“Is the writing in the Book of Mormon characteristic of the Hebrew language?” Ensign, Oct. 1986, 64–66
John A. Tvedtnes, specialist in Near Eastern studies and instructor at the Brigham Young University–Salt Lake Center. Nephi described the writing system of his people as a combination of “the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” (1 Ne. 1:2.) A thousand years later, Moroni recorded that his people still spoke Hebrew but that the plates were being written in a script called “reformed Egyptian.” (See Morm. 9:32–34.) Years ago, Sidney B. Sperry, followed by other LDS scholars, suggested that the Book of Mormon writers may have used this “reformed Egyptian” script as a sort of shorthand to record their modified Hebrew language.1
Although it is not presently entirely clear what the actual writing system of the Nephites was, there are a number of factors which support the idea that the language from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon was, in fact, Hebrew, though recorded in a “reformed Egyptian” writing system.
Hebrew Idioms and Syntax
The Book of Mormon contains numerous idioms and syntax which are not typically English but which would be perfectly normal in a Hebrew setting. For example:
1. Construct state: A noun followed by a descriptive prepositional phrase is common in Hebrew but not typical in English. English writers would normally use an adjectival form. This construction is used frequently in the Book of Mormon in such expressions as “altar of stones” (rather than “stone altar”), “plates of brass/gold” (rather than “brass/ gold plates”), and “mist of darkness” (rather than “dark mist”).
2. Prepositional phrases where English would prefer adverbs: Typically Hebrew are phrases in the Book of Mormon such as “with harshness” (rather than “harshly”), “with joy” (rather than “joyfully”), “with gladness” (rather than “gladly”), and “in diligence” (rather than “diligently”).
3. Cognate accusative: A verb accompanied by a direct object derived from the same root is a common Hebrew idiom. Some examples are: “I dreamed a dream,” “cursed with a sore cursing” (rather than “cursed sorely”), “work all manner of fine work” (rather than “work well”), and “judge righteous judgment” (rather than “judge righteously”).2
Word-Play and Range of Meaning
Some passages of the Book of Mormon can be better understood in Hebrew than in English because the Hebrew reflects word-play or a range of meaning which gives more sense to the passage.
A classic example is found in 1 Nephi. Having arrived at a valley in the Arabian peninsula, Lehi named the valley after his son Lemuel, exhorting him to “be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable.” (1 Ne. 2:10.) Lehi similarly named the valley’s river after Laman, pleading that he might “be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness.” (1 Ne. 2:9.)
One of the Hebrew words for “river,” nahar, has a verbal root meaning “to flow.” The Hebrew word ’eytan, which means “valley,” is actually an adjective meaning “perennial, ever-flowing, enduring, firm.” Another word for “valley” is ’aphig (which actually means “a stream-bed or a ravine”), from the verb meaning “to be strong.” It is possible that Lehi deliberately patterned his speech to reflect the meanings of these Hebrew words.
Many other passages in the Book of Mormon take on richer meaning if the passages are read as translations of Hebrew. For example, in 1 Nephi we read that as Lehi “prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him.” (1 Ne. 1:6, italics added.) Here, English usage would prefer the verb “sat” rather than “dwelt.” But the Hebrew verb, in fact, has both meanings.
Similarly, Nephi wrote of the wicked who “seek deep to hide their counsel(s) from the Lord.” (2 Ne. 27:27; 2 Ne. 28:9.) If Hebrew was indeed the language of the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew word here translated as “counsel” may have been sod, which can also mean “secret.”
The Book of Mormon introduces a number of new words to the English language—including words for animals, monetary values, and even honeybees. A study has shown that many of these Nephite, Lamanite, and Mulekite names suggest a Hebrew origin.3 In fact, a fair number of Nephite names appear to be Hebrew in form and would thus have valid meanings in that language. Of course, this is to be expected of those names which also appear in the Bible, such as Lehi, Jeremiah, or Isaiah. But it is the non-biblical names that make the strongest case for a Hebrew background of the Nephite record.
For example, many Book of Mormon names end in -i, which in most cases probably serves as the Hebrew nisbeh, or gentilic suffix, rendered in English as “-ite.” Thus, Moroni could be rendered “Moronite” from the land of Moron known in the Book of Mormon. Similarly, Lamoni could be rendered “Lamanite,” Muloki could be written “Mulekite,” and Amaleki probably means “Amalekite.”
Some other probable meanings of Nephite names read as Hebrew are shown in the chart below.
