VII. The GAEL and Linguistic Typology

The GAEL provides for a mode of interpretation that finds expansive (but not unlimited) meaning in seemingly simple characters. Zakioan-hiash, as we have seen, is both a name, a word with a specific phonetic realization, and the equivalent of at least one sentence.

If you’re just joining the discussion, be sure to read these prior posts:

The equivalence of one character to a sentence is stated in the grammar explanation at the beginning of the first degree on page 20 in the GAEL: The character Beth “comprises one simple sentence for its signification.” While its signification can be increased or decreased through connection to other characters, it cannot have more than one sound in combination – and “Every character in this alphabet is subject to the above restrictions.” The general principle seems to be that each character is not just a word with a phonetic realization, but an entire sentence in itself.

To explain this element of the GAEL, it isn’t necessary to appeal to Egyptomanic excess. The GAEL explains how it generates meaning not through some mystical abundance of meaning, but in terms of grammar and “connecting parts of speech.” Something similar had been recently proposed to describe the indigenous languages of North and South America in some of the earliest work on language typology and popularized in some of the same sources noted in the discussion of Champollion. The GAEL, it appears, was attempting to describe a polysynthetic language.

The subdiscipline of linguistic typology attempts to classify the world’s languages according to various structural criteria. The earliest and best known typological framework classifies languages according to the morphological complexity of their words. The vocabulary of some languages might consist almost wholly of words containing only a single morpheme (as in the English word house), while another language might have many words built from multiple morphemes (like English clippings, with three: clip + ing + s, the last two of which are functional rather than semantic). A polysynthetic language is one whose words incorporate the largest number of morphemes, potentially with multiple nominal and verbal roots and other elements all incorporated into a single word.

The polysynthetic nature of the GAEL can be seen not only in encoding entire sentences in a single word, but also in what appear to be related words (from the second part of the GAEL) such as “Bethkee” and “Ebethkuaintrieth.” The former is defined as “a place that has been enlarged, that has been a place of residence; that has been a more fruitful garden, has been a larger place of happiness; having had greater happiness,” while the latter is defined as “a place beyond this earth, a future place of existence, a place of residence beyond this earth; the celestial world; the heavenly bodies; the earth in its most sanctified state as it shall be; eternity” (page 31; emphasis added). What is important here is that these noun constructions carry what to us would be clearly verbal meaning – in the first case, past time or perfect mood, and futurity in the second. This isn’t typical of English or other well-known languages, so we have to ask again: Where did the idea come from? What was the model for marking noun for tense?

­At the time the GAEL was written, polysyntheticism and language typology itself had only recently been proposed and they represented something close to the state of the art in contemporary linguistics. In 1819, the American Philological Society had published correspondence between Stephen Du Ponceau and John Heckewelder (some of whose work was in the Manchester Public Library) on the languages of North and South America.[1] Du Ponceau also described his typology of the world’s languages in his extensive preface to his translation of David Zeisberger’s Grammar of the Language of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians, published in Philadelphia in 1827. Du Ponceau proposed that all the languages of North and South American were polysynthetic, a term that Du Ponceau defined as follows:

It is that in which the greatest number of ideas are comprised in the least number of words. This is done principally in two ways. 1. By a mode of compounding locutions which is not confined to joining two words together, as in the Greek, or varying the inflection or termination of a radical word as in the most European languages, but by interweaving together the most significant sounds or syllables of each simple word, so as to form a compound that will awaken in the mind at once all the ideas singly expressed by the words from which they are taken. 2. By an analogous combination the various parts of speech, particularly by means of the verb, so that its various forms and inflections will express not only the principal action, but the greatest possible number of the moral ideas and physical objects connected with it, and will combine itself to the greatest extent with those conceptions which are the subject of other parts of speech, and in other languages require to be expressed by separate and distinct words.[2]

The GAEL, with its extensive compounds, multiplication of parts of speech and striving to express the greatest possible meaning in few words, would seem to be at home in Du Ponceau’s description of polysynthetic languages. Rather than vague gesturing toward Egyptomania and seventeenth-century ideas about the Egyptian language, we can point specifically to recent, scholarly discussions of Native American languages to find much of the GAEL’s grammatical agenda.

In an earlier exchange, Heckewalder had taken Du Ponceau to task for not yet grasping the expressive possibilities of the polysynthetic indigenous languages of North America: “I perceive you have not yet an adequate idea of the copiousness of the Indian languages, which possess an immense number of comprehensive words, expressive of almost every possible combination of ideas.”[3] “Comprehensive” was the same term used by Oliver Cowdery to describe the papyri in 1835: “The language in which this record is written is very comprehensive.”

John Heckewelder’s “Historical Account of the Indian Nations,” printed in the same volume, also praises Native American’s written communication.

The Indians do not possess our art of writing, they have no alphabets, or any mode of representing to the eye the sounds of words spoken, yet they have certain hieroglyphics, by which they describe facts in so plain a manner, that those who are conversant with those marks can understand them with the greatest ease, as easily, indeed, as we can understand a piece of writing.[4]

Du Ponceau even sees in the possibilities of polysynthetic language a certain divine potential, including an imagined recovery of the Adamic language.

