"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
February 27, 2015
Book of Mormon Sleuthing: Connecting More Dots, Pursuing More Tangents
by Jeff Lindsay

Those who enjoy puzzles, mysteries, and conspiracy theories might find some aspects of the Book of Mormon to be more intriguing and rewarding than The DaVinci Code or other modern thrillers.

With a complex web of internal and external clues to decode, the mystery of Book of Mormon evidences can yield impressive results when one does the work to connect the many dots before us.

Here's an example of some recent random dots I considered recently. There may be interesting connections, though not all of the leads end up being meaningful.

Let me begin with an exciting breakthrough just announced at the Book of Mormon Archaelogical Forum, BMAF.org. See "Excerpts from the 400-page book Exploring the Explanatory Power of Egyptian and Semitic in Uto-Aztecan."

Linguist Brian Stubbs has greatly extended his early work that identified connections between Hebrew and Uto-Aztecan languages, a family of New World languages that extend from the Western United States down into southern Mexico and El Salvador. (Mayan, by the way, is not part of that family.)

Now Stubbs has produced a new book in which many hundreds of correlations between Uto-Aztecan and three Old World languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Egyptian. For each of these languages, he offers several hundred correlations.

While false cognates can occur between any two languages just due to chance, significant numbers of apparently related words can be used by linguists (not necessarily amateurs) to identify language groups. Stubbs points out that many Native American language groups were established with around 100 or so correlations, so the finding of 400 to 700 correlations each for three Old World languages in Stubbs' latest work should merit attention.

Stubbs recognizes that some of the proposed correlations may be a stretch, but the majority appear noteworthy. The linkage to three different Semitic languages could have come from two or more infusions from the Old World, such as one migration from Israel with speakers of a Phoenician-like Northwest Semitic and an Aramaic-like Northwest Semitic, with one or both groups of speakers also bringing a knowledge of Egyptian.

If Stubbs' work withstands further scrutiny and leads to even more insights and solved mysteries when applied by other scholars, it could prove to be a monumental advance in Book of Mormon studies. Of course, demonstrating strong Middle Eastern influences in New World languages does not prove anything divine in the Book of Mormon, but rather increases the case for plausibility and may help overcome some common objections.

Stubbs' earlier work has received the attention of other non-LDS scholars. For example, Roger Williams Westcott, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at Drew University, New Jersey (Ph.D. in linguistics from Princeton, a Rhodes scholar, founder of Drew's anthropology program and author of 500 publications, including 40 books, and past president of the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States) speaks positively of Stubbs' work in his article, "Early Eurasian Linguistic Links with North America" in Across Before Columbus?, ed. by Donald Y. Gilmore and Linda S. McElroy, Laconia, New Hampshire: New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA), 1998, pp. 193-197.

Dr. Westcott writes:

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-Altantic. 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.)

Of the various Afro-Asiatic languages represented in Uto-Aztecan vocabulary, the following occur in descending order of frequency:

  1. Canaanite (cited in its Hebrew form)
  2. Aramaic
  3. Arabic
  4. Ethiopic
  5. Akkadian (usually in its Assyrian form)
  6. Ancient Egyptian

Among the many Semitic loan-words in Uto-Aztecan, the following, listed by Stubbs, seems unexceptionable as regards both form and meaning:

Hebrew

baraq

lightning

>Papago

berok

lightning

Aramaic

katpa

shoulder

>Papago

kotva

shoulder

Hebrew

hiskal

be prudent

>Nahua

iskal

be prudent

Hebrew

yesïväh

sitting

>Hopi

yesiva

camp

Lest sceptics 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.

One of the examples showing possible links to Egyptian involves the crocodile: Egyptian sbk / *subak "crocodile" appears related to Uto-Atecan *supak / *sipak "crocodile." (The asterisk "marks a proto-form or original sound or word as reconstructed by linguists.)

This example follows a pattern seen in many apparent Hebrew-UA connections in which the Hebrew b is changed to a p in UA. Many of you seeing Egyptian sbk/subak might immediately think of the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek, which I discussed in my previous post "Of Crocodiles and Kings."

