...and the Language of the Egyptians

An Examination of the Language With Which the Book of Mormon Plates Were Inscribed

H. Clay Gorton

"The learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians"

Very little is revealed in the Book of Mormon, or by the Prophet Joseph Smith, about the nature of the characters with which that book was written, or the manner in which it was translated. The few intriguing Book of Mormon passages on the subject raise more questions than answers.

Nephi states at the beginning of his work that he made the record "in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians." A theory sometimes expressed about this passage has been that Egyptian characters were used to express the Hebrew language. George Reynolds, for instance, expressed his opinion that "the words 'language of the Egyptians' very probably means little more than Egyptian characters or an alphabet for spelling Hebrew words."

If this opinion were correct, it would mean that the Book of Mormon was written in the Hebrew language using Egyptian characters. However, the writers in the Book of Mormon state, to the contrary, that it was written in the language of the Egyptians.

To what was Nephi referring when he said that the language of his father consisted "of the learning of the Jews?" Again, the theory has been postulated that "the learning of the Jews" refers to the structure of the Hebrew language with which the Book of Mormon was written in Egyptian characters. However, Nephi may have been referring to a much broader concept of the learning of the Jews than just the structure of their language. In commenting on the difficulty of understanding the writings of Isaiah, Nephi said, "Isaiah spake many things which were hard for many of my people to understand; for they know not concerning the manner of prophesying among the Jews. For I, Nephi, have not taught them many things concerning the manner of the Jews… and I know that the Jews do understand the things of the prophets, and there is none other people that understand the things which were spoken unto the Jews like unto them, save it be that they are taught after the manner of the things of the Jews."

The "learning of the Jews" could more appropriately refer to "the manner of prophesying among the Jews" and "the manner of the things of the Jews" rather than to just the structure of their language. Nephi continued, "But behold I, Nephi, have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews." This comment makes it obvious that the "learning of the Jews" could not have referred to the structure of their language because Nephi’s children were taught in the language of the Jews. Hebrew was the common language spoken by the Nephites and Lamanites for a thousand years.

The Development of Egyptian Writing

If the Book of Mormon were written in the language of the Egyptians, with what form of Egyptian characters was it written? Pictographic writing, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Iraqian cuneiforms and Chinese characters, began by drawing or carving pictures of things from the real world. As it became necessary to communicate abstract ideas, the pictograms began to be used to represent the sounds of the objects they portrayed, called phonetograms. In their most advanced form, hieroglyphics were composed of three types of signs—pictograms, phonetograms, and ‘determinatives’ that were used to help the reader understand the meaning of a symbol.

The earliest Egyptian hieroglyphics (from the Greek hieros meaning sacred, and glypho meaning sculpture) date from the first dynasty, near 3000 B.C. Hieroglyphics were reserved for sacred writings and were generally inscribed on public monuments such as temple walls. Hieroglyphic writing remained in use until the Greco-Roman period, by which time it had become highly phonetic in character.

Hieratic (Greek priestly) writing, a more cursive form of hieroglyphs, dates from the 5th dynasty, about 2450 B.C. Hieratic was generally found inscribed on papyrus, and was the common writing form until it was replaced, beginning in about 800 B.C., by the even more cursive and phonetic demotic (Greek popular).

Why the Nephites Wrote Their Sacred Records in Egyptian Rather Than in Hebrew

A theory expressed by some Mormon scholars is that the Book of Mormon was written in demotic characters. Perhaps a principal reason for that opinion is that the demotic form was in use in the days of Lehi. We are told in the Book of Mormon that Lehi was versed in the Egyptian language, and that along with his contemporary, Jeremiah, he recorded his prophecies on the Brass Plates of Laban. The Book of Mormon records that the Brass Plates of Laban were written in Egyptian.

One of the reasons for writing in Egyptian rather than in the natural Hebrew tongue was to save space on the metal plates on which the sacred records were written. Moroni records, "We have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech. And if our plates had been sufficiently large we should have written in Hebrew."

The concept of the need to conserve space on the records prepared by the Nephites is an essential key to an understanding of the type of Egyptian characters with which the records were written. The demotic Egyptian was used as a phonetic form of writing, i.e., a given character representing the smallest unit of speech that serves to distinguish one utterance from another. Were demotic characters expressing phonemes to have been used by the Nephite prophets and historians, there would have been no significant compression of space over writing in Hebrew. In fact, as will be shown later on, writing in demotic would have occupied more space than writing in Hebrew.