To me it would appear that the perfection of language consists in being able to express much in a few words; to raise at once in the mind by a few magic sounds, whole masses of thoughts which strike by a kind of instantaneous intuition. Such in its effects must be the medium by which immortal spirits communicate with each other; such, I should think, were I disposed to indulge in fanciful theories, must have been the language first taught to mankind by the great author of all perfection.[5]

Like news of Champollion’s discoveries, Du Ponceau’s approach to language typology was rapidly popularized. It was noted in the Friend in 1831 and in the Encyclopedia Americana by 1832.[6] It’s noteworthy that Joseph Smith’s appeal to the Green Mountain Boys, ghostwritten by W. W. Phelps in 1843, includes a sample of a “Western Indian” language, which has been identified (plausibly, I think) as Lenape.[7]

Du Ponceau’s structural categorization of the world’s languages might also explain the GAEL’s five-fold degrees as a system of semantic expansion or augmentation. Du Ponceau begins his system with the least morphologically complex languages, which he terms “asyntactic” (but would today be called isolating), continues it with “analytic,” “synthetic,” and “mixed” groups, and concludes with polysynthetic languages as the fifth class. The validity and usefulness of these categories aren’t universally accepted today, but they’re still part of the conceptual toolkit of modern linguistics. Du Ponceau’s five-fold categorization, explicitly numbered one through five and culminating in the expressive complexity of Native American languages, is retained in the popularizing sources as well. The GAEL, it would seem, repurposed this five-fold classification system not to categorize languages, but as a scale of extended meanings within the grammatical system it describes. Five-fold systems of increasing linguistic complexity are uncommon, to say the least, and such a system, recently popularized and with clear potential significance for Joseph Smith’s translation program that connected Hebrew and ancient Egyptian to the indigenous languages of the Americas, offers the most likely candidate for the source of the GAEL’s five-degree system.

Sam Brown and others have noted that the GAEL includes characters with Greek and Hebrew names, which are elements drawn from the scriptural languages.[8] Characters from the “Specimen of Pure Language” make their way into the GAEL as well. We can now extend the GAEL’s multilingual nature by observing that it included grammatical elements drawn from contemporary discussions of Egyptian, Chinese and Native American languages, or the three hieroglyphic languages noted by Moses Stuart in his notes on Greppo.

* * *

That the GAEL is patterned on rather recent and, for its time, quite sound linguistic work does have some implications for how we understand the document. It might point to stronger influence from W. W. Phelps, although it’s impossible to entirely separate Joseph Smith from his associates.

Once during a pandemic-era, Zoom-enabled Mormon Studies discussion, I made the suggestion, not well received, that we don’t need to resort to esotericism as an explanation for Joseph Smith’s various linguistic projects. The GAEL is a clear example of this. The terminology and the categories are linguistic and analytic, not esoteric or mystical. We can find ready parallels in contemporary scholarly treatment of Egyptian and Native American languages and in popular dissemination of scholarly discourse. There is no need to rush to esotericism to explain elements of Joseph Smith’s work on languages when readily available linguistic studies will suffice. To understand the GAEL, look at grammars, not grimoires.

* * *

This discussion of linguistic typology was originally meant to be a fun “Isn’t that a weird connection?” stand-alone post, but I wasn’t satisfied with any of the drafts it went through, and now it’s turned into a 10,000 word (and counting) monstrosity.

This ends the (mostly) observational part of the series, but we’re not done yet. I think next time we’ll take a look at catalyst theories of revelation before getting to the final post, where I’ll try to solve the chicken-and-egg problem and explain what the GAEL is and what it tells us about Joseph Smith and revelation.


[1] Robert Paul, “Joseph Smith and the Manchester (New York) Library,” BYU Studies Quarterly 22, no. 3 (July 1, 1982): 338, 349,

[2] Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, “Report to the Committee, on the Languages of the American Indians,” American Philosophical Society, Transactions of the Historical and Literary Committe 1 (1819): xxx.

[3] Peter Stephen Du Ponceau and John Heckewelder, “Correspondence between Mr. Heckewelder and Mr. Duponceau, on the Languages of the American Indians,” American Philosophical Society, Transactions of the Historical and Literary Committe 1 (1819): 392.

[4] John Heckewelder, “An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs, of the Indian Natives Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighbouring States,” American Philosophical Society, Transactions of the Historical and Literary Committe 1 (1819): 117.

[5] Du Ponceau and Heckewelder, “Correspondence between Mr. Heckewelder and Mr. Duponceau,” 417.

[6] J. R. T., “The Indian Languages and Pennsylvania History,” The Friend: A Religious and Literary Journal, May 21, 1831; “Philology,” in Encyclopædia Americana (Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1832).

[7] Samuel Brown, “The Translator and the Ghostwriter: Joseph Smith and W. W. Phelps,” Journal of Mormon History 34, no. 1 (2008): 46 n. 91.

[8] Brown, Joseph Smith’s Translation, 214.

