Linguistic notes on the 1843 letter to the Green Mountain Boys

Joseph Smith’s 1843 appeal to the Green Mountain Boys, ghostwritten by W. W. Phelps and published in (the original) Times and Seasons contains a series of foreign language quotations that are interesting not only because they include using the GAEL as a source for Egyptian.The best study of the quotations is Sam Brown’s article “The Translator and the Ghostwriter: Joseph Smith and W. W. Phelps” in Journal of Mormon History 34 (2008). I have a few comments to add to Sam’s work.

Here’s how the foreign language quotations begin:

Were I a Chaldean I would exclaim: Keed’nauh ta-meroon le-hoam elauhayauh dey-shemayauh veh aur’kau lau gnaubadoo, yabadoo ma-ar’gnau oomeen tehoat shemayauh allah. (Thus shall ye say unto them: The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens.) An Egyptian, Su-e-eh-ni; (What other persons are those?) A Grecian, Diabolos bassileuei; (The Devil reigns.) A Frenchman, Messieurs sans Dieu; (Gentlemen without God.) A Turk, Ain shems; (The fountain of light.)

In his notes, Sam points out that the Chaldean (Aramaic) quotation, taken from Jeremiah 10:11, one of the known Aramaic Bible verses, is largely correct; the Egyptian word is from the GAEL; and the Greek and the French are generally correct. For the Turkish, Sam suggests a reference to the Alevi religious festival ayini cem, which he glosses as “a gathering of ritual music,” but the actual explanation is much dumber: Ain shems isn’t Turkish. It’s the Arabic words shams ain /?ayn šams/, “eye/fountain of the sun” (with similar words and synonymy in Hebrew, with a close but not quite as exact phonetic fit; a real Semiticist should weigh in). Ain Shams is also an Egyptian university and a suburb of Cairo.

Sam identifies two additional phrases that are still a mystery:

A Syrian, Zaubok; (Sacrifice!)

A Polander: Nav-yen-shoo bah pon na Jesu Christus; (Blessed be the name of Jesus Christ.)

Zaubok doesn’t give us much to go on. It’s  probably another case for the Semiticists. Navyenshoo bah pon na doesn’t scan in Polish, but it looks kinda Slavic-ish. Suggestions are welcome; just keep in mind that the language may not be Polish or closely related to Polish, and the meaning may differ somewhat from “Blessed be the name.”

And then there’s this:

A western Indian: She-mo-kah she-mo-keh teh ough-ne-gah. (The white man, O the white man, he very uncertain.)

Sam Brown notes that the phrase has been identified as Lenape, and I think that’s plausible. Sam cites 1857 correspondence from the Belgian Jesuit Pierre de Smet, published in 1859 in Précis Historiques 188, where a similar phrase is glossed in French:

O Shemoka, Shemoka, ugh nega! O Blanc, ô Blanc, tu as été bien injuste à notre égard! (“O white man, o white man, you have been very unfair to us”)

We’re clearly dealing with a closely related version of the same phrase. But de Smet was writing15 years after Phelps, and oddly enough also wrote about the founding of the Church, the Mormon pioneers and their struggles with the U.S. government. Could the phrase simply have been transmitted from Phelps via writings about the early Church to de Smet?

That doesn’t seem to be the case. “The white man is very uncertain” as purported Native American (and less often, enslaved African American or African) speech shows up in various nineteenth-century America sources. Let’s just say that most of these aren’t the finest moments of nineteenth-century American literature.

In 1828, the New York Mirror and Ladies Literary Gazette printed a story with the line, “But white man very uncertain, as the Indians say.” An 1836 article in the same source about the theater again referred to the “Indian saying ‘white man very uncertain.’” An 1839 publication from Iowa likewise states of one person that “he is like the Indian’s White Man, very uncertain.”

In addition, there are a number of cases of shemoka used as purported Native American speech to mean “white man.” An 1881 History of Lee County (Illinois) states that local Indians had referred to a Mr. Kelsey as a “good shemoka man,” while a Mr. Griggs was a “‘shemoka squaw ishnoba,’ no good.” An 1889 Portrait and Biographical Album of Louisa County, Iowa, some 100 miles to the southwest of Lee County and 45 miles north of Nauvoo, states that the Indians “gave to Mr. Higbee the name of ‘Good Shemoka Man,’ meaning good white man.”

Does this purported Native American phrase have any basis in reality? I think so, although a specialist in Algonquian languages would be a better judge. John Heckewelder’s Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations reports that the Mohicans “called the whites by way of derision, Schwannack, which signifies salt beings, or bitter beings; for in their language the word Schwan, is in general applied to things that have a salt, sharp, bitter, or sour taste” (131). Heckewelder’s Lenape vocabulary likewise includes the phrases chelook schwánnakwak, glossed as “many white people,” and Mattapewíwak nik schwannakwak, “the white people are a rascally set of beings” (463). Phonetically, shemoka is too similar to Schwannack to be dismissed as coincidence.

To return to the glossing of She-mo-kah she-mo-keh teh ough-ne-gah as “The white man, O the white man, he very uncertain”: There is some basis for attributing at least the word shemokah to actual Native American language, although at least that one word and the longer gloss were broadly known to white Americans in the nineteenth century and knowing them would not have required deep research into Native American languages or interaction with Native Americans themselves.

2 comments for “Linguistic notes on the 1843 letter to the Green Mountain Boys

  1. Jonathan, thank you for sharing this!

    Here is some miniscule push-back on “the actual explanation is much dumber: Ain shems isn’t Turkish. It’s the Arabic words shams ain /?ayn šams/, ‘eye/fountain of the sun'”

    Smith [Phelps?] doesn’t say Ain shems is Turkish.

    He says, “Were I a … Turk, [I would exclaim] Ain shems; (The fountain of light.)”

    So who is a “Turk”?

    I think that term was used pretty loosely in early America [?]

  2. Good point, Mark. There may well have been more Arabic-speaking citizens of the Ottoman Empire than Turkish speakers in 1843. If anyone ever figures out “Syrian” and “Polander,” it will probably involve something similar.

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