In order to conserve enough space to make it worthwhile to write in an exotic language rather than in the common Hebrew tongue, an ideogram type of writing would be required. Thus the concept that the Book of Mormon was written with hieroglyphic or hieratic characters used principally as ideograms deserves careful examination.

Considering pictographic characters to have represented only phonemes in the Book of Mormon is probably out of the question. Such a book would have been longer, rather than shorter than if written in Hebrew. For instance, the Chinese Book of Mormon, translated from English, uses pictograms as phonetic characters. It employs a given Chinese character for each English syllable. Thus, there are fewer Chinese characters than English letters in the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, the Chinese Book of Mormon is 718 pages long—35 percent longer that the English version. The increased length is due to the fact that the line height in the Chinese Book of Mormon is twice that of the English version.

Space Compression from Greek to Egyptian on the Rosetta Stone

To form an idea of the amount of space compression possible with the different languages under consideration, an examination of the Rosetta stone provides helpful data. The Rosetta stone contains an inscription written in two languages, Egyptian and Greek. The Egyptian inscription is written twice, first in hieroglyphic characters and then repeated in demotic characters. The stone was inscribed in 196 B.C. and contains a text eulogizing the nine-year-old king Ptolemy v on the first anniversary of his ascendancy to the throne. It is a rectangular stone of considerable size, measuring 28 inches wide by 45 inches high by 9 inches thick, and weighs nearly three-quarters of a ton.

A portion of the upper part of the right side has been broken off, as well as the lower right corner to about one third the width of the base. The upper part, which was probably rounded in accordance with the style of such tablets at the time, was also broken off. The remaining part of the upper portion contains a hieroglyphic text that corresponds to the lower half of the Greek and demotic texts. Thus, about half of the hieroglyphic portion is missing.

Translators are of the opinion that the text, before being transcribed on the Rosetta stone, was first written in demotic, then written in hieroglyphics and translated into Greek. (See footnote 18.) At least a rough idea of the amount of space compression that can be achieved from Greek to demotic and from demotic to the hieroglyphics of 200 B.C. can be obtained by examining the number of characters and the amount of space used for each of the three renditions of the same text.

The area of the stone used for the Greek inscription is 23% greater than that used for the demotic inscription. The text contains 54 lines of Greek writing and 32 lines of demotic. The demotic, however, is written in about a 50% larger script than the Greek. The first line of the demotic inscription contains about 125 characters, but the characters increase in size as the script continues, the last line containing only about 85 characters. Assuming the average number of characters per line to be the mean value between the two extremes, an average of about 105 characters per line for the demotic text would be obtained. Thus, the demotic text would contain approximately 3360 characters.

The Greek text contains about 124 characters per line and so would include a total of about 6700 characters. Thus the compression of demotic over Greek, were the characters to be written in the same size, would be about two to one. In the size that the inscriptions were written on the Rosetta stone, however, the compression is only about 1.3 to 1.

Nevertheless, the issue is not with the compression ratio of demotic to Greek, but with demotic to Hebrew. J. M. Sjodahl acquired from a Jewish friend a translation of a few pages of the English language text of the Book of Mormon into modern Hebrew, and also another translation into the Israelitic characters that would have been known to Lehi and his contemporaries. The modern Hebrew reduces the English by a ratio of 14 to 1, and the ancient Hebrew reduces the English by a ratio of 7 to 1.

If the English and Greek languages are roughly equivalent phonetically, the Hebrew of Lehi’s time would have occupied only one seventh the space of a Greek inscription. Thus, if the inscription on the Rosetta stone had also been written in Hebrew, the Hebrew version would have taken less than one-third the space of the demotic inscription! Therefore, it is not likely that the Nephites would have written in demotic because there was not sufficient room on the plates to have written in Hebrew!

It is also of significance to compare the area on the Rosetta stone required for the hieroglyphic inscription to the area required for the demotic and Greek inscriptions. The top portion of the Rosetta stone containing part of the hieroglyphic inscription has been broken off, leaving only 14 lines of hieroglyphs on the stone. These 14 lines correspond to the last 18 lines of the demotic inscription and the last 28 lines of the Greek inscription. The height of the hieroglyphic characters is roughly twice that of the demotic and three times that of the Greek characters.

