Textual: Mormon begins the story with a synopsis. In this particular verse there are two possible ultimate sources for this information, the “official” record, or the specific record of the 16 men who departed. Quickly we will see indications that this record of the 16 is being used, either directly or because it was copied into the “official” record. In any case. the ultimate source of this text is the record of the 16.
Literary: There is slight possibility that this verse camouflages a Mesoamerican literary style. In several Mesoamerican languages a single “word” can incorporate pronouns, verbs and direct and indirect objets into the word. This ability of the languages to hold what we would consider short sentences into a word or a couple of words led to a structural parallelism that was build not on twos (repetition of an element so that there are two representations of the element) but rather a set of three where each element of the three was a different adjectival or adverbial description of the main subject.
In this verse we have Ammon as the subject, and then three descriptions. Ammon is a “strong and mighty man,” “a descendent of Zarahemla”. and “he was also their leader.”
If we assume that Joseph is translating meanings into English, and attempting to make more sense of the English than the original text (which the relative smooth reading of the English text suggests) then we might “untranslate” this verse back to possible original based on a Mesoamerican language model. Moving the terms back into a triple modifier of Ammo, and removing the English required to make better sense of the verse, we would have"
...“[they had with them] Ammon; Strong-and-mighty-man-he-was, Zarahemla-descendant-he-was, leader-he-was.”
One of the interesting aspects of this hypothetical reconstruction is that it returns Ammon’s leadership of the group to prominence rather than leave it in the nearly afterthought category it gets from the English treatment where the third element is a little too long without some other connective, and therefore the word “also” appears. n the English phrase order, the important item comes first. In he Mesoamerican literary device, the most important item comes last because the triplet moves to the mind to follow and emphasize the sequence.
Now, this exercise should not be construed as any type of proof that a Mesoamerican language was involved, only that it is a possibility, and also a caution on similar discoveries of Hebraisms in the text. It is possible that this feature appears accidentally. Nevertheless, since the reconstruction makes more sense of he order than the current English, it is a possibility worth speculation.
4 And now, they knew not the course they should travel in the wilderness to go up to the land of Lehi-Nephi; therefore they wandered many days in the wilderness, even forty days did they wander.
Geographic: Distances in the Book of Mormon are noted in time. The 40 days given for the distance between Nephi and Zarahemla is based upon the journey of Ammon’s party. However, it appears that this particular length of time includes time searching, and does not depict a specific route, as Alma and his converts make essentially the same journey in reverse in 21 days (Mosiah 18:1-7; 23:1-3; 24:20,25) (See Sorenson, John L. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Deseret Book, 1985, p. 7).
Historical: When Mosiah I and his people left the Land of Nephi it was in haste and apparent threat. While they may have had a general idea of the direction they would travel in, they had no specific destination in mind. Clearly they did not map their route, and probably did not take a direct route to reach Zarahemla. When Ammon and his group departed for the land of Nephi, they did not know the way because it was not originally mapped, and because there were no consistent trade routes returning to the land of Nephi. Since the departure of Mosiah until this time there do not appear to have been any direct attempts at trade. Thus the people of Zarahemla know nothing of the people who left, nor have they relations with the Lamanites in area those people went to.
The forty days given here is possibly a symbolic number indicating a long time (40 years in the wilderness for the Exodus or 4x10 for a symbolic number based on the Mesoamerican fascination with the number 4). However, it is equally possible that it is a rounded number for approximately that many days. Certainly Ammon’s group had to have something to go on, and without a direct map, they would have relied on the amount of time it took for Mosiah I and his people to travel from Nephi to Zarahemla. This distance would never be the precise distance for Mosiah and his group, but a general number of days would give Ammon an indication of when they might have traveled too far.