Sobek is of interest in the Book of Abraham since Joseph Smith's identification of a crocodile in Facs. 1 as the "idolatrous god of Pharaoh" can be considered as one of the many interesting evidences of authenticity for that work.

When I saw that this Egyptian root had a cognate in UA, I wondered if the name Sebus in the Book of Mormon, as in the waters of Sebus, might be related to the crocodile. Could there have been a crocodile infested watering hole? But that conjecture is easy to dismiss since the final "s" really doesn't fit the "k" of Sobek and I don't think final "k" sounds are likely to morph into aspirants.

Though the crocodile-Sebus hypothesis was a false lead, my question led me to a new tangent and more dots to connect as I reviewed some valuable work from others related to the place named the waters of Sebus.

By way of background, one of my favorite scenes in the Book of Mormon involves Ammon defending a Lamanite king's flocks at the waters of Sebus. The king's name is Lamoni, a name which corresponds well (yes, here's another tangent) with one of the few ancient place names in Mesoamerica whose ancient pronunciation has survived.

Most ancient sites in the region are known by Spanish names like La Venta, with little to go on regarding how the name was known anciently. But in Belize, the ancient place name Lamanai has been preserved. This is an ancient city with impressive fortifications around it, similar to those described in the Book of Mormon.

You can learn more about the ancient Mayan city of Lamanai in a Youtube video. You might also enjoy the video that refers to the ancient Mayan city Pan cha'lib', which literally means "Bountiful."

This may be a coincidence, but it's possible that the city was named after the ancient New World place called Bountiful in the Book of Mormon (which may have been named after the Old World Bountiful discussed above).

Watch the text call-outs on the video in the first couple of minutes. The video is a re-enactment of an ancient ritual related to one that told of a warrior who visited Bountiful (Pan cha'lib').

The name Sebus is actually unusual for Book of Mormon and Hebrew names, which usually don't begin and end with the same letter. It's the only example of such a name in the Book of Mormon. Paul Hoskisson in "What’s in a Name? Sebus" in the Maxwell Institute's Insights, vol. 32, no. 1 (2012), p. 3, explores some possible Semitic connections.

He finds a plausible fit with an ancient Semitic root that could give this word the meaning of "to be gathered," which would be an appropriate name for a watering hole where animals are gathered. The potential for Semitic wordplay is then present in Alma 17:26, where we learn that Sebus is where the Lamanites drove their flocks (i.e., gathered or assembled them).

Naturally, there is then the contrast with the scattering that routinely occurred there as Lamanite troublemakers scattered the king's flocks — and seemed to get away with it time and again. Relying on divine power and some great combat skills, Ammon tells his fellow servants not to lose heart regarding the scattered flocks, for "we will gather then together and bring them back unto the place of water" (Alma 17:31). The waters of Sebus is mentioned twice more in Alma 19, verses 20 and 21, and in both cases that name is juxtaposed with the word "scattered."

It's fascinating how many times Semitic wordplays occur in the Book of Mormon. Not bad for a book allegedly fabricated by an unschooled conman years before he had a chance to actually study Hebrew.

One of the most recently discovered apparent wordplays involves the name Abish, a Lamanite servant woman who plays a role in the aftermath of Ammon's victory and successful gathering (both of flocks and arms) at the waters of Sebus, which resulted in the gathering in of many Lamanites to the fold of believers.

See Matthew Bowen, "Father is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the name Abish in Alma 19:16 and Its Narrative Context," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 14 (2015): 77-93. And brace yourself for another tangent.

In a text that rarely reports woman's names, rarely reports Lamanite names, and almost never reports the names of servants, to have the name of a female Lamanite servant given is highly unusual. Yet Bowen points out how well the name fits the context and reinforces important themes in addition to providing a classic Hebrew wordplay.

The name can be interpreted as Hebrew for "Father is a man," which relates well to Abish's status as a believer in God due to a "a remarkable vision of her father" (Alma 19:16). Bowen's abstract suffices for this tangent, but his case is greatly strengthened by the details he explores in his thorough article:

As a Hebrew/Lehite name, “Abish” suggests the meaning “Father is a man,” the midrashic components ʾab- (“father”) and ʾîš(“man”) being phonologically evident. Thus, the immediate juxtaposition of the name “Abish” with the terms “her father” and “women” raises the possibility of wordplay on her name in the underlying text.

