FairMormon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice, and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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?