Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Nephi’s Language

Nephi says that he wrote his record after the language of his father, and that this was called reformed Egyptian (1 Nephi 1:2). We have no understanding why Lehi knew Reformed Eqyptian, but the fact that the entire Book of Mormon record was written in it is well documented for over a thousand years, from Nephi to Moroni (Mormon 9:32).

Unlike English and many other western languages, Hebrew is very compact. A typical English sentence of fifteen words will often translate into seven to ten Hebrew words. As an example, 2 Nephi 5:20 through 2 Nephi 11:3 takes fifteen pages to write in English while a Hebrew translation is so compact, it covers only two pages.

We do not know what size the characters were that Nephi and other prophets engraved on the plates, but obviously they rejected Hebrew because it took up too much space. This means that reformed Egyptian must have been a language remarkable for its ability to convey a lot of information in a few symbols. It's compactness can be seen by the fact that, unlike Hebrew which had its base in alphabetical letters, reformed Egyptian was made up of characters, many individual symbols capable of expressing complete thoughts.

Why Reformed Egyptian? Since this language was difficult to convey meaning (3 Nephi 5:18), why was it used? The first, and most obvious answer, as stated above, was that it allowed more writing space on the small plates. But another, and perhaps more important reason, might lie in the fact that the Lord's intent for the Nephite record was to be written in a language which would be a dead tongue and script—a language that no man could translate in 1830 without divine aid. Joseph Smith said that no man knows the language of the gold plates, and Mormon wrote: “But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language, therefore, he hath prepared a means for the interpretation thereof” (Mormon 9:34).

There was no Greek or Latin on the plates. It was written entirely in Reformed Egyptian (1 Nephi 1:2). While the Nephites in the land of promise spoke Hebrew, even down to the time of Moroni (Mormon 9:33), the plates themselves were engraved in the Egyptian.

Evidently, in Lehi’s business, while working with the Arabs early on as a broker-merchant, it appears he also had dealings with the Egyptians—at least his third and fourth sons had Egyptian names—and would probably have picked up his knowledge and understanding of the Egyptian language. What Reformed Egyptian was is not now known, but perhaps it was some type of condensed language—Moroni called it an altered language in his day (Mormon 9:32).
When Nephi said he began the record in reformed Egyptian in 600 BC, and Moroni says he concluded the record in 400 AD in reformed Egyptian, and that it had been altered by the Nephites, evidently over a 1000 year period, one can well understand why no Egyptologist today can read the hieroglyphics Joseph Smith noted in the so-called Anthon transcript.

What is amazing is that no Egyptologist can understand that such significant changes would be wrought over this one thousand year period (600 BC – 400 AD) as to make their understanding of the ancient hieroglyphics of Pharoah’s time not the same as an ancient script four thousand years later. Obviously, they cannot read the writing because it is not the same as that which they studied in antiquity because it was altered through a thousand years of use. And that alteration makes it unreadable to anyone unless they have a key in which to understand it. For the Egyptian language, the key was the Rosetta stone. For the Maya language it was a series of keys, and for Joseph Smith, it was the urim and thummim. For the modern Egyptologist who so quickly discredits the glyphs, there is no key.


  1. I was taught that reformed egyptian was basically egyption symbols used to convey the hebrew language; a kind of hodge podge of the two. It would make sense why no egyptologist would understand it because it did not convey egyptian phrases.

    As far as Moroni mentioning how the language was slightly different, well that is natural evolution of language. The Muelekites did not soeak the same language as the Nephites at first contact; they were taught that language. Plus different regions develop dialects and even words that are specific to that region. So it is logical to think this happened among the Nephites and Lamanites.

    Think how much American english differs from its British roots. Think about how much our language has changed in just 20 years due to the influence of our evolving culture. It is easily understandable that the Nephite language (written & oral) would be different when Mormon abriged the plates than from when Nephi started them.

  2. Let me suggest a few corrections:
    1) Reformed Egyptian is likely a short-hand type of writing of the Egyptian language extant at the time of Lehi (we have written several articles about this in the past);
    2) The Mulekites originally spoke Hebrew since they were from Jerusalem, just as did Lehi, Nephi, etc., however, over time the Mulekite language became corrupted, i.e., their language became bastardized from a lack of any written records to keep it accurate;
    3. Our current English has evolved some, but more from incorporating other languages into our pantheon of words over the centuries (especially, Latin and French) than its natural evolvement over time, though the latter is part of it (again, we have written much of this over time).