Since ʾab-names were frequently theophoric — i.e., they had reference to a divine Father (or could be so understood) — the mention of “Abish” (“Father is a man”) takes on additional theological significance in the context of Lamoni’s vision of the Redeemer being “born of a woman and … redeem[ing] all mankind” (Alma 19:13).

The wordplay on “Abish” thus contributes thematically to the narrative’s presentation of Ammon’s typological ministrations among the Lamanites as a “man” endowed with great power, which helped the Lamanites understand the concept of “the Great Spirit” (Yahweh) becoming “man.”

Moreover, this wordplay accords with the consistent Book of Mormon doctrine that the “very Eternal Father” would (and did) condescend to become “man” and Suffering Servant.

OK, the potential Semitic wordplay is cool, but what's going on with a king who couldn't stop a persistent threat at the waters of Sebus? And how can several of the surviving bad guys, drawn in by news from Abish in her attempt to get others to be witnesses of the miracle taking place with Ammon, the King, and the Queen, dare to show up in the king's court and attempt to slay the unconscious Ammon (see Alma 19)?

It's the kind of security gap and cluelessness that might be par for the course for certain modern governments, but would seem to be a stretch in the presumably more sane ancient world.

Brant Gardner has shown that the many seemingly ridiculous elements in the story of Ammon become quite plausible once we import Mesoamerican culture into the background. See his presentation at the 2004 FAIRMormon Conference, "The Case for Historicity: Discerning the Book of Mormon’s Production Culture."

Gardner explains that we may be looking at a family feud in which one Mesoamerican family is at odds with another powerful group of kin, and can't simply kill off the trouble makers who roam his courts and slay his animals.

To save face, he makes servants take the blame, and to upset the balance of power, he cleverly throws in a Nephite wild card with surprising results. This is one of many examples in the Book of Mormon where a knowledge of Mesoamerica helps fill in mysteries in the text. (Also see the related discussion of Gardner's hypothesis at Book of Mormon Notes, Feb. 2010).

Looking to Mesoamerica culture helps us appreciate what's happening in the Book of Mormon.

Interestingly, at least part of Abish's name, the Hebrew word for man, may be found in Uto-Aztecan. One of the finds reported by Brian Stubbs in his latest work, is correlation #572: Hebrew ’iiš "man, person" > UA *wïsi "person". But I'm not aware of "ab" or "abba" from Hebrew being proposed as a source for anything in UA. If Brother Stubbs sees this, perhaps he might have something more to say on the topic of possible linkages between Old World and New World names.

Coming back to the waters of Sebus, we've looked at the name Sebus and its role in a possible Semitic wordplay, the ensuing court scene and the whole scenario as a Mesoamerican intrigue, and interesting linguistic issues involving the name Abish. What about the "waters" aspect of the waters of Sebus?

The Book of Mormon Resources blog examines the many uses of the term "waters" in the Book of Mormon, and finds remarkable consistency with the way that term was used in--here we go again — Early Modern English (EModE).

By way of background, one of the most perplexing but data-rich and evidence-driven discoveries about the original Book of Mormon text is that much of what we thought was just bad grammar or imitation of KJV language is actually good English that predates the KJV substantially.

There appears to be a strong current of obsolete grammatical patterns in the Book of Mormon that derive from roughly a century before the KJV was begun, adding a perplexing factor to Book of Mormon studies that at least helps us demonstrate that the Book of Mormon cannot be readily explained as a product based on copying KJV language and plagiarizing from contemporary sources or even relying on secret teams of contemporary writers trying to imitate KJV language.

It's not clear why this would be the case and what mechanism would lead to the results, but the data demand to be considered and not just dismissed with an eye roll, or with mere assumptions about pockets of archaic grammar persisting as the frontier language of Joseph Smith's community.

Something more than just bad grammar from Joseph himself is going on here, and Carmack offers abundant data to support that claim.