Joseph Smith reported that the characters on the plates in his possession ‘‘were small, and beautifully engraved.’’ Assuming that the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone could have been inscribed in a smaller script, say equal to the demotic, the inscription would have been half the size that it was. Then only seven lines of hieroglyphs would have corresponded to 18 lines of demotic. But if the demotic required three and half times the space of the Hebrew, the seven lines of hieroglyphs would have required only five lines of Hebrew.

The hieroglyphics of the period of the Rosetta stone were highly phonetic in character, resulting in essentially no compression over the Hebrew of that period. Thus, the Egyptian written by the Book of Mormon authors, in order to conserve space, must have been highly pictographic rather than phonetic in character; i.e., the hieroglyphic or hieratic characters of a much earlier time than 600 BC.

The Brass Plates of Laban Probably Written with Hieroglyphic Pictograms

If indeed the Nephite writers inscribed their records with early Egyptian hieroglyphs rather than demotic characters, the probable source for such characters would have been the Brass Plates of Laban. What evidence is there that the Brass Plates of Laban were written with hieroglyphs?

The first question is, were the Brass Plates an original document written in the Egyptian language or were they a translation into Egyptian from the original Hebrew? They apparently contained the Old Testament as we know it up to the time of Zedekiah, plus the writings of other prophets not mentioned in the Old Testament, such as Ezias, Neum, Zenock and Zenos. Nephi states that they contained "the five books of Moses, which gave an account of the creation of the world, and also of Adam and Eve, who were our first parents; And also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah; And also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah." We also know that both Lehi and Jeremiah wrote their prophecies on the Brass Plates in the Egyptian language. (See footnotes 7 and 8.)

If the plates were translated from the Hebrew into Egyptian, that could have happened at any time before Lehi and Jeremiah added to them, and thus they could have been written in any of the three forms of Egyptian characters—hieroglyphic, hieratic or demotic. There is no Biblical account that would have given a reason for such a translation. Rather, because of the animosity between the Hebrews and the Egyptians, one would think it highly unusual that the Jewish scribes would have undertaken such a task.

A more plausible supposition is that the Brass Plates of Laban were an original document and carried the accounts written by each of the prophets and kings whose works appear in the record, in the same manner as the writings of the Nephite prophets and kings were added to the Large Plates of Nephi.

When the Lord called Moses to lead the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, Moses demurred, saying, "O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou has spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue." The Lord then appointed his brother, Aaron, to be a spokesman for him. Some have interpreted this passage to mean that Moses had a speech impediment, but this is not so. He was merely stating that he had difficulty communicating in the Hebrew language.

Moses was an Egyptian, raised in the court of the Pharaoh, probably holding high positions in the Egyptian government. At the time Moses visited the Jews in the land of Goshen when he was 40 years old, they looked upon him as an Egyptian, not as one of them. Moses fled Egypt for fear that he would be turned in to the authorities by the Israelites for having killed an Egyptian for wrongfully oppressing one of their fellows. For the following forty years he lived with Jethro, his Father-in-Law, who was a Midianite. The Midianites were a confederation of Arab tribes. Undoubtedly, Moses didn’t begin using the Hebrew language until his 40-year sojourn with the Children of Israel in the desert. In recounting the history of Israel in his defense before the Sanhedrin, Stephen stated that "Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds."

As Moses recorded in the Pentateuch the account of the creation, the history of God’s dealings with man from Adam to Abraham, the exodus from Israel and the Mosaic law given to the people by the Lord, it would seem logical that he would write the record on a lasting medium for the benefit of posterity. Further, as he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was mighty in words in the Egyptian language, but was not eloquent in Hebrew, it seems he would naturally have written his record in his native Egyptian tongue.

