“Yea, I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.” (1 Nephi 1:2)
At the very beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi tells us that he is writing his history in the language of the Egyptians. When we are reading First Nephi, we reading something that was written in retrospect, after Lehi’s party arrived in the promised land. This is where Nephi made his first set of plates (1 Nephi 19:1). It is at this point that he chooses to write in Egyptian for some reason instead of Hebrew and we don’t have any explanation as to why.
It is centuries later that Moroni explains that they wrote the record in a reformed version of Egyptian instead of Hebrew because of a space issue on the plates:
“And now, behold, 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; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also; and if we could have written in Hebrew, behold, ye would have had no imperfection in our record.” (Mormon 9:32-33)
Mormon and Moroni’s reasons for using their reformed Egyptian could have been very different from Nephi’s reasons. Nephi was writing things that he considered sacred at a time of great conflict between his people and his brethren. He might have wanted to protect the information by writing it in a language other than Hebrew so that the information would be hidden from others in case his records fell into enemy’s hands. His intentions might have been to conceal the content of the records rather than save space.
Nephi starts writing his records almost immediately upon arrival in the promised land while Laman and Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael are still part of the camp. What if only Nephi knew how to write in Egyptian? Perhaps Nephi didn’t think it was wise to write his record (that included the murmuring and disobedience of his older brothers and step brothers) in a language that they could read. Think of what might have happened if Nephi was out hunting and Laman snuck into his tent to read his “journal”. Nephi’s brothers and step brothers already hated him and reading his depiction of them could have thrown them into a rage and put his family in danger.
Mormon, on the other hand, notes that they had altered the Hebrew and the Egyptian among them to the degree that the reformed Egyptian characters may have been more compact than what their altered Hebrew was like. These theories are only speculation on my part, but I think they illustrate that there are many possibilities to consider.
In 600BC, there were at least three Egyptian candidates for what Nephi could have used on his plates: Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, and Demotic. The only one that doesn’t seem to be available in Nephi’s time is Hieratic, but I have a theory that doesn’t dismiss it as a candidate so let’s see which one works best.
“Hieratic and demotic were used more for day-to-day purposes. Hieroglyphs were used for important writing, like temple and tomb inscriptions.” (source)
Nephi was writing on metal plates and not parchment, so if hieroglyphics were used to record information on stone, then soft gold shouldn’t have been that big of an issue. However, I don’t think hieroglyphics were used on the plates.
“Hieratic was a kind of writing based on hieroglyphic but with more flowing lines – like cursive writing compared to printing. ‘Hieratic’ means priestly, because it was used by priests. Many other scribes used it, though, for all sorts of day to day writing. It was much quicker to write than hieroglyphs. It is harder to see pictures in it, though. (source)
Sample of Hieratic script:
I think this script is a possible candidate since it was used by priests and scribes. If this much more efficient system of writing was good enough for priests and perhaps sacred texts, then it should be good enough for Nephi’s records. It’s probably safe to say that nobody in Lehi’s group was an Egyptian priest, so how would they have access to Hieratic, especially when it feel out of use before 600 B.C.?
Think about the Brass Plates that Laban had in his treasury. They could have been brand new or they could have been really, really old, we don’t know; but we do know that they were written in Egyptian.
For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time. (Mosiah 1:4)
Since the Brass Plates contained scripture, it’s possible that the priestly Hieratic was used. If that is the case, then that makes Hieratic the source writing that the Nephites “reformed” into their own script.
“Like hieratic, demotic was a simple form of hieroglyphic used for everyday purposes. It was even faster to write than hieratic. Demotic means ‘popular’, and has the same root as ‘democracy’. Demotic was invented quite late in Egyptian history, about 700BC. That’s about 600 years after Tutankhamun. It was the ordinary writing of daily life during the Ptolemaic and the Roman periods. The Rosetta Stone, made in 196BC, had a demotic inscription on it all about King Ptolemy the Fifth.”(source)
Sample of Demotic script:
Demotic, could also be a candidate. It was faster, simpler, and more efficient than Hieratic or Hieroglyphics.
Note that this script was “popular” meaning that the average person would have been able to write in this script. If Lehi had dealings with Egyptians, it is quite possible that he learned this script and could have passed it on to his eager to learn son, Nephi. Demotic, what you could call a “reformed Egyptian” script, was already reformed from Hieratic and Hieroglyphic before the Nephites could have reformed it some more.
Nephi’s plates may have been written in Demotic, but would they have used this script if they had the more elegant Hieratic on the Brass Plates to use as their prototype?
“And now, behold, 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.” (Mormon 9:32)
While the Nephites spoke and wrote in Hebrew, we don’t know how widespread the use of Egyptian characters was within their society. Mormon says that the characters were called among “us” the reformed Egyptian, which means that’s what they called them. We don’t know if “us” means the Nephite people as a whole or just the scribes.
Mormon says that the characters were altered according to their speech, but we don’t really know what that means. Note that Mormon said “speech” which references the articulation of sounds or words; was the Egyptian script altered to represent certain sounds in the Hebrew language, or perhaps to accommodate Christian doctrines and principles after the manifestation of Christ? We just don’t know. According to Mormon, their modifications must have been a pretty radical departure from the original Egyptian script:
“But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language; and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof.” (Mormon 9:34)
The image above is supposedly a sample of the characters that were on the plates. Whether these characters were transcribed in order or were just a random sampling of the variety of characters on the plates is also not known. The only characters that were copied directly from the plates that we know of were presented to Professor Anthon. Any other copy, like the one above, are most likely copies of that original copy.
I did come across this 1942 document by Ariel L. Crowley where he compares the Anthon transcript characters to known Egyptian works and some of the comparisons are very interesting. The Book of Mormon characters seem to have more curved lines and flourishes than the standard Demotic which might lean us more toward the more ornate Hieratic. This is pure speculation, but perhaps some of the reformations by the Nephites were attempts to make the characters of the plates more beautiful or special because of the sacred nature of their records.
Although we may be able to speculate concerning the particular script that Nephi used on his plates, it is probably impossible that we would find any examples in the Middle East of a script that was not only customized over time in Nephite culture but was possibly limited in use.
While comparing the examples of the Book of Mormon characters we have today to scripts like Hieratic and Demotic we may find many similarities. However, if Mormon said that their language was modified to the extent that “no other people knoweth” it, then attempting to translate these Book of Mormon characters by comparing them to known Egyptian scripts may or may not be worthwhile.
I’m not anything even close to a professional when it comes to linguistics so don’t take anything I say as authoritative. I just love to study this stuff because I find it fascinating. Everyone loves a good mystery, and the story of the gold plates and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is a great one!
What do you think?
- Do you have any other theories concerning the writing on the plates?
- It would be interesting to compare Demotic and Hebrew scripts and see how they compare in efficiency and other characteristics.