Those of us who believe in the Book of Mormon are aware that there is abundant information from Mesoamerican archaeology to substantiate the Book of Mormon record as authentic history. What most do not realize, however, is that scientific evidence for Book of Mormon history is not limited to archaeology but can also be found in Mesoamerican linguistics. It is important to remember that the people of the Book of Mormon left behind not only the material remains of their existence but their words as well.
by Raymond C. Treat
Linguistics is the scientific study of language and is one of the major subdivisions of anthropology. Much has been discovered about the nature of language and how it changes throughout time. The better the linguists understand the laws that govern the development of languages, the better they can understand the history of the peoples speaking those languages. Thus the field of linguistics reflects both the laws of language change and the history of the people speaking a particular language.
Book of Mormon Languages
A careful reading of the Book of Mormon shows there are several languages being spoken. We know that two groups were directed to leave the land of Jerusalem shortly after 600 B.C.; first, the group led by Lehi and second, the people of Zarahemla (Mulekites). Obviously both groups spoke the same language at the time they left Jerusalem. However, less than 400 years later we find the people of Zarahemla unable to understand the language of the Nephites (Omni 1:30-32). Group separation is a major cause of language change. Another reason the language of the people of Zarahemla had become a separate language was because they had not brought records with them or kept records during their 400 years in the New World.
Similarly, part of Lehi's colony experienced a change in language because of separation and their failure to keep written records. Shortly after the death of Lehi (2 Nephi 4:7-13), the Nephites and Lamanites became two separate groups, separated geographically as well as spiritually. The Nephites retained the records brought with them and kept current records as commanded by God. Based on the following scripture, we can conclude that by 145-123 B.C. the Lamanites had developed their own language.
And thus the language of Nephi began to be taught
In effect, this passage tells us that the Lamanites no longer knew how to speak or write the Nephite language.
We are also told about an earlier Book of Mormon people who spoke still a different and unrelated language (Omni 1:35-39). These people are the Jaredites. who left the great tower at the time the Lord confused the language of the people. The language of the Jaredites was not changed, so we may assume that they remained the only people still speaking the original language which began with Adam. They brought a written record with them, no doubt the Book of Remembrance (Genesis 6:5,47 [no KJV]). Because their language had remained unchanged, they would have been the only ones who could have read the Book of Remembrance.
Strong evidence confirming this belief about the Book of Remembrance comes from an analysis of the Chinese language (see Recent Book of Mormon Developments 1984:49-50). This is a remarkable example of how a written language has preserved its history within the language itself. Combining archaeology, geography and linguistics, we conclude that the Jaredites traveled across Asia from their homeland in Sumeria to China and then across the Pacific to the western coast of Mesoamerica.
In summary, we have learned from just a few verses that the Book of Mormon speaks clearly of four languages by 123 B.C. The people who came from the land of Jerusalem spoke at least three languages derived from a single mother language and the Jaredites spoke an unrelated fourth language. We can then assume that the native languages spoken today by the descendents of the Book of Mormon peoples should be related to the languages spoken during Book of Mormon times and would therefore be a source for historical information.
Let us now examine this assumption by looking to Mesoamerica, the geographic area where the events of the Book of Mormon took place. We will look first at the Maya, the largest language group in Mesoamerica.
among all the people of the Lamanites....
They taught them that they should keep their record,
And that they might write one to another.
The Maya area of southern Mexico, Guatemala and adjacent areas is the geographic heart of the Book of Mormon area during Nephite times. The linguistic map in Figure 1 shows the location of present-day Mayan speakers. The evidence from archaeology as well as from geography tells us that the Maya, as we know them today, are most likely a mixture of all three groups-Nephites, Lamanites and the people of Zarahemla. This means the Maya tribes are the most important Book of Mormon-related Indian group today.
The Mayan Language Family
A language family is a group of languages descended from a single language. The chart in Figure 2 shows a proposed history of the Mayan language family from the original language (called Proto-Maya) to the 31 known languages today. They are all separate languages as are English and German, for example, but they share enough similarities to be part of the same family. All are spoken today except Chicomuceltec and Cholti which have recently become extinct.
If the Maya represent the Nephites, Lamanites and people of Zarahemla, the Mayan language family tree in Figure 2 would be a linguistic history of these people from the time they left the land of Jerusalem shortly after 600 B.C. up to the present time. Given the present state of knowledge in the field of linguistics, we can say there is general agreement between the chart and the Book of Mormon.
For example, if the Mayan Ianguage family originated in the land of Jerusalem, we would expect that this family would not be related to any other language family in the New World unless some other group of which we are unaware came from the same area. There have been several attempts over the years to relate the Mayan language family to other linguistic groups in the New World. The latest comment on these attempts confirms that there are no known relatives (Campbell and Kaufman 1985:191).
Another interesting correlation is a proposal by Kaufman (1976) about the development of the Mayan family that parallels the Book of Mormon outline. His theory suggests that the mother language, Proto-Maya, was first spoken in the highlands of western Guatemala. Mayan speakers then expanded down the Usumacinta River into the lowlands of northern Guatemala where the Yucatecan and Greater Cholan subgroups are found today. Later, the Tzeltalan group returned to the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, adjacent to western Guatemala. During the time of the Classic Lowland Maya culture (A.D. 300-900) there was much interaction which resulted in many words being borrowed both within the Mayan family and between the Mayan and nonMayan languages.
Book of Mormon and Maya Patterns Compared
This theorized pattern of movement among Mayan speakers provides a striking parallel to the Book of Mormon pattern even though the dates currently proposed by Kaufman are not in agreement with the Book of Mormon.