“King” (Heb. melek). That the son of Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, should be named Mulek, or “king,” is significant. There is also a city/land named Mulek—and another named Melek.
“Seed of compassion” (Heb. zerac-hemlah).
“Princess of the Lord” (Heb. sar-yah).
Probably “consolation, comfort” (Heb. nahum). The Arabic cognate, or related word, means “sigh, moan,”4 reminding us that this was the place of Ishmael’s burial, where his daughters “did mourn exceedingly.” (1 Ne. 16:35.)
“Place of inheritance” (Heb. yershon). In Alma 27:22, we read that the Nephites gave the land of Jershon to the converted Lamanites “for an inheritance.”
Quite possibly “splendor, brightness” (Heb. ziw), from a Hebrew root meaning “to shine.” Ziff is listed with silver, iron, brass, and copper—materials used by king Noah to ornament buildings. (See Mosiah 11:3, 8.) It is therefore likely a shiny metal, possibly a copper alloy.
Large portions of the Book of Isaiah are quoted by the Nephite scribes in the Book of Mormon. Where these agree with the King James Version of the Bible, we are inclined to believe that the Prophet Joseph Smith merely employed the language and text known to the people of his time. It is where these portions differ from those in the King James Version, however, that we find some of the best evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as an ancient Hebrew text.5
Of the 478 Isaiah verses quoted by the Nephite historians, more than 200 have a reading different from that in the King James Version. These differences support a Hebraic background for the Book of Mormon.
1. Use of abbreviations. Abbreviations appear to have been used by some scribes when copying biblical scrolls. Isaiah 2:6 [Isa. 2:6] is an example. The Masoretic Text begins with the Hebrew word ky, which means “therefore,” and was evidently understood to be an abbreviation of k“y—used by some scribes and representing either ky Ycqb (“therefore, O Jacob”) or ky Ysr’l (“therefore, O Israel”), as reflected in versions of the Septuagint translation of that passage.
The parallel passage in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Ne. 12:6) may reflect the original intent, for it reads, “Therefore, O Lord” (Hebrew would read ky Yhwh). Note that the letters k and y (of the abbreviation postulated by scholars) are at the beginning of the two words in both the Isaiah and Book of Mormon versions.
2. Accidental dropping of letters or words because of their dual occurrence in the text (haplography). A comparison of Isaiah variants shows how ancient biblical scribes could easily have dropped letters—and how the Book of Mormon restores sense to these passages. A good example is Isaiah 13:3 [Isa. 13:3] and its parallel passage in 2 Nephi 23:3 [2 Ne. 23:3]:
King James Version
Book of Mormon Version
“I have commanded my sanctified ones, I have also called my mighty ones, for mine anger, even them that rejoice in my highness.”
“I have commanded my sanctified ones, I have also called my mighty ones, for mine anger is not upon them that rejoice in my highness.”
In the Masoretic Text, from which the King James Bible version comes, the latter part of the verse reads: l-’py clyzy g’wty, which, literally translated, means “to/for mine anger, the rejoicers of my highness.” In this example, both the King James Version and the Masoretic Text require clarification. It is likely that this is a case of double haplography, which can best be examined by comparing the Hebrew of the Masoretic Text with a Hebrew translation of the Book of Mormon:
l- ’py clyzy g’wty
Book of Mormon
l’ ’py cl clyzy g’wty
Notice how the Book of Mormon translation reveals the two important deletions that the Masoretic scribe or a predecessor probably made: (1) the Hebrew letter aleph (here transliterated ’) from the negative particle l’, resulting in the preposition l-, and (2) the preposition cl (“upon”). Both could easily have been deleted because of their close proximity to identical letters in the text. (Such a mistake would have been made at an early stage, before the introduction of spaces to divide words in Hebrew.) Once again, a Hebrew origin for the language of the Book of Mormon makes sense.
A large body of research—published and unpublished—by numerous scholars provides abundant evidence for the ancient Near Eastern origin of the original text of the Book of Mormon. Although there is still some uncertainty about the actual writing system in which the text was recorded—probably because Hebrew is related to a number of other languages of Lehi’s time (including Egyptian) which display some of the same linguistic features6—a fair number of LDS scholars think that the Nephite record evidences the book’s Hebraic origin.
This modern research corroborates the Prophet Joseph Smith’s testimony of the origins of the Book of Mormon—and is all the more stunning since Joseph Smith had not received any training in Hebrew or its cognate languages at the time he translated the record.