12 comments for “VII. The GAEL and Linguistic Typology

  1. Jonathan, thank you for your deep dive into the GAEL; although I don’t think I fully grasp much of what you say. That is why I’m looking foward to your “look at catalyst theories of revelation” and “the chicken-and-egg problem and explain what the GAEL is and what it tells us about Joseph Smith and revelation.” I can’t wait!

  2. Owl D.: Sorry for anything that’s not making sense. I can try to clarify as much as I can. The 19th century linguistics isn’t too bad, but the GAEL is maybe only 60% of the way there.

  3. Jonathan,

    Two questions: 1) I’m still fuzzy on where the additional information comes from when the signification of a word is expanded. You admit (in a previous post) that you don’t fully understand the rules for how words are expanded–and I respect that. I’m just wondering if we can be certain that the whole process is entirely “mechanical.” Or is it possible that there is a degree of nuance involved that relies on a sort of “you’ll just have to take my word for it” mind set? Kinda like when a child learns a language? Where there’s no concern for the proper grammar of a language–just an intuitive understanding of the meaning behind words and phrases? Or is it possible that one might actually be able to demonstrate, in mechanical, terms how the signification of a word can be expanded 625 times? (Wouldn’t that be the coolest thing ever?)

    2) Is it possible that there was a spiritual component to the process — I know, I’m getting mystical again — wherein the power of words were increased according to the level of spiritual enlightenment involved? Or is it at least possible that they were trying to codify the “higher math” of such a language in terms that were understandable in this temporal sphere?

  4. Jack, those are great questions. I don’t think the process was mechanical – I think the GAEL describes some of the rules, but everything we do with language involves rules while still allowing for nearly unlimited creativity. Even in the examples of increasing the signification of a character by 5 degrees that we looked at, only some words of each degree were included, so there’s a choice as to which words to include, and then more choices for how to connect the included words.

    And we have to keep in mind that for the verses we’re looking at, the translation came first. I think the GAEL describes the process from the point of view of Joseph Smith after the fact – he wasn’t referring to the GAEL and following its rules as he translated, but instead describing his experience of translation afterward. If you were to offer a prayer, and then write down how you thought the English language works based on that prayer and without any particular training in English grammar or linguistics beyond what you as a native speaker possess, you would probably end up with something like the GAEL – partially describing some important things and overlooking others.

    I don’t think the translation was possible without revelation. For now I’m avoiding any supernatural assumptions, so anyone who wants can replace “revelation” with “creativity and imagination,” but the papryi plus the GAEL aren’t enough to get you Abraham. I promised to look at catalyst theories in the next post, but it’s turning into a long slog. I’m hoping to finish everything off in the post after that with my explanation of how things fit together.

  5. Not yet sure that I agree with everything, but I’m very grateful for the expertise in linguistics—and historical linguistics—that you are bringing to bear on the GAEL. It seems you have already brought us light years ahead of where we have been.

  6. “To understand the GAEL, look at grammars, not grimoires.”

    Masterfully executed.

  7. “It’s noteworthy that Joseph Smith’s appeal to the Green Mountain Boys, ghostwritten by W. W. Phelps in 1843, includes a sample of a “Western Indian” language, which has been identified (plausibly, I think) as Lenape.”

    Could you (or do you know anyone who could) nail that down with certainty?

  8. Mark, thanks for the comments. I feel more confident about some things than others, so feel free to push and poke on the claims. Probably all the claims of specific influence can be debated, but I’m pretty certain that all the influences on the GAEL and its internal logic are linguistic and not pictographic or esoteric or anything else. It’s a grammar!

    As for the “Western Indian” phrase, it also shows up in an 1857 publication (that Sam Brown has cited), and variations on the English can be found elsewhere, so the phrase seems to be in circulation. The 1819 publication of Heckewelder/Du Ponceau has a Lenape word glossed as “white man’s something-or-other” that looks pretty similar to the sample of “Western Indian” language, so at least that part looks reasonably authentic – if not specifically Lenape, it doesn’t seem to be simply invented. I need to look up the details again, so I’ll put together a short post with a few notes about it.

  9. Jonathan,

    I find it interesting that the whole Gael “saga” is so misunderstood by us moderns. Why is that? The people involved with developing it seemed to’ve had some sense of what they were doing. Or, at least, there seems to have been some precedent that they were aware of for doing it (and that’s another valuable detail that I’ve learned from this series). So what happened? Why does it take a specialist (like yourself) to dig into this and uncover what is beginning to look like the obvious?


  10. Jack, we went for a long time without easy access to all these documents – which isn’t a criticism of anybody, it’s just really hard to do before digital technology comes along – so once this stuff becomes available again, we have to figure it out from the ground up, except now we have preconceptions about what translation should look like, and what revelation should look like.

    And I’m hardly a specialist on anything relevant, at least if anyone could agree on what the relevant specialization is. Is it 19th c. American history? Theology and religious studies? Egyptology or other ancient studies? And what field is actually willing to own all those weird medieval apocalypses, anyway?

  11. Back to the “western Indian” phrase, would this be something for which it would be good to work with Brian Stubbs?

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