the following hypothesis:

"[T]he time limits named in the Book of Mormon—which represents the people of America as speaking and writing one language down to as late a period as 400 A.D.—is not sufficient to allow of these divergencies into the American langauge stocks and their dialects."

FairMormon Response

Response to hypothesis: 92 - "if there have been migrations from Asiatic, African, or European countries in the period from the destruction of the Nephites...then such immigrations were sufficient in volume or frequency, as to affect the language or culture of American peoples"

The author(s) of Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study present(s) the following hypothesis:

[I]f there have been migrations from Asiatic, African, or European countries in the period from the destruction of the Nephites—400 A.D.—to the discovery of America by Columbus—a period of a thousand years—then such immigrations were sufficient in volume or frequency, as to affect the language or culture of American peoples."

FairMormon Response

For a detailed response, see: Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Hebrew and Native American languages


Response to hypothesis: 92 - "Can we in the face of the authorities here presented say that the independent language stocks and their inclusive dialects do not exist?"

The author(s) of Book of Mormon Difficulties: A Study present(s) the following hypothesis:

Roberts presents the following questions regarding the development of languages in the Americas to what might be assumed from the Book of Mormon:

Can we in the face of the authorities here presented say that the independent language stocks and their inclusive dialects do not exist?

Can we say that it does not require long periods of time—much longer than that which may be derived from the Book of Mormon Nephite period of occupation of the New World—the only period that can be considered in connection with this subject—to develop the dialects and the language stocks of the American race?

Can we successfully affirm that the time limits represented in the Book of Mormon—a thousand years from the close of the Nephite period to the discovery of America and the advent of the Europeans— are sufficient in which to produce from one common source, viz. the Hebrew, the noted development of stocks and dialects?

Can we assert from any well grounded facts known to us or established by any authority that there is a connection between the American and some of the Old World languages, and especially with the Hebrew, as would seem to be required by the Book of Mormon facts?

(Author's sources:
  1. )

FairMormon Response

  • Roberts anticipates a limited geography as one possible response:

Can we answer that the Nephites and the people of Mulek—really constituting one people—occupied a very much more restricted area of the American continents than has heretofore been supposed, and that this fact (assumed here for the argument) would leave the rest of the continents—by far the greater part of them say— to be inhabited by other races, speaking other tongues, developing other cultures, and making, though absolutely unknown to Book of Mormon people, other histories? This might account for the diversity of tongues found in the New World, and give a reason for the lack of linguistic unity among them.

  • Roberts then anticipates the response to the limited geography proposal:

To this answer there would be the objection that if such other races or tribes existed then the Book of Mormon is silent about them. Neither the people of Mulek nor the people of Lehi or after they were combined, nor any of their descendants ever came in contact with any such people, so far as any Book of Mormon account of it is concerned…Then could the people of Mulek and of Lehi, being such a people as they are represented to be in the Book of Mormon—part of the time numbering millions and occupying the land at least from Yucatan to Cumorah…live and move and have their being in the land of America and not come in contact with other races and tribes of men, if such existed In the New World within Book of Mormon times? To make this seem possible the area occupied by the Nephites and Lamanites would have to be extremely limited, much more limited, I fear, than the Book of Mormon would admit of our assuming.

  • Note that Roberts assumes that the land was occupied “at least from Yucatan to Cumorah.” This represents the hemispheric geography model, which requires that the Hill Cumorah in which Mormon hid his records be assumed to be the same hill in which Moroni buried the gold plates. It should be noted, however, that the text of the Book of Mormon itself does not provide support for this assumption.
}}
  1. Brian D. Stubbs, "Looking Over vs. Overlooking: Native American Languages: Let's Void the Void," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996): 1–49. wiki
  2. Roger Williams Westcott, "Early Eurasian Linguistic Links with North America," in Across Before Columbus?, edited. by Donald Y. Gilmore and Linda S. McElroy (Laconia, New Hampshire: New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA), 1998),193–197; cited by Jeff Lindsay, "Nugget #8: Uto-Aztecan and the Book of Mormon: Linguists Provide Possible Evidence Consistent with Book of Mormon Claims," jefflindsay.com (accessed 16 September 2007) off-site
  3. Brian D. Stubbs, "Looking Over vs. Overlooking: Native American Languages: Let's Void the Void," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996): 1–49. wiki
  4. Roger Williams Westcott, "Early Eurasian Linguistic Links with North America," in Across Before Columbus?, edited. by Donald Y. Gilmore and Linda S. McElroy (Laconia, New Hampshire: New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA), 1998),193–197; cited by Jeff Lindsay, "Nugget #8: Uto-Aztecan and the Book of Mormon: Linguists Provide Possible Evidence Consistent with Book of Mormon Claims," jefflindsay.com (accessed 16 September 2007) off-site