The record would have been made during the sojourn in the wilderness between 1491 and 1451 B.C., which was in the 18th Egyptian dynasty at the beginning of the New Kingdom, and thus could have been written in either hieratic or hieroglyphic characters. The early Egyptians regarded written symbols as having magical powers, and the more elegant hieroglyphs were mainly used for religious purposes. The more practical hieratic symbols were used mainly for economic, literary and scientific purposes. Since Moses was writing a sacred religious document, it is presumed that he would have followed the Egyptian tradition and used hieroglyphic rather than hieratic characters. Further, it is not unlikely that the hieroglyphic writing of that time used to inscribe sacred documents, with the deference given to the "sacred sculpture", may have retained forms that were preserved from much earlier times.

The prophets and kings who succeeded Moses would have had to learn to read the Egyptian hieroglyphs in order to read the sacred history and the law that they were to follow. It would therefore be natural for them to continue their record in the same language. Thus it is probable that the Brass Plates of Laban were the original scriptures written over the centuries by each of the prophets and kings during their times, down to and including Lehi and Jeremiah.

If indeed the Brass Plates were written in the hieroglyphics of Moses’ time, it would have been necessary for Lehi to have been conversant with the Egyptian of that period in order to be able to read them. Not only did Nephi make his record "in the language of my father, which consists of… the language of the Egyptians," but Lehi himself was "taught in all the language of the Egyptians." It is probable that the Egyptian that Lehi was taught, and that the subsequent Nephite authors were taught, was the ancient hieroglyphic writing of the Brass Plates of Laban. If the "language of the Egyptians" that Lehi was taught had been the demotic of his day, it would not have been a language that could have been used to save space on the plates written by Mormon and Moroni.

The fact that the Nephite prophets and kings taught their sons to read Egyptian and continued to write their record in that language may have been as much tradition from the history of the Brass Plates as the desire to conserve space on the Plates of Nephi and on the later abridgements by Mormon and Moroni.

The Conservation of Hebrew Literary Forms in the Translation of the Book of Mormon Required Divine Intervention

The Book of Mormon is replete with Hebrew literary structures. Elder Hugh Pinnock, who has conducted research on Hebrew literary forms in the scriptures, has identified 26 different types of such forms in the Book of Mormon, and feels that there are yet more to be discovered. In addition, the author has discovered over 900 chiastic structures in the Book of Mormon, resulting in a chiastic density of over 50%.

When a pictogram is read (or translated into a phonetic language), the words used to express the depicted concepts are largely the choice of the reader or translator. If the Book of Mormon record delivered to Joseph Smith was written with some form of pictographic hieroglyphs, and thus the choice of words was largely up to the translator, why then is the translated document replete with Hebrew literary forms?

The literary forms attributed to the Hebrew language may be to some degree common to all the Semitic languages, which would include ancient Egyptian. It is singular to note, as an example, that the familiar phrase "and it came to pass" is more common in the Egyptian language than in Hebrew. Thus, it is possible that the Hebrew literary forms in the Book of Mormon could be common with literary forms in ancient Egyptian.

How did Joseph translate the record? He was told by the Lord "that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right." In the first place, Joseph was unacquainted with Hebrew literary forms. In the second place, he dictated his translation in a grammatical form that was not his normal way of speaking. Further, as he dictated it to the scribes, so it stood. There was no editing or restructuring of the text. Undoubtedly, consistent with the declaration of Peter, Joseph Smith spoke as "holy men of God spake as they were moved upon by the Holy Ghost." Thus, the wording and phraseology of the Book of Mormon must have been given to the Prophet by the Lord.

The prominence of Hebrew literary forms in the Book of Mormon and the high chiastic density common to the Book of Mormon and to the Doctrine and Covenants are strong evidence that the Prophet was given the very wording of his revelatory texts. Why would the Lord, in translating for the Prophet from Egyptian into English, put the text in the Hebrew idiom?

If the people who wrote the Nephite record spoke Hebrew and translated their idiom into Egyptian ideograms, it would be logical for the Lord to preserve the original Hebrew word patterns that comprised the language from which the record was translated into Egyptian. One could consider the Egyptian writing of the Nephite records as a transparent carrier from which the script was translated from the Hebrew idiom into English. Such a procedure could not be considered without the intervening direction of the Holy Spirit since word patterns would be largely missing from a pictographic script. The fact that the Book of Mormon is replete with Hebrew literary forms that would have been largely lost by going into and then out of a pictographic language is a strong and irrefutable evidence of the Divine inspiration by which it was translated into English.

