Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

A Linguistic Approach to the Authorship of the Book of Mormon

A Linguistic Approach to the Authorship of the Book of Mormon

Marius Sidau

Mormonism is founded on the Book of Mormon. The architect of the Mormon faith, Joseph Smith Jr., claimed that the Book of Mormon is a divinely inspired text written in “Reformed Egyptian” by ancient prophets, which he translated into English. Disputes among Smith’s contemporaries concerning the authorship of the Book of Mormon began with its 1830 printing, and this issue has extended into modern academia. Some have argued that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text but rather that Smith authored it. Both detractors and promoters of Smith’s role as translator have used linguistic methods to analyze this text. Promoters including Parry and Tvedtnes claim to have discovered linguistic features such as chiasmus, and similarities to Egyptian and Hebrew that Smith was unlikely to have known about. Detractors including Persuitte and Jockers et al argue that the promoters’ evidence is based on conjectural hypothesis and Mormon oral tradition, and that anachronisms in the text indicate a 19th century origin.

Following a review of both sides of the literature, this study shows how modern linguistic evidence has been used in the dispute over the Book of Mormon’s authorship. Taking the skeptic’s position that it is a 19th century production, linguistic anthropological theory is applied to show how the text answered metalinguistic expectations of Smith’s contemporaries. W. F. Hanks’ framework provides an innovative approach to the authorship question. This study found substantial evidence that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century text. Further research using a comparative approach to other early-19th century American religious texts could provide additional insight into the Book of Mormon’s authorship.

Keywords: Book of Mormon, chiasmus, anachronisms, authorship, metalanguage, Joseph Smith, “Reformed Egyptian”

April 16, 2011 - Posted by | abstract


  1. I can see how some of the “caractors” from the Anthon Transcript show a slight resemblance to Egyptian Hieratic cursive. Smith had a fascination with folk religions during his youth, so he most certainly should have at least seen some examples of Hieratic cursive. Smith’s characters are allegedly from the golden plates, and the golden plates religious writing, therefore if Smith were copying directly from a golden plate, it would have to be written right to left, because Hieratic is written right to left only. It’s one of the rules of Hieratic cursive. Smith’s characters in the Anthon Transcript are clearly written from left to right. If the Anthon Transcript were actually written by Moroni, then why is the writing style so idiosyncratic to Smith? Notice in the Anthon Transcript there is a huge first character…it is at the same relative height and angle as the J in Joseph when Smith wrote his signature. Even more suspicious in the Anthon Transcript is that the mysterious language seems to be mutations on the theme of the letter J, as in Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Anton Anderssen | April 17, 2011 | Reply

  2. What an interesting topic! Taking the authorship issue away from faith (“I believe” / “I don’t believe”) and applying arguably impersonal Linguistic methods is, I think, a valid way to analyze a text more objectively.

    However, I wonder about those “both sides of the literature” that you reviewed. Who wrote them? Does the faith of the scholar affect their conclusion (were THEY objective)? I assume that Mormon authors write pro-translation and non-Mormon authors write pro-invention. Are there any Mormons scholars who are “Detractors”? Are there any non-Mormon scholars who are “Supporters”?

    Soooo interesting, keep up the good work! :)

    Comment by Anneonymous | April 18, 2011 | Reply

  3. One question that comes to my mind about the text on the golden plates: The angel Moroni said the text was written in reformed Egyptian because it took up less space than Hebrew. However, when looking at the copy of God’s writing in the Anthon Transcript, it appears the “original” language is extremely wasteful in taking up space. It seems counter-intuitive that the “heavenly” language takes up so much space if the whole point in using it was to save space. Compare with the density of Egyptian Hieratic cursive. Also, in the “heavenly” language, I see a lot of exact copies of Arabic-Indic numerals.

    Also, it seems too coincidental that the holy names written by God himself also happen to be “buried treasure” names that Joseph Smith would have known about. Wouldn’t this be similar to a person claiming an angel gave him a holy book, and some of the people’s names were Gilligan, Mary Ann, Ginger and Thurston?

    Comment by Anton Anderssen | April 19, 2011 | Reply

  4. Joseph Smith spent his formative years in Palmyra, New York. It was named after the town in Syria by the same name. Surely, people in Palmyra knew this fact.

    There had been a temple at Palmyra for 2000 years before the Romans ever saw it. Its form, a large stone-walled chamber with columns outside, is much closer to the sort of thing attributed to Solomon than to anything Roman. It is mentioned in the Bible as part of Solomon’s Kingdom. In fact, it says he built it. —Terry Jones and Alan Ereira, Terry Jones’ Barbarians, p. 183.

    I wonder if the temple at Palmyra, which Joseph Smith probably knew about, is coincidentally similar to the Mormon Temple that God told Smith to build?

    Before Smith lived in Palmyra, he lived in Lebanon New Hampshire. Now, if I lived in towns called Paris Texas and Versailles Indiana, wouldn’t I naturally be interested at some point to want to know a little bit about France? Smith grew up in towns that were named after Arabic places. In July 1835, Smith purchased Egyptian mummies. Who puts a mummy in their house other than a person obsessed with things from the middle east?

    Isn’t it too much coincidence that God writes a language that has characters exactly the same as some Arabic numbers, especially when the only human allowed to see God’s handwriting is kind of obsessed with Arabic stuff ?

    Comment by Anton Anderssen | April 19, 2011 | Reply

    • I like what you have to say but there were other men who testified of seeing and handling the golden plates. The original three witnesses: Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer and then the eight other witnesses: Christian Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, Peter Whitmer, Jr., John Whitmer, Hiram Page, Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Samuel Harrison Smith. So your final statement may not be all that accurate. Eleven people is a rather large number to try and pull off a hoax, wouldn’t you say?

      Comment by Michelle | July 29, 2011 | Reply

  5. I don’t know if “hoax” is the word most people are thinking. But people can see things that aren’t really there. They eyes are only organs. Consider that Saint Columba saw the Loch Ness Monster.

    Comment by Anton Anderssén | July 30, 2011 | Reply

  6. Commonly found by farmers and construction workers,the tablets are common,pre-Columbian receipts for goods and services in the Northeast.

    Comment by Michael Joseph Casey | October 2, 2011 | Reply

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