The discoveries in this vein began when Royal Skousen, the scholar most familiar with the intricate details of the earliest Book of Mormon text, noted that some of the grammatical structures in the early Book of Mormon manuscripts that looked like bad grammar and often were corrected out of the Book of Mormon actually were good grammar in Early Modern English from around 1500 AD.

See Royal Skousen, "The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon," Insights 25/5 (2005).

The initial discovery came after Christian Gellinek suggested to Royal Skousen in 2003 that "pleading bar" may be a good reading for the problematic "pleasing bar" in Jacob 6:13.

"Pleading bar" is not found in the KJV and is obsolete in modern English, but was a term used in EModE. This surprising observation led Royal Skousen to open-mindedly examine other aspects of the text, connecting more dots and pursuing more puzzles, until he came to the conclusion that EModE somehow played an important role in the original text. (Also see "Early Modern English" at the Book of Mormon Resources blog, Sept. 2014.)

Skousen's observations and discoveries were greatly strengthened by a linguist, Stanford Carmack, who has provided extensive data and statistics for certain aspects of the Book of Mormon further strengthening the case for EModE influence in the dictated text from Joseph Smith — an impossible feat for Joseph Smith on his own or I think anyone he had access to.

See "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar" in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 11 (2014): 209-262, and "What Command Syntax Tells Us About Book of Mormon Authorship," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 13 (2015): 175-217.

A third article on this topic should be published any day now at MormonInterpreter.com. I look forward to digesting that new contribution, and congratulate Stanford Carmack for his detailed analysis and investigative work. This is a vein rich in data and filled with surprises.

I think it's hard to argue that Joseph Smith was deliberately trying to add EModE elements to impress anyone (what, nearly two centuries later?) since he took pains to edit out some of the awkward sounding phraseology that resulted.

Now, coming back to the waters of Sebus, Book of Mormon Resources in Sept. 2014 had this to say about an EModE connection, after listing the many verses using the plural "waters" in the Book of Mormon:

These passages show the pervasive Book of Mormon characteristic of duality. Waters are either associated with life, peace, righteousness and deliverance or they connote death, peril, sin and captivity. All of these ideas are found commingled in the single verse 1 Nephi 4:2.

All unambiguous passages refer to either a) a salt water ocean b) a flowing stream or c) symbolic spirituality, life and healing.

The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] confirms that during the Early Modern English era (see the blog article "Early Modern English") "waters" plural referred either to a) water moving in waves [the ocean], b) flowing water [rivers] or c) healing water from medicinal, thermal or therapeutic springs. In this case, the OED strikingly corroborates what we find in the text….

So, evidence from the text and the OED suggests the waters of Mormon, Sebus and Ripliancum are all streams or rivers as in Joshua 3:13. Fountains are generally considered springs as in Deuteronomy 8:7. The fountain mentioned in Mosiah 18:5 is almost certainly a spring feeding a flowing stream.

Trees grow along stream beds as in Numbers 24:6, which explains the thicket near the water in Mosiah 18:5. The fountain/tree connection was part of the Nephite worldview 1 Nephi 11:25.

The image of waters that flow and gush associated with the actions of a prophet is attested in the text 1 Nephi 20:21 citing Isaiah 48:21. River Jordan was the quintessential baptistery in the New Testament Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5.

The most noted baptistery in the Book of Mormon is probably a flowing stream as well. In the land of Zarahemla, Alma1 probably baptized in the river Sidon as his son did decades later Alma 4:4. Alma1's baptisms in Zarahemla were expressly "after the manner" of his iconic baptisms earlier in the waters of Mormon Mosiah 25:18.

Most LDS Mesoamericanists who deal with the Book of Mormon correlate the waters of Ripliancum with the extensive wetlands at the mouth of the Papaloapan River in Veracruz. Our analysis confirms this correlation as highly likely. [The author then explores several geographical correspondences with the Book of Mormon and offers further examples from EModE texts.]

We know the "waters of Sidon" refers to a large river. The "waters of Ripliancum" probably refers to a large river. The "many waters" in land Ramah-Cumorah probably refer to multiple rivers. This makes it likely the "waters of Mormon" refers to a flowing stream of water since as Royal Skousen frequently reminds us, the original text is very consistent in its usage patterns (See the Editor's Preface to the Yale Edition, page xxxix).