If indeed the Brass Plates of Laban were an original document, written by the prophets and kings to whom the various books of the Bible are attributed, the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon take on an enhanced importance. Since the words of Isaiah were copied by Nephi onto the Small Plates of Nephi, and then translated into English through the Prophet Joseph Smith "by the gift and power of God" they would become the earliest scripture of which we have record, and the standard by which all other versions of the Isaiah chapters that appear in the Book of Mormon may be judged.

Summary

1. The Egyptian hieroglyphics, used principally for religious writing, progressed from pictograms to a combination of pictograms and phonetograms. The hieratic was a cursive form of hieroglyphs; and the demotic, in vogue by 600 B.C., was principally a phonetic form of writing.

2. A prominent theory among Mormon scholars is that the Egyptian written on the Plates of Nephi and carried on [with alterations] to the time of Mormon and Moroni was the demotic form popular in the days of Lehi.

3. Mormon and Moroni wrote in the Egyptian language in order to save space on the plates of gold on which they wrote their abridgements of the Nephite and Jaredite records.

4. In order to have conserved space on their records, Mormon and Moroni would have to have written with early Egyptian ideoform hieroglyphics, rather than with the demotic characters in use during the time of Lehi.

5. Examination of the three inscriptions on the Rosetta stone demonstrate that no space reduction over Hebrew would have resulted from using either the hieroglyphic or hieratic characters with which it was written.

6. The Nephite writers undoubtedly wrote their sacred records in an ancient Egyptian script that was highly ideographic in character.

7. As he was inscribing a religious document, Moses probably wrote the Pentateuch in the formal hieroglyphic characters of his time, which would have been largely pictographic.

8. Succeeding Hebrew prophets and kings would have to have learned to read the Egyptian hieroglyphs in order to read Moses’ sacred record. In deference to the prophet Moses, they would probably have added their own writings to the sacred record in the same language which Moses used.

9. The sacred Nephite history was probably written in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic language of the Brass Plates of Laban rather than in the commercial demotic characters used by the Egyptians at the time of Lehi.

10. It is possible, and perhaps probable, that the Brass Plates of Laban were the original record started by Moses and continued by each of the prophets and kings down to the time of Jeremiah and Lehi.

11. Hebrew word patterns and literary forms may have had a degree of commonality with ancient Egyptian since both are Semitic languages.

12. To preserve the original Hebrew word pattern structure of the record written in the Book of Mormon, Divine intervention would have been necessary.

13. The reappearance of Hebrew word patterns in the Book of Mormon is an irrefutable evidence of the Divine inspiration by which the book was translated by Joseph Smith from the language of the Egyptians into English.

14. The Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon may be a direct copy of the original writings of Isaiah. Thus, they would be the oldest copy of Isaiah on record and therefore would be the standard against which the accuracy of all other copies of Isaiah could be judged.


1. 1 Nephi 1:2.

2. Reynolds, George, The Story of the Book of Mormon, Zions Printing and Publication Co., Independence, 1915, p. 288.

3. 1 Nephi 1:2; Mormon. 9:32-33.

4. 2 Nephi 25:1-5.

5. 2 Nephi 25:6.

6.The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1987.

7. 1 Nephi 5:13.

8. 2 Nephi 4:2.

9. Mosiah 1:3-4.

10. Mormon 9:32-33.

11. Andrews, Carol, The British Museum Book of the Rosetta Stone, Peter Bedrick Books, New York, 1985, p 45.

12. Sjodahl, J. M., An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon, Deseret News Press, Salt Lake City, 1927, p.39.

13. Smith, Joseph, The Wentworth Letter, March 1, 1842.

14. 1 Nephi 5:11-13.

15. Gorton, H. Clay, The Legacy of the Brass Plates of Laban, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, Utah, 1994, pp.14-22.

16. Genesis 4:10.

17. Acts 7:22.

18. Enos 1:1; Mosiah 1:2.

19. Personal conversation with Elder Hugh Pinnock, 1 July, 1996.

20. Being prepared for future publication.

21. Conversation with Dr. Hugh Nibley, Provo, Utah, 20 Sept. 1993.

22. Doctrine & Covenants 9:8.

23. 2 Peter 1:21.

24. Gorton, H. Clay, The Language of the Lord, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, Utah, 1993, p. 69.