Source:Echoes:Ch9:8:Language in the New World and Book of Mormon



Statements in the Book of Mormon about the language in which it was written and the nature of the record from which it was translated went far beyond anything Joseph Smith could have known about ancient tongues and writing. Yet those statements agree with the picture of ancient scripts that modern scholarship now recognizes.

References to the writing system employed by the Nephite scribes present a picture of a script very different from alphabetic English, which was all that Joseph Smith knew. Mormon lamented that "there are many things which, according to our language, we are not able to write" (3 Nephi 5:18). His son Moroni2 echoed the point in the book of Ether: "Lord, the Gentiles will mock at these things, because of our weakness in writing; . . . thou hast not made us mighty in writing. . . . Thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands. . . . Thou hast also made our words powerful and great, even that we cannot write them; wherefore, when we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words" (Ether 12:23–25). Jacob2, son of the original Lehi, felt the same limitation: "I cannot write but a little of my words, because of the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates" (Jacob 4:1). What could these writers have meant by their complaint?

Oral phrasing was not the problem. They had superior conceptual and spiritual ability to speak powerfully, for Moroni2 recorded, "Lord thou hast made us mighty in word by faith . . . ; thou hast made all this people that they could speak much, because of the Holy Ghost which thou hast given them" (Ether 12:23). Nor was the problem merely mechanical; when Moroni2 spoke of "the awkwardness of our hands" (v. 24) and Jacob2 mentioned "the difficulty of engraving our words upon plates," we can suppose that with practice they could have learned to manage their engraving tools precisely enough that they could represent such characters as they desired.

We learn the real problem from Moroni2's comment that "if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew; . . . and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record" (Mormon 9:33). In other words, writing in a longer, fuller, alphabetic script would have solved the problem they sensed. Now Hebrew was written wholly alphabetically; the sounds of each word would be exactly and explicitly spelled out, so ambiguity would have been reduced to a minimum, but at the cost of using more space. The trouble is that the "reformed Egyptian" system that they did use, like the original hieroglyphic system in Egypt, could pack the linguistic information into fewer signs or glyphs, although that compromised clarity. Many Egyptian-style signs (of "logographic" type) signified broad concepts that lacked precision. So the lack of clarity in language that bothered Jacob2 and Moroni2 was inherent in the hieroglyphic-style script they felt obliged to use.

The glyphic writing of the Maya and surrounding peoples of Mesoamerica suffered ambiguity similar to that of the Egyptians. They too knew that most of the characters they used represented whole concepts, and sometimes more than one concept, so subtle distinctions in meaning could be missed by those who read only literally. Furthermore, their frequent use of nicknames, metaphors, wordplays or code terms, and obscure allusions to history and myth meant that one had to be schooled extensively in literary forms, mythic lore, and history to "get" precisely what the original writer intended. Anciently, certain priests and sons in noble families alone had the privilege of receiving the necessary depth of schooling. The subtleties of certain Mesoamerican tongues, combined with the ambiguous type of script, means that "often a dozen or more quite disparate meanings may legitimately be proposed for a particular monosyllabic root."30 Another scholar has noted that "many Maya words . . . sometimes can be reconciled with totally different text interpretations. Intended ambiguity in meaning, enhanced by metaphorical expressions, seems to be one of the crucial features of the Maya texts . . . [that] severely restricts . . . attempts towards decipherment."31 The difficulty was compounded by the fact that much of the language of the sacred texts was a form of poetry. As noted above, the solution to these problems when the cultures were still alive was for readers of the most important texts to be extensively instructed in idioms, allusions, and complex contexts. That learning involved memorizing extensive commentaries on the ancient texts passed on through "wise men" of the culture, that is, priestly text specialists.32 Fluency in plain everyday speech was never enough.

This situation recalls King Benjamin's urgency in wanting his three sons to become "men of understanding." For that reason he "caused that they should be taught in all the language of his fathers that they might know concerning the prophecies" (Mosiah 1:2).33 He insisted to the princes that learning "the mysteries of God" (vv. 4, 5) depended entirely upon being taught to pore over "these engravings" of their ancestors, which learning had been passed on within the nobility from generation to generation since Lehi's day (see v. 4). The process was intricate, time-consuming, and expensive; only those wealthy enough to enjoy much leisure time, particularly royalty, could afford to master the records (compare 3 Nephi 6:12). It must have been the complications of context surrounding the texts written in "reformed Egyptian" that caused Moroni2 to worry about how his "imperfections" (Mormon 9:31) and "weakness in writing" (Ether 12:23) might be misconstrued by his later readers. Centuries before, his ancestor Nephi1 knew that his people could not understand in context "the things of the Jews" on the brass plates without his interpreting the text of Isaiah for them (see 2 Nephi 25:4–5). Moroni2 hoped that what he wrote would be clear in the absence of any surviving interpreter.

The expression Moroni2 used to label the Nephite script, "reformed Egyptian," applies typologically to the glyphic writing used in Mesoamerica by the Maya and other peoples. (At least half a dozen distinct scripts of this kind, perhaps descended from a common ancestral form, were used at one time or another in that region.)34 Scholars have shown that indeed the early Mesoamerican hieroglyphic writing shared its essential characteristics with Egyptian and other mainly logographic scripts of the Old World.35

An additional note of interest concerns Moroni2's statements that contrast the Nephite "reformed Egyptian" system of script with that used by the Jaredites. To the Lord he observed, "Thou has not made us mighty in writing like unto the brother of Jared, for thou madest him that the things which he wrote were mighty . . . unto the overpowering of man to read them" (Ether 12:24). What in the records led him to speak of this strong contrast? One possible basis for a difference could be the scripts that were involved. The Jaredites came from "the great tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people" (Ether 1:33), so it is plausible that they used a writing system derived from what we see on the clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, the location of "the great tower." That system spelled out words by syllables, each character standing for one syllable. Spelling via syllables was not quite as neat a way to represent the niceties of spoken language as the alphabet (which would not be invented until over a thousand years later), but it was superior in precision to any hieroglyphic system. The power Moroni2 attributed to the words of the brother of Jared might have been due, in part at least, to the Jaredites' use of a writing system different from—that is, a clearer device for communicating actual speech than—Mormon and Moroni2's hieroglyphic system.

How remarkable that the record keepers of the Book of Mormon allude again and again to their writing systems and, even more remarkable, that the Book of Mormon statements fit so well with what we know about the primary type of script in use in early Mesoamerica, the core Book of Mormon area (the only region in ancient America where writing was regularly used and books existed). Neither Professor Anthon nor any other savant in 1830 knew such details, yet unlearned young Smith managed to get them right and avoid any number of missteps along these lines that would have revealed him to be a deceiver.[1]


  1. John W. Sorenson, "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 9, references silently removed—consult original for citations.