In the 1981 LDS edition, Mosiah 18:8 reads "here are the waters of Mormon," which in modern English could potentially refer to any body of water. The Yale edition restores this phrase to its original "here is the waters of Mormon" which in Early Modern English implied a flowing stream.

So what of the waters of Sebus? Perhaps it was a watering hole that was part of a stream or river. Nothing too surprising there, but I do like the way Book of Mormon usage of "waters" fits well with EModE usage. However, I'm not sure that treating "waters" as a singular noun was common in EModE or signals a pre-KJV connection.

While the consistency in meanings for "waters" between the Book of Mormon and early English is interesting, I don't think any of those meanings are obsolete today, making this less interesting than the highlights of Carmack's and Skousen's finds.

Finally, turning back to Brant Gardner's insights about Mesoamerican culture and royal intrigues in the story of Ammon, I am interested in the Book of Mormon insights we may obtain from examination of ancient Mesoamerican royal courts.

The Book of Mormon's brief information about kings and royal households among the Lamanites in the story of Ammon and the sons of Mosiah shows a hierarchical system of kings under a top king. We also learn of royal household and courts that appear to offer broad public access.

Compare that to the following information from Wikipedia's entry, "Maya Civilization" under the section on "King and Court":

A typical Classic Maya polity was a small hierarchical state (ajawil, ajawlel, or ajawlil) headed by a hereditary ruler known as an ajaw (later k’uhulajaw).Such kingdoms were usually no more than a capital city with its neighborhood and several lesser towns, although there were greater kingdoms, which controlled larger territories and extended patronage over smaller polities.

Each kingdom had a name that did not necessarily correspond to any locality within its territory. Its identity was that of a political unit associated with a particular ruling dynasty….

Mayanists have been increasingly accepting a "court paradigm" of Classic Maya societies, which puts the emphasis on the centrality of the royal household and especially the person of the king. This approach focuses on Maya monumental spaces as the embodiment of the diverse activities of the royal household.

It considers the role of places and spaces (including dwellings of royalty and nobles, throne rooms, temples, halls and plazas for public ceremonies) in establishing power and social hierarchy, and also in projecting aesthetic and moral values to define the wider social realm.

Spanish sources invariably describe even the largest Maya settlements as dispersed collections of dwellings grouped around the temples and palaces of the ruling dynasty and lesser nobles. None of the Classic Maya cities shows evidence of economic specialization and commerce of the scale of Mexican Tenochtitlan.

Instead, Maya cities could be seen as enormous royal households, the locales of the administrative and ritual activities of the royal court. They were the places where privileged nobles could approach the holy ruler, where aesthetic values of the high culture were formulated and disseminated and where aesthetic items were consumed.

They were the self-proclaimed centers and the sources of social, moral, and cosmic order. The fall of a royal court as in the well-documented cases of PiedrasNegras or Copan would cause the inevitable "death" of the associated settlement.

To me, the passage of time since Joseph Smith's day has made the Book of Mormon far more plausible, when placed in a Mesoamerican setting, than it was in light of common knowledge about Native Americans in Joseph's day.

Looking for Mesoamerican cultural clues, linguistic clues, and other internal and external clues in the text can point us to many rich and long-buried treasures in this precious volume. There are many more dots to connect and puzzles to solve or resolve. Keep on sleuthing!

Update: As I rushed to prepare this post, I had the persistent feeling that I needed to find and add one more interesting connection to these meanderings around Alma 17, so I wondered if the Mayan word for crocodile might be relevant (would be cool if it were related to Sobek, for example). That was actually the question on my mind as I awoke early this morning after returning to China from the U.S. last night, but the online resources for Mayan that I found did not include crocodile or alligator. Out of time, I sent in this post, but then moments later heard back from Kathy Kidd, editor of the Nauvoo Times. She mentioned that a Mesoamerican tour guide had told her that Lamanai means crocodile in Mayan. OK, there's my missing connection, and it has more authority than hearsay alone since Wikipedia identifies the ancient place name Lamanai as meaning "submerged crocodile" in Yucatan Mayan. Of crocodiles and kings indeed!

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.


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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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