V. The GAEL’s Degrees and the Structure of Abraham 1:2b-3

Two related features of the GAEL that have been the focus of the most controversy and puzzlement are how one character might represent much longer English texts, and the GAEL’s use of a five-fold system of degrees to expand a character’s potential meaning.

Prior installments (if you haven’t read these yet, you should)
I. Putting the grammar back in GAEL
II. What Joseph Smith Would Have Known About Champollion
III. What Joseph Smith Knew About Champollion
IV. The GAEL and the structure of Abraham 1:1-2a

In general, all the characters in each part of the GAEL are repeated five times, once in each degree. As one reads from the first to the fifth degree (opposite their physical arrangement), their definitions tend to become more expansive, or more precise, or are augmented in other ways, especially in the fifth degree. The extensive English equivalents of single characters or groups of characters has usually been attributed to Egyptomanic enthusiasm for the limitless potential of hieroglyphics or dismissed as linguistic speculation on the part of Joseph Smith’s scribes, while the five degree system has mostly led to puzzlement. In the following posts, I will attempt to clarify these features, propose their linguistic model, and explain the implications for how we understand the GAEL.

The GAEL’s first and longest grammatical lecture, on pages 1-2, explains how a character’s meaning can be increased or diminished by adding horizontal lines above or below.

By inserting a straight mark over it thus, (2) it increases its signification five degrees: by inserting two straight lines, thus: (3) its signification is increased five times more. By inserting three straight lines thus (4) its signification is again increased five times more than the last. By counting the numbers of straight lines or considering them as qualifying adjectives we have the degrees of comparison.There are five connecting parts of speech in the above character, called Za-ki an hish. These five connecting parts of speech, for verbs, participles, prepositions, conjunctions, and adverbs. In translating this character, this subject must be continued until there are as many of these connecting parts of speech used as there are connections or connecting parts found in the character. But whenever the character is found with one horizontal line, as at (2) the subject must be continued until twice <five times> the number of connecting parts of speech are used; or, the full sense of the writer is not conveyed. When two horizontal lines occur, the number of connecting parts of speech are continued five times further—or five degrees. And when three horizontal lines are found, the number of connections are to be increased five time further. The character alone has 5 parts of speech; increase by one straight line thus: 5×5 is 25; by 2 horizontal lines thus: 25 x 5 = 125; and by 3 horizontal lines thus: 125 x 5 = 625.

What does it mean for a character to “increases its signification five degrees”? It might be something as innocuous as the “degrees of comparison,” just like our three-part “big/bigger/biggest” comparisons in English. The possibility of adding parts of speech exponentially, reaching as many as 625, sounds much more alarming. (Contrary to what Vogel suggests, further exponential expansion beyond that is not foreseen by the GAEL, however.[1]) It would be helpful if there were an example.

Fortunately, there is one, although it’s been overlooked. At the bottom of page 2 of the GAEL, a new section begins after a horizontal line with the character Ahbrahoam and its fifth-degree definition.

Then page 3 of the GAEL begins with the character Kiahbroam-Kiahbrahoam-zubzooloan, over which a horizontal line has been placed “to raise its signification” as described above.

The JSPP doesn’t remark on the horizontal line above the character, perhaps seeing it only as a separator from the word “Character” above, but there is no other case in the GAEL where a horizontal line separates a character from the heading, although there would have been further opportunities to have done so; there is a horizontal line at the top of a column on page 30, but it has neither a character directly below it, nor a heading above it.

Immediately following this, the character is graphically dissected and a definition of Kiahbrahoam is provided.

As seen before in the case of Zakioan-hiash, here again the GAEL presents a character as an illustration of a grammatical point (in this case, the use of a line to raise the degree of signification), dissects the character, and provides definitions of other relevant characters. Ahbrahoam is new, while Ki (the compound form of Iota) and Zubzooloan have already been treated, so their definitions are not repeated. What we see from line 10 and the following is that the character Kiahbroam-kiahbrahoam-zubzooloan consists, just as the name implies, of Kiahbrahoam, itself a compound of Ki (“see, saw, seeing or having seen”) and Ahbrahoam, repeated twice, followed by Zubzooloan (“The first born, or the first man or fathers”).

To see the impact of the horizontal line, we have to turn to the Book of Abraham. In manuscript C, the character Kiahbrahoam-kiahbrahoam-zubzooloan is keyed to Abraham 1:2b-3. While we can recognize the definition of Kiahbrahoam nested within the text and some concepts from the definition of Zubzooloan, the structure of the text isn’t clear until we factor in the horizontal bar. Consider the following comparison of the text with the definitions of degrees 1 through 5 in succession for both of these characters.

Degree GAEL definition: Ahbrahoam Abraham 1:2b-3
1 Father of the faithful. The first right— The elder
2 A follower of righteousness Having been a follower of righteousness;
3 One who possesses great knowledge desiring to be one who possessed great Knowledge;
4 A follower of righteousness a possessor of greater knowledge a greater follower of righteousness; a possessor of greater Knowledge;?
5 A father of many nations a prince of peace, and one who keeps the commandments of God. A patriarch a rightful heir, a high priest a father of many nations; a prince of peace; one who keeps the commandments of God; a rightful heir; a high priest,

A similar expansion of Ahbrahoam across decrees is also found in one of the Egptian Alphabet manuscripts.[2] If the first degree of Ahbrahoam seems to be missing, it may be worth considering that this sequence immediately follows after the explication of the same name in Abraham 1:2a.

If we then consider the definitions of Zubzooloan across five degrees, we see much the same thing.

