Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book of Mormon Onomasticon

The term "onomasticon" refers to a list of proper names, usually people and places. The plural form of the word is "onomastica." Often, an onomasticon goes beyond an index and attempts to classify or derive the etymology of each word. In the case of toponyms, onomastica sometimes try to locate each place spatially on a map to become a form of gazetteer. An onomasticon is not a lexicon which attempts to be a comprehensive word list for a given language. Onomastica are often tied to a particular text or textual tradition. The Book of Mormon text, rendered by Joseph Smith with divine help in Elizabethan (King James) English, contains over 300 proper names and a Book of Mormon onomasticon has been in progress for decades based on the meticulous work of scholars such as Paul Y. Hoskisson and Robert F. Smith. The text itself references two ancient near-eastern languages:
The Book of Mormon describes vernacular languages Omni 1:17. It also details an esoteric scribal tradition Mosiah 1:2, Mosiah 1:4 based on characters chosen for brevity of expression Mormon 9:32, 33 engraved on hammered metal plates Jacob 4:1.

In Mesoamerica, the New World setting for The Book of Mormon, at least 4 major language families are germane to our study of the Nephite text:
  • Mixe-Zoquean, the language of the Olmec.  Zoque, the language of Chiapa de Corzo, is still spoken in Chiapas today.
  • Mayan, the language of the Maya. Many dialects of Mayan survive, primarily in Guatemala, Chiapas, and Yucatan.
  • Oto-Manguean, the language of the Mixtecs and Zapotecs. Oto-Manguean, still spoken today, is generally identified with the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
  • Uto-Aztecan, the language of the Toltecs and later Aztecs. Since the Aztec empire dominated Mesoamerica at the time of European conquest, many indigenous proper names still in use today ("Tehuantepec" and "Huehuetenango" for example) come from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec. Nahuatl survives today, primarily in central Mexico.
Comparative linguistics is the fascinating study of similarities and differences between various languages and language families. Relatively few comparative linguists exist who can competently work with the New World languages in The Book of Mormon area.
    Here is a simple example of credible comparative linguistics from southeastern Idaho:
    • The county seat of Oneida County is Malad. (contemporary toponym)
    • The city of Malad was named after the Malad River. (historical fact)
    • The Malade River was named by French-speaking fur trappers in the early 1830's. (historical fact)
    • "malade" in French can be either an adjective or a noun. It means ill, diseased, sickly. (French dictionary)
    • The equivalent English word is "malady" which derives from Middle English "maladie" which derives from French "malade" which derives from Latin "male" (bad). First documented usage in English dates from the 13th century. (English dictionary)
    • Therefore, Malad, Idaho, could be called Malady, Disease or Sickness, Idaho, and a comparative linguist could follow the naming trail with confidence because:
      • French-speaking fur trappers were known to be in southeastern Idaho in the early 1830's.
      • Other geographic names in the area (Tremonton, Utah, for example) are also French.
      • English was influenced by French (Norman invasion of 1066).
      • French, a Romance language, did come from Latin.
    Now, a simple example of naive comparative linguistics:
    • The Idaho Theater cinema was a staple entertainment venue in Malad City, Idaho, for many years. (historical fact)
    • The first movie production company in India was Bombay Talkies, founded in Malad, a suburb of modern-day Mumbai, in 1934. (historical fact)
    • Malad City, Idaho, was named after the Malad River. (historical fact)
    • A small stream within the incorporated limits of Malad, India, is called Malad Creek. (contemporary toponym)
    • Malad City, Idaho, was founded by Mormons, a Christian group. (historical fact)
    • Malad, India, was founded by Roman Catholics, a much larger Christian group. (historical fact)
    • Many Roman Catholics speak French.
    • "Malad" derives from the French "malade". 
    • Therefore, Malad City, Idaho, and Malad, Mumbai, India, must have an historical tie because even a lay person can see their obvious linguistic connection.
    This laughable linguistic comparison is ludicrous, like the work by Jean-Pierre Brisset who argued that humans descend from frogs because frog croaking sounds are similar to the syntax of verbal French (La Grande Nouvelle, ca. 1900). Unfortunately, far too many so-called Book of Mormon scholars engage in similar lexical silliness far afield of their own personal areas of expertise.

