“Their Language Had Become Corrupted”

Alan C. Miner

How did the Mulekite language become "corrupted" (Omni 1:17)? According to John Sorenson, based on what historical linguists know about language change, it is highly unlikely that if Hebrew had been the exclusive tongue of Mulek's party, their idiom would have changed in three hundred years so as to be unintelligible to Mosiah. If a Phoenician vessel was used, those aboard it quite surely would have been socially and culturally diverse. . . .

The size of the party accompanying Mulek is not even hinted at. However, we are justified in making some fairly firm inferences. Even if only a single vessel made the trip--and there might have been more than one--a substantial crew would have been involved (Phoenician ships could be large as those used by Columbus). The number of crew members would likely have been more than twenty. A ship with a predominantly Israelite crew probably could not have been found; the people of Judah were largely landlubbers, with minor exceptions. In terms of culture, ethnicity, and language, the crew would likely have been a heterogeneous, mixed-Mediterranean lot, for the term Phoenician often did not signify an ethnically uniform group. And since we know nothing of who might have been passengers (Mulek was one, though clearly he must have had attendants along, in view of his relative youth), we cannot tell if women were brought. There could have been some, but the common crewmen would have been single. Their genes would have continued only by their finding native women in the new land. Nibley saw Greek names in the Nephite record (An Approach, p. 290). It would not be surprising for certain Greek (or Egyptian, for that matter) influences to have reached America via men in the crew of Mulek's ship. [John Sorenson, "The Mulekites," F.A.R.M.S., pp. 10, 11]

In addition, about 200 languages were spoken in Mesoamerica alone, and seven times that many were used throughout the Americas at the time the European discoverers reached America." . . . The Hebrew and Egyptian tongues were not found among them. These facts warn us that we had better read with extreme care the few Book of Mormon statements about language, particularly those that might refer to Hebrew or Egyptian. . . .

In the south-central Mexico and isthmus area, localized cultures are shown by archaeology to have persisted across the Jaredite-Nephite time boundary despite the spectacular collapse of the main "Olmec" (Jaredite) civilization. The people of Zarahemla must have been involved in one of those bridging groups (making Omni 1:17 understandable.) [John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, F.A.R.M.S., pp. 74, 87]

Omni 1:17 Their language had become corrupted ([Illustration]): Distribution of Mesoamerican Words for Corn. [John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America, p. 25]

“Their Language Had Become Corrupted”

According to Brant Gardner, a strong connection to Mesoamerican cultural conditions comes with the flight of Mosiah1 and his followers into the land of Zarahemla. There they found the people of Zarahemla whose "language had become corrupted" (Omni 1:17). In the ethnohistory of Mesoamerica, the Olmec, with their heartland in Veracruz, Mexico, were the dominant politico-cultural influence prior to the rise of the Maya city-states. The transition from Olmec to Maya was not abrupt in either time or space. There was land that lay between the homeland of the Olmec and the Maya and which created a buffer zone between the two major cultural groups. This buffer zone is precisely the area where the Limited Tehuantepec Theory places the land of Zarahemla.

The Nephites arrived there from the land of Nephi. The Mulekites had apparently recently arrived, traveling away from their more ancestral homeland. From the approximate time of the Mulekite landing to the founding of Zarahemla we have on the order of three hundred years during which the ancestors of the Zarahemlaites were somewhere in between their landing area and the location of Zarahemla. The land through which they passed matches well with the Olmec homelands in the Gulf of Mexico. These are the same lands that match well with the homeland of the Book of Mormon Jaredites. The sojourn of the people of Zarahemla in the Olmec/Jaredite lands provides ample explanation for the corruption of their language and the loss of their God reported in Omni. (Omni 1:17)

New research on the linguistics of this area may have interesting implications for the Book of Mormon. The best candidate for the language of the Olmecs is Mixe-Zoque, a reconstructed language that fits the geographical distribution of Olmec culture, and the glotto-chronological time depth. After the time of the Olmecs, the proto-language split into two branches, the Mixe and the Zoque, each of which still occupies the greater geographic area of the Olmec homeland. So it is of interest that recently a stela was found dating to approximately A.D. 160. It contained over 540 glyphs representing a glyphic writing system separate from the Maya. Although it is classified as "epi" because the texts post-date the archaeological Olmec, it reads in Zoquean, and is the largest single text of a geographical location of the texts.

The implication for Book of Mormon studies is the geography and cultural associations of this separate glyphic system. A shard with the Epi-Olmec writing system was found in Chiapa de Corzo. Chiapa de Corzo is located in the Chiapas Depression. The Chiapas Depression is the area in which are found the ruins of Santa Rosa, a candidate for the local land of Zarahemla in the theories of both John Sorenson and Joseph Allen. Of course that location fits with Zarahemla as a site with Olmec/Jaredite influences. This suggests that the land of Zarahemla should have cultural associations with the Olmec area. [Brant Gardner, "A Social History of the Early Nephites," delivered at the FAIR Conference, August 17, 2001, pp. 7-9]

Omni 1:17 Their language had become corrupted ([Illustration]): The Mixe-Zoque/Maya Interaction Zone. Map showing distribution of major culture areas in Mesoamerica as related to Izapa and a highly idealized zone of Mixe-Zoque/Maya interaction; in Preclassic times the zone of interaction may have curved closer to the Usumacinta River and its tributaries (compare Map of the Greater Isthmus Area and Linguistic Map of Eastern Mesoamerica). [Gareth W. Lowe, Thomas Lee Jr., and Eduardo Martinez Espinoza, Izapa: An Introduction to the Ruins and Monuments, p. 306]

Omni 1:17 Their language had become corrupted ([Illustration]): Map of the Greater Isthmus Area. Relating Izapa to some other major southern Mesoamerica archaeological sites, indicated by triangles. Shaded zone indicates the Soconusco district or region, famous for commerce . . . [Gareth W. Lowe, Thomas Lee Jr., and Eduardo Martinez Espinoza, Izapa: An Introduction to the Ruins and Monuments, Frontispiece]

Omni 1:17 Their language had become corrupted ([Illustration]): Linguistic Map of Eastern Mesoamerica. Showing approximate distribution of the Mixe-Zoquean and Mayan language groups at the time of the Conquest. . . . [Gareth W. Lowe, Thomas Lee Jr., and Eduardo Martinez Espinoza, Izapa: An Introduction to the Ruins and Monuments, p. 9]

Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon: A Cultural Commentary