Degree GAEL definition: Zubzooloan Abraham 1:2-3
1 The beginning of time holding the right belonging to the fathers, from the beginning of time;
2 The first of anything even from the beginning,
3 Before some other time or before the foundation of the earth, down to the present time;
4 Pointing to some particular subject
5 The first born, or the first man or fathers or fathers even the right of the first born, or the first man, who is Adam, or first father, through ?the fathers, unto me.

Just as the GAEL had instructed, “By inserting a straight mark over [a character] […] it increases its signification five degrees.” What we see here is that the bar over Kiahbroam-Kiahbrahoam-zubzooloan led to both elements of the character being expanded over their range of definitions up to degree five. In Dan Vogel’s view, the character Kiahbroam-kiahbrahoam-zubzooloan “is a compound character and therefore cannot be attached to any specific word or phrase.”[3] But the character in fact corresponds to all of the text of Abraham 1:2b-3 that appears next to it in manuscript C, and in precisely the way that the GAEL describes. Just as we saw with Zakioan-hiash and Ahbrahoam, the first two characters in manuscript C, the GAEL provides instructions for the third character should be interpreted, with definitions of relevant characters provided where needed to understand a textual example from the Book of Abraham.

Based on stylistic considerations, Chris Smith argued that the translation of Abraham 1:3 is dependent on the GAEL: “It bears repeating that these three verses are choppy and redundant, and flow much more poorly than the remainder of the Book of Abraham. Our conclusion must be that they are so because they were derived from a number of lengthy, nonnarrative Alphabet and Grammar entries that have been spliced together with relatively little connecting material.”[4] But the text isn’t “spliced together” from the GAEL. The text of Abraham 1:3 instead takes its present form because of rules for expanding the signification of a character explained in the GAEL itself, and for which Abraham 1:3 is meant to serve as the primary example.

* * *

Next time: Other linguistic influences on the GAEL. For real this time.


[1] Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics, 104.

[2] See the discussion in Givens and Hauglid, The Pearl of Greatest Price, 174–75; Brian M. Hauglid, “The Book of Abraham and the Egyptian Project: ‘A Knowledge of Hidden Languages,’” in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2015), 494; Hauglid, “Translating an Alphabet to the Book of Abraham,” 278–79.

[3] Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics, 11.

[4] Smith, “Dependence of Abraham,” 52.

10 comments for “V. The GAEL’s Degrees and the Structure of Abraham 1:2b-3

  1. You have convinced me that the grammar and the book of Abraham text are inextricably linked. The degrees thing never made much sense to me and I think I kind of understand it and maybe how Joseph and his compatriots thought of it.

    But they both show a profound misunderstanding of the Egyptian language and writing system.

  2. Brian, I’ve got two more posts on factual observations, one short and one on the longer side, and then I’ll try to wrap this up with a post or two on what I think Joseph Smith was doing and what to make of it. Thanks for reading along and your comments so far.

    Mark, I’ll try to at least maintain the interest level. The next two posts aren’t quite as focused on minutiae and various odd ink strokes.

  3. I remember hearing talk of the idea that maybe what they were really up to (with those documents) was trying find their way back to the original Adamic language. I never really bought into that idea–or any other idea really–because I’ve never known enough about the subject to make any kind of determination one way or the other. Even so I can’t help but feel this little nagging — which is probably the mystic in me — that maybe they actually were trying to formulate an heavenly language of sorts; one that increases by degrees in association with an ascent through higher degrees of reckoning and glory.

    If you think that’s goofy–you’re probably right.

  4. Along the lines of degrees and ascent as a mystic thing, I believe there are actually some pretty solid parallels in Freemasonry that might have come into play here too. I can go hunting for the exact thing I’m thinking of tomorrow.

  5. Chad, I’d be interested in what you find, although my view for now is that the GAEL is a pretty un-mystical document. To me it looks like raising a character by five degrees mostly means fairly mundane things, like adjectival comparison or expanding on a definition.

  6. I’ve wondered if the scriptures might have some vestiges of these “higher degrees” of language. I think of the first half of 3 Nephi 21 wherein the words of the Savior have so many digressions that’s they’re almost funny. But if we think of those digressions as perhaps being an artifact of an higher degree of expression that’s been “flattened out” (so to speak) in order to be intelligible at the lowest degree–then the pattern begins to make sense (to me at least).

    Of course that pattern may be nothing more than an ancient form of rhetoric. Even so, one would have to explain why that pattern seems to be most prevalent when the Savior is speaking in his own words–more than anywhere else in the Book of Mormon so far as I can tell.

    That said, as I hinted at above–it could be that what we’re dealing with is language patterns that are multidimensional (for lack of a better way of putting it) in the sense that a word or phrase might act as a node where various branches of thought intersect or connect. Of course such a dynamic presupposes an higher power of intellect (in order to process it) than we now possess–a “higher math” as Nibley put it.

    At any rate, if that idea has anything at all to do with the development of the GAEL then it could mean that there was a profoundly spiritual component to the venture that we may never be privy to.

    See? Wha’d I tell ya? *Mystic*.


    P.S. Jonathan, may I ask: where can I find the scholarship you were referring to? Has someone taken these ideas beyond what Brian Hauglid has proposed? I’d be very interested in reading up on that. Thanks–and sorry for the threadjack.

  7. Jack, the place to start would be David Golding, “‘Eternal Wisdom Engraven upon the Heavens’: Joseph Smith’s Pure Language Project,” in Producing Ancient Scripture: Joseph Smith’s Translation Projects in the Development of Mormon Christianity, ed. Brian M. Hauglid, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Michael Hubbard MacKay (University of Utah Press, 2020), 331–62. Several other essays in that volume are also relevant.

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