According to archaeology and geography, the most likely landing area for Lehi's group was the Pacific coast of Guatemala from which they entered the highlands. The highlands of Guatemala can be considered their original homeland. This correlates with the Guatemala highlands being the homeland of Proto-Mayan speakers. Later, Mosiah and his followers were directed down to the lowlands of northern Guatemala where they discovered the people of Zarahemla. Again, this correlates with Mayan speakers expanding down the Usumacinta River. The return of the Tzeltalan group to the highlands is reminiscent of the return of Zeniff's group to their original homeland in the highlands. The 200 or so years of spiritual peace which occurred after the appearance of Jesus would have been a time of maximum interaction between tribes which had spiritually overcome their "iteness" (4 Nephi 1:20).
We can begin to see that there is an excellent correspondence between the history of the Mayan language and the Book of Mormon. The later separations on the chart give us a glimpse of the history of the descendents of the Book of Mormon peoples after the Nephite destruction. The many separations on the chart are in harmony with Moroni's statement that the Lamanites were constantly at war with each other (Mormon 4:10), implying a continuing fragmentation of existing tribes into more groups.
Another important correlation between Mayan ritual language and the Book of Mormon is that both make use of paired couplets or word-pairs. Wordpairs seem to be the foundation of Hebrew poetry. The information on the Hebrew poetry in this book is relatively new. The discovery of paired couplets in the Mayan language is also relatively new (Edmonson 1971). The Mayan hieroglyphs are known to contain chiasms as well as couplets. A chiasm is a form of ancient poetry used extensively by the Hebrews. The writers in the Bible and the Book of Mormon made extensive use of chiasms.
We can see that Mayan linguistics correlates closely with the pattern of the Book of Mormon groups that came from the Jerusalem area. But what about the correlation of the Jaredite language with Mesoamerican linguistics?
The Olmec represent the mother civilization of Mesoamerica and the New World. They appear to be the high point of the Jaredite civilization. The Book of Mormon tells us that the Jaredites came from a different area of the Middle East than the other groups. It is estimated they left about 1800 years earlier than the Nephites.
In addition, they were the only group whose language was not changed by the Lord at the great tower, however through time it too changed. Obviously the Jaredites spoke a different language from those who left Jerusalem in 600 B.C. Therefore, if the Olmec are Jaredites, the Book of Mormon requires them to speak a language unrelated to the Mayan family.
Determining the language spoken by the Olmec is not an easy task, because the Olmec ceased to be a people well before the time of Christ. Nevertheless, the evidence points to the Mixe-Zoquean family as the most likely language family of the Olmecs. The current speakers of Mixe and Zoque are located near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec area of southern Mexico which is near the main area occupied by the archaeological Olmec.
More significantly, many words describing important Mesoamerican culture traits were borrowed by Mayan languages from Mixe-Zoquean. Food words such as "bean," "squash," "tomato," "sweet potato," "gourd," "cacao" and the verb "to grind corn" were all borrowed by the Maya (Campbell and Kaufman 1976). The verb "to count," meaning "twenty years" in two Mayan languages, was also borrowed. This supports the accepted idea that the Maya calendar, which is based on twenty, originated with the Olmec. Other important loan words are "paper,"" turkey" and "bee." We are told that the Jaredites brought swarms of bees with them (Ether 1:24). The borrowing of these words by the Mayan languages indicates that the speakers of the Mixe-Zoquean languages were well established before the Mayan languages and passed on to the Maya many of the items important to Mesoamerican life.
This is exactly what we would expect the Olmec Jaredites) to have done. There is evidence in the Book of Mormon that the Jaredites had contact with those who came from Jerusalem, no doubt mostly with the people of Zarahemla. This evidence appears to be contrary to two widely-held but incorrect beliefs: 1) that the final Jaredite battle was close to 600 B.C. just before the people of Zarahemla arrived in the New World and; 2) that all but one of the Jaredites were destroyed during their final battle. The Book of Mormon and archaeology agree that the decline of the Jaredite nation was closer to 200 B.C. This would allow for several hundred years of Jaredite-Mulekite contact before the final battle. The survival of the prophet Ether, in addition to Coriantumr, tells us that not all the Jaredite people were destroyed. The Jaredites as a nation, however, ceased to exist. Also, the Book of Mormon contains several examples of Jaredite names among the Nephites which indicates ongoing contact. (For more information on this topic, see Simmons 1986:100-103.)
The pattern emerging from Mesoamerican linguistics concerning the Maya and the Olmec dovetails the Book of Mormon pattern. The field of Mesoamerican linguistics also helps to fill in the gap between the end of the Book of Mormon account and the beginning of written history in Mesoamerica. We can expect the same ongoing pattern of convergence in Mesoamerican linguistics as we are witnessing with Mesoamerican archaeology.
Edmonson, M. S.
1971 The Book of Counsel: the Popol Vuh
of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala.
Middle American Research Institute, Publication 35.
Tulane University, New Orleans.
Campbell, L., and T. Kaufman
1976 A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs.
American Antiquity 41:80-89.
1985 Mayan Linguistics: Where Are We Now?
Annual Review of Anthropology14:187-198.
1974 Meso-American Indian Languages. In Encyclopaedia Britannica
vol. 22. 15th ed. Edited by Philip W. Goetz, pp. 788-792.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Chicago.
1976 Archaeological and Linguistic Correlations in
Mayaland and Associated Area of Meso-America.
World Archaeology 8:101-118.
1986 Peoples, Places and Prophecies. 3rd ed.
Zarahemla Research Foundation, Independence, Missouri.
This article taken from Recent Book of Mormon Developments vol. 2 p.133-136