    To be persuasive, rigorous comparative linguistic analysis will include at minimum:
    • a large enough sample size of words from both languages (lexicon) to make the comparison statistically significant. All languages have large vocabularies and limited numbers of articulated sounds, so one can find coincidentally cognate words with similar sounds, similar meanings, or both in virtually all languages.  
    • etymologies of the words in question with cognates from other languages in the same language family.
    • ranges of possible meanings - many words carry more than one meaning depending on context, intonation, aspiration, etc. Words also change meaning over time.
    • phonemes - sounds that make up words; morphemes - parts of words including prefixes, suffixes, declensions, etc.; and syntax - patterns in word combinations.   
    Here is a typical example of the linguistic naivete one finds among some Book of Mormon students:
    • The word "sidon" in Hebrew means "fishery".
    • In the upper Mezcalapa-Grijalva basin, the Maya call the river "xocal ha" which means "fish waters".
    • Therefore, the Mezcalapa-Grijalva is the river Sidon mentioned in The Book of Mormon.
    Obviously, this puerile linguistic comparison is not credible. It does not meet any of the 4 criteria specified above. A handful of common-sense questions show it to be shallow and trivial proof-texting, and therefore irrelevant to serious Book of Mormon exegesis. This kind of oversimplified, pseudo-scholarly conjecture by non-specialists probably does more harm than good to the cause of The Book of Mormon around the world. Some questions:
    • Q. Was the toponym "sidon" in Hebrew applied to a river, a lake, a coastal lagoon, the ocean?
      • A. None of the above. Sidon was a coastal port city on the Mediterranean in modern-day Lebanon about 30 kilometers north of ancient Tyre.
    • Q. Are there alternative meanings for the word sidon?
      • A. Yes. In Genesis 10:15 we learn that Sidon was Noah's great-grandson through Ham. In addition to fishery, the compound Hebrew term could mean hunting, hunting lodge, food or provisions, harbor master, ship (as an Egyptian loan word), judge, advocate or desert-dwelling animal. See The Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon; entries H6718, H6721 and H6722 in Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary; and Arie Uittenbogaard, Biblical Names, article "Meaning and Etymology of the Name Sidon"
    • Q. Did the Maya call any other rivers xocal ha? 
      • A. Yes. Jeeni Criscenzo del Rio says "xocal ha" was the Mayan name for the Usumacinta River.
    • Q. Is there anything unique or compelling about water and fish in a particular river?
      • A. No. "Fish waters" applies to practically every river on earth. Humans in any known culture are capable of coming up with a similar term in their language.  
    • Q. How are the Hebrew and Mayan languages related to each other?
      • A. Modern linguists don't yet recognize any connection whatsoever. Brian D. Stubbs has done some excellent work over decades comparing Hebrew and Egyptian with Uto-Aztecan.  See "A Few Hundred Hints of Egyptian and Northwest Semitic in Uto-Aztecan," a lecture given at the 2006 FAIR Conference. But Hebrew and Mayan are not known correlates at this time, even though some readings of The Book of Mormon text could imply a connection. Uto-Aztecan and Mayan are not even in the same language family.
    Another example of lexical nonsense applied to The Book of Mormon:

    Hermounts in The Book of Mormon was a wilderness with wild beasts.
    "Tehuantepec" in Nahuatl means "hill of wild animals."
    Later peoples (in this case, Aztecs) often preserved the meaning of earlier place names.
    The meaning of "Tehuantepec" captures the very essence of Hermounts.
    Therefore, the wilderness of Hermounts must be in the Tehuantepec area.

    Never mind that this syllogism does not meet any of the 4 criteria specified above for a valid linguistic comparison. It fails some very simple common-sense tests:
    • Q. Do other wilderness areas in The Book of Mormon also have wild beasts?
      • A. Yes. Wilderness and carrion-eating wild beasts are formulaic in The Book of Mormon text in both Old World and New World settings. See 1 Nephi 7:16, Alma 16:10. Even the iconic waters of Mormon are described in terms very similar to the Hermounts language Mosiah 18:4.
    • Q. Does the Nahuatl term "Tehuantepec" have any variant meanings?
      • A. Yes, it can also be rendered "hill of demons." Santo Domingo Tehuantepec in Oaxaca received the Nahuatl portion of its name from the Aztecs because of the ferocity of the Zapotec warriors in the region. See the 2009 edition of Enciclopedia de los Municipios de Mexico.
    • Q. Did the Nahuatl place name "Tehuantepec" preserve an earlier meaning?
      • A. No. The Zapotec name was Guie-ngola meaning large hill or large rock. The well-known archaeological site of Guiengola carries this name today, and it sits atop a large hill. The Aztecs laid siege to Guiengola for 7 months in the 1490's without conquering the Zapotec fortress.   
    In his excellent publication entitled The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book, Provo: FARMS, 1990, John L. Sorenson gives us a "report card" for evaluating geographic models proposed for The Book of Mormon. In his 8 page list of criteria, item #4 is "not based on naive linguistic comparisons." At least until Paul Y. Hoskisson, Robert F. Smith, and company are ready to go public with their Book of Mormon onomasticon which they have been patiently working on since the 1980's, most attempts at linguistic correlations with toponyms in The Book of Mormon will fall in the naive category. The evidentiary value of naive linguistic correlations is nil.
    The Book of Mormon onomasticon is online here.
    Article updated Januiary 31, 2015