Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Language/Hebrew and Native American languages

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    Hebrew and Native American languages

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QUESTIONS


  • Is there any evidence that Old World languages (such as Hebrew) had an influence on the languages of the New World?
  • It is claimed that the Book of Mormon provides too short a time for the disappearance of the Nephite/Lamanite Hebrew language.


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

CONCLUSION


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.

Certainly, nothing in the linguistic evidence provides plausible arguments against the Book of Mormon narrative.

DETAILED QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Is finding such links realistic?

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. 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?

Preliminary evidence from linguistic studies

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

Endnotes

  1. [note]  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. off-site wiki
  2. [note]  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

Best articles to read next

The best article(s) to read next on this topic is/are:

  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. off-site wiki
  2. 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


Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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