Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Zerahemnah, Zarahemla, and the phonological l/n variant

For the student of Semitic phonology, the Book of Mormon name Zerahemnah trips the wire. Little bells start to ring.

The Book of Omni starts us off with Zarahemla, the leader of the Mulekites and the namesake of their great city. We thereafter meet the city of Zarahemla on every page, but in Alma's book, the name Zerahemnah, the Zoramite captain, brings us up short.

Are Zarahemla and Zerahemnah variants of the same name? Professor Jo Ann Hackett "suggested [Zerahemnah] was either a mistake or a confusion in pronunciation," on the part of the modern scribes or typesetters (BYU's Book of Mormon Onomasticon, q.v. Zerahemnah). Since the record keepers duly inform us of the tribal divisions of the Nephites: Nephites, Jacobites, Josephites, and Zoramites, not to mention the Mulekites, with whom the Nephites (and the Jacobites, Josephites, and Zoramites) later united, we can rest assured that Zera- or Zarahemnah is neither mistake nor confusion, but simply variant or even dialect. The Mulekites perhaps pronounced Zarahemla one way, and the four Nephite tribes (or even each of the four), another. The Zoramites, though also affiliated with the Nephites, yet maintained a separate identity throughout the centuries: the pronunciation Zerahem-nah leaves a trace of that separateness. And doubtless many other students have come to the same conclusion about Zerahemnah.

Royal Skousen, in his study of both the Original and Printer's Manuscripts of the Book of Mormon, notes four distinct spellings for Zerahemnah: thus also Zarahemnah and Zerahemna--and even Zarahemlah (Alma 44:12, Original Ms.; Analysis of the Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, 4:2456). Before we credit Joseph or Oliver or both with the a/e or l/n mix-up, we first should take into account the ear of Alma. Alma confusing Zarahemlah for Zarahemnah, if but once, is the very thing a Zoramite would expect of a Nephite. 

Mormon diligently edited Alma, yet given the tribal tally, it would come as a surprise if traces of dialect did not pop up. Consider the following reference, not to Alma's ear, but to his mouth and tongue: "Behold my beloved brethren, seeing that I have been permitted to come unto you [in the Valley of Gideon], therefore I attempt to address you in my own language; yea, by my own mouth" (Alma 7:2; cf. Hebrew lashon, tongue, speech, language). I recall Hugh Nibley saying this verse referred to dialects: Alma's people had lived hundreds of miles away from the main body of the Nephites for three generations, and many of these people, on returning "home," had later chosen the Valley of Gideon, named for their own tribal hero, as their new, and separate, home.

Then what of Zerahemnah? Those who study Semitic languages note the fluidity of the consonants (or even semi-vowels) r, l, and n. We recall the allophone l/n in other languages, e.g., the Mandarin word for cold: leng v. neng (Taiwan). Some students even take r, l, and n for allophones of a sole original Proto-Semitic phoneme. But not only does the lengthy record attest many instances of shift or neutralization between Semitic l and n, Edward Lipinski assures us that "The variation l/n is a surviving feature of Afro-asiatic," Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar (2001), 142 (see pages 139ff.).

So common is the l/n variation, whether allophonic or truly dialectal, that its absence in a large record like the Book of Mormon would be baffling. The example Professor Lipinski gives for the "surviving feature" is the Hebrew word for speech itself, lashon. While the corresponding Egyptian word is written ns, both Demotic and Coptic, the later forms of the language, give the spelling las. We mustn't mind the earlier spelling: the Egyptians, from the earliest times, pronounced the word /las/, though /nas/ would also have been heard on the streets of Memphis.

If you have Zarahemla, you've simply got to have Zerahemnah too. 

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