The Record of Zeniff serves up the following healthful diet:
And we began to till the ground, yea, even with all manner of seeds, with seeds of corn, and of wheat, and of barley, and with neas, and with sheum, and with seeds of all manner of fruits; and we did begin to multiply and prosper in the land (Mosiah 9: 9).
Corn, wheat, barley, neas, sheum, and seeds of all manner of fruits: these last words have prompted much searching. (And what is corn? what are all manner of fruits?) When the Prophet Joseph Smith translated the gold plates, he occasionally came across a word for which he was not able to give an English equivalent. In lieu of translation, he chose to transliterate and to leave it at that.
As long ago as 1973 students of the Book of Mormon sought to identify the grain sheum with what appears to be the very same word in Akkadian, the East Semitic language of Mesopotamia. What could be closer to Zeniff's sheum than sheum? (See Robert R. Bennett, "Barley and Wheat in the Book of Mormon," on the Website of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, BYU.) According to Bennett, it was Robert F. Smith, in a talk given at Brigham Young University, who first compared Akkadian sheum to the sheum of Mosiah. The guess was good, but the understanding of ancient languages moves on and, as it moves on, waits for no man.
In his "Glossary of Akkadian Words," Professor John Huehnergard comments on the correct reading of the cuneiform signs that write the Akkadian word for barley or grain, um:
"Sum[erian]. lw.? always written with log[ogram] SHE, e.g., acc. SHE-am or SHE-a-am for am; also written either SHE.UM or SHE. IM, regardless of case) 'barley, grain'; note: until very recently this word was read in Akkadian as sheum, and appears as such in both dictionaries and all text publications up through 1990" (John Huehnergard, A Grammar of Akkadian, 1997, p. 528).
For any student, the matter is now crystal clear: there is no such word as sheum in Akkadian. The correct Akkadian word for barley, um, perforce takes as determinative (or classifier) the Sumerian logogram SHE (grain), which marks classes of grains. Such classifiers were neither intended to form part of the word nor ever to be pronounced. SHE um, of which the second element alone was ever part of the word, simply signifies the um-grain.
Two decades on, we can ask Why the initial--and long--misreading by the lexicographers? It's tricky because um, with its -m ending, first suggests the nominative case ending in Akkadian; -m thus can easily be taken for morpheme, rather than part of the semantic root. That um should sometimes modify for case, um, am, im or em (but not -um, -am, -im = umu(m), unam, unim) makes not a lick of difference.
Robert Smith's early suggestion was a bit sketchy anyhow. Akkadian final-m (the mimation as marker of nominative case) would by no means have survived as a borrowing into Hebrew and Nephite until the days of Zeniff; besides, if putative Akkadian sheum is barley, then barley it is and should be, not sheum. The latest version of the online Book of Mormon Onomasticon, though failing to note the reading um, also disavows an Akkadian reading for Book of Mormon sheum.
A better candidate for Zeniff's grain appears in an Egyptian term (shm') dating from Old Kingdom texts onward. The Woerterbuch defines the word as Upper Egyptian grain (used for making bread) and notes that it was called both it shm' (grain of Upper Egypt) and, simply, sm' ('Upper Egyptian' grain). That Lehi knew it shm' ought not to admit of any doubt.
What put me on track was the following entry from Professor Vladimir E. Orel's (and Olga V. Stolbova's) Hamito-Semitic Etymological Dictionary (a pioneering work published in 1995 and not without its errors):
#2235 [page 472] *si'uem- "cereal" [Note: there is an umlaut over the u]
Eg shm'y "barley" (OK)
Metathesis. Vocalic -y.
Then Professor Orel gives the following evidence for the word in Chadic and other Sahelian languages:
CCh *siHum- "seed", "millet", "corn": Mba siyom, Bata sume, Bud shimo.
Mba -y- < *-H-.
ECh *siHVm- "sorghum": Bid sima.
What we see here is the magic of a loanword from Egyptian into neighboring African languages. (I'm not sure Professor Orel identifies the grain as a loanword though--a whopping error. The grain takes its name from a specific region of Egypt.) Upon entering the languages of the Sahel (or doubtless prior to that time), the word undergoes a metathesis, which is not an uncommon thing for Egyptian words ending in ayin (a gutteral consonant). What that means is that the ayin and the mim trade places: shm' becomes sh'm. The center of the word, when rendered into English, has to account for the metathesis: she'ym and she'um both work.
And that's how we get sheum.
Book of Mormon sheum is thus "Upper Egyptian"--grain, that is--grain serving as a "Brotkorn" (used for bread). No wonder the Prophet left it untranslated. How would you have liked to translate all that into English?
Is there any hope for the neas?
I turn again to Professor Orel:
#1849 [page 399]
*nawac- [the c with diacritic is an s] "wine, beer"
Sem [that is, Proto-Semitic] *na[w]as- "kind of beer": Akk nashu.
Eg wnsh.t "wine" (XIX).
I always examine Brigham Young University's Book of Mormon Onomasticon prior to posting on Book of Mormon names. An update for neas in the Onomasticon, dated 2 June 2011--a month after my original 30 April 2011 posting--lists nashu beer (Late Babylonian: KASH nashu) and similar words under "highly questionable" etymologies. We further find in the updated entry for sheum (again, 2 June 2011), several "suggestions unlikely," among which newly appear "shm'.t, 'granary,' and shm', 'southern,' which is used to refer to a type of grain." The rejection of the word follows upon its "final weak nature." Alas! we catch a whiff of the dictionary, of dry-as-dust book grammar. "Southern"? A mere "type of grain"? A "final weak nature"? (Hint: that's why metathesis happens in the first place.)
I say the categories "etymologies," "questionable," and "highly questionable" all add up to the same thing. Besides, as we all know, when an idea is taken seriously enough to be put under such intense scrutiny--highly questioned--it often comes out with flying colors. Let us have no etymologies that are not "highly questionable!"
Still let's forget about Orel's proposed etymology for the Egyptian word wnsh.t (wine). I don't buy it. On the other hand, a Proto-Semitic noun *naas or *nawas something recalls Zeniff's neas. If sheum might have been the grain for Nephite bread (a world-famous Egyptian variety); neas could then be a wheat or barley used for healthful drinks.
Now I don't know if Zeniff actually drank the stuff, but if he did I'm sure it was a lot better for him than his son's grapes. I can see tough old Zeniff quaffing a healthful postum; Noah became a winebibber. That's how it goes. . .
Copyright 2011 by Val Sederholm