VI. Non-Egyptian Linguistic Influences on the GAEL

Champollion – and Egyptian – aren’t the only influences on the GAEL.

Prior installments (go back and read these if you haven’t yet)

Let’s pause here to note that the question we’re asking isn’t Does the GAEL indicate knowledge of ancient Egyptian? or even Is the GAEL a grammar and alphabet of the Egyptian language? The question we’re pursuing is: What is the GAEL’s linguistic model, and what language or languages was it based on? The usual assumption is that the GAEL’s grammatical explanations were the product of boundless creativity, unconstrained imagination or baseless speculation. But as alien as the grammar may seem at first, we’ve seen that at least one facet of the GAEL’s grammar reflects a specific aspect of contemporary popular knowledge about ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The GAEL is based on ideas about how language works, so whatever you might think of it, trying to understand the GAEL forces us to think about where its ideas about language come from.

Beyond Champollion’s insights about the phonetic nature of hieroglyphics, there are other aspects of the GAEL’s linguistic model with clear precedents in discussions of language and linguistics in the 1820s and 1830s. In a note following the translation of Greppo’s essay on Champollion, Moses Stuart observed that Egyptian was not the only known use of hieroglyphics:

There is some special interest attached to the subject now before us. In connection with what has been before said, it shows that three of the most distinguished nations, of three different continents, viz. the Chinese in Asia, the Egyptians in Africa, and the Mexicans in America, have all hit on the like expedients to transmit their ideas to posterity. In all these facts, too, we may see the infancy of alphabetic writing, the germ from which this tree sprung, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.[1]

And the way GAEL characters like Zakioan-hiash combine their elements is specifically non-Egyptian. Instead, the GAEL’s manner of constructing complex characters precisely mirrors that found in Chinese (or rather, in the Chinese writing system as understood by Moses Stuart in 1830):

But on the other hand, there are some striking differences between the hieroglyphic system of writing and that of the Chinese. The Chinese characters are divided into primitive or simple, and derived or composite. […] The derived or composite characters of the Chinese, are exceedingly numerous; and in these are combined two or more simple characters. The combination oftentimes is very complex, and not a little difficult for a learner to decipher. […] On the contrary, in Egyptian, the combination of proper hieroglyphics is very rare; indeed it scarcely ever takes place, and when it does, it is in such a way, that the elements of the combination are preserved entirely separate….[2]

That is, Zakioan-hiash and Kiahbrahoam-Kiahbrahoam-Zubzooloan (and likely other characters as well that aren’t presented in explicitly dissected form) are meant to be understood as combinations of simpler elements in a way that is specifically non-Egyptian, but mirrors Chinese (again, as both were understood in 1830 by Moses Stuart). So we see that the GAEL’s language rules drew on aspects of two of the three languages with hieroglyphic systems known to Moses Stuart (and also popularized by the Encyclopedia Americana).[3]

Can we make it all three? Watch this space.

* * *

So did Joseph Smith consciously decide, “Hm, let’s add in a little Chinese here”? I don’t know how much was conscious, and the resemblance to Chinese writing is the part of this whole thing I’m least certain about. There’s not much more to go on than this one element of the GAEL. Then again, we do have a couple of readily accessible sources on a question of great interest to Joseph Smith and his associates, and yet when the GAEL describes how characters combine, it chooses the non-Egyptian way to do it. That’s odd and worth thinking about.

Next time: The GAEL and linguistic typology.



[1] J.-G.-Honoré Greppo, Essay on the Hieroglyphic System of M. Champollion, Jun: And on the Advantages Which It Offers to Sacred Criticism (Perkins & Marvin, 1830), 215.

[2] Greppo, 208.

[3] “Chinese Language,” in Encyclopædia Americana vol. 3 (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1830), 149–50.

2 comments for “VI. Non-Egyptian Linguistic Influences on the GAEL

  1. I’ve really enjoyed this series. You’ve helped understand that maybe the language project had less to do with deciphering Egyptian per se and more to do with culling elements from it that might help them to formulate a sacred language. That may not be what you’re going after specifically–but according to my limited lights that’s what seems to be emerging (in my mind) as I learn more about the Gael.

    Again, this series is worthy of broader publication. I hope you can find an appropriate venue.

  2. “You’ve helped *me* understand…”

    Sheesh. I’m the last person who should be talking about language.

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