What's in a name?

What's in a name?

by David Gray
May, 2012

There is an old saying that goes, “What's in a name”? Names are labels that are given to people for a number of reasons. Today, names are given to people to honor dead ancestors, to highlight some value that the parents want a child to emulate, or just because the parents like a particular name.

There are a number of assumptions that I have made when it comes to the translation of the Book of Mormon. I am in the “loose-translation” camp, that Joseph wasn't shown a word-for-word translation of the Book of Mormon; that Joseph used language conventions that he was familiar with; that unfamiliar words were conveyed to Joseph phonetically through the Urim and Thummim; that names were left untranslated.

When we look at the names in the Book of Mormon, at first there doesn't seem to be a pattern to the naming conventions of the various peoples mentioned. The only obvious ones that stand out are the sons of Helaman2, Lehi and Nephi. Helaman specifically mentioned that they were named after their ancestors. Some of the people who have names that are biblical could have been named after them, such as Joseph, Jacob, and Samuel.

As mentioned above, names are labels. The names listed above are actually Hebrew. Jacob means supplanter. He was called this because he supplanted Esau as the first born. Esau means red. The Bible states that he had a red complexion.

We can never know whether these names that we are familiar with were the actual names of the people in the Bible or were applied to them at a later date by others who were seeking to encapsulate the main event that characterized the person’s life. My name David means beloved of God. It is also the same as king David in the Bible. The name David has never been attested in the archaeological record. But there is another person whose exploit seems remarkably similar to David's who is called by another name.

The Hebrew language has a continuity of about 3500 years. It is known that the people who wrote the Bible spoke Hebrew. So we can know with a fair amount of certainty what the names mean. However, when it comes to the Book of Mormon we are on less certain ground. It was translated from the original language into English by 1830.

As has been shown from the Bible, names are generally left untranslated. It can be argued that the names in the Book of Mormon follow the same pattern and that they will provide a way to determine what the underlying language of the Book of Mormon is.

I will attempt to show that this language is Mayan. Mesoamerica is the only setting that conforms to all the parameters laid out in the Book of Mormon. There are only four written languages that have been found to date in Mesoamerica: Zapotec, Isthmusian, Mayan, and Nahua.
Nahua cannot be the language that the Book of Mormon peoples spoke and wrote, as it is a late comer to Mesoamerica, arriving in Central Mexico in about 1000 AD. Epigraphers do not consider Nahua to have been a written language before Spanish conquest. Writing was developing but it was only at a rudimentary stage.

Isthmusian is the next language that we should consider. There are at the moment too few texts available to determine whether this could be the language of the Book of Mormon peoples. Epigraphers speculate that this could be the language used by the Olmecs. Most LDS scholars believe that the Olmec and Jaredites are the same group.

While Zapotec could be the language of Book of Mormon peoples, it is highly unlikely. There are only a few texts that have been found and they are restricted to the Oaxaca valley, with some being found on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The geographic distribution of the language doesn't fit with the geography outlined in the Book of Mormon. But it can't be totally ruled out as a possible language used for writing the Book of Mormon, as it is a very condensed language and would be ideal for writing on the plates.

The final language, and the one that is best attested in Mesoamerica, having over 10,000 texts in its corpus, is Mayan. John Montgomery's guide to Mayan provides a simple outline of the Mayan language.
The Mayan language represented a hieroglyphic writing system, and offers some challenges to the speakers of European languages. Certain sounds approximate English ones but others have no English equivalent. There are also a few English sounds that have no counterpart in Mayan.

Glottal stops

Mayan incorporates a distinctive sound that linguists call the "glottal stop”. This functions as an important element, both in the many different dialects of Mayan and in the hieroglyphic writing system. When transcribing hieroglyphs or their Mayan equivalent, (') represents the glottal stop, which sounds similar to the stoppage of air in the English "uh-oh" or in "button" when spoken rapidly. Pronounced simultaneously with a vowel or consonant that accompanies it, the glottal stop gives the word a characteristic "pop.”


Vowels and consonants that include the glottal stop can make a difference in the meaning of a word. For example, KAB' means earth, yet K'AB' means hand, and KAB means bee. Thus the glottal stop can sometimes, but not always, change the meaning of a word. The presence of glottal stops affects vowels and consonants in different ways. Theoretically, a glottal stop precedes every vowel that begins a word or stands alone, such as in 'o, but in such instances no change in meaning occurs. In contrast, several but not all glottalized consonants do modify the meaning of a word. Mayan has five such consonants. It also had 19 other consonants. The Mayan language lacks D, F, and V, while making substitution for C, G, J, Q, and Z. R is rarely used and generally L or Y are used instead. B', Ch, Ch', J, K, K', L, M, N, P, P', S, T, T', Tz, Tz', X, W, Y.

Tz is pronounced like the ts in toots. X is pronounced sh. Everything else is pronounced the same as in Spanish.


As the Spanish people are those who first translated the Mayan languages, the pronunciation is the same as in Spanish, but Mayan language also has long vowels and short vowels. Long vowels are presented by doubling the vowel. The lengthening of the vowel can change the meaning of the word. For example, Kan is snake but Kaan is sky.

David Stuart outlines two other important aspects of the Mayan language that need to be taken into consideration. They are vowel synharmony and word structure. Vowel synharmony means that if it is possible, all the vowels in the word should be the same. An example from the Book of Mormon would be Laman.

Most Mayan words have a word structure of Consonant {C}, Vowel {v}. The most frequently found word pattern is CvCvC{v}. The last v is in brackets, because, while it was written that way, when pronounced the last letter would remain silent.

Using the name Laman again as an example. I can easily convert it into Mayan: La Ma Na.
If Mayan is the language that Mormon spoke, then the symbols he used to write his record were also Mayan symbols. This presents a problem for Joseph Smith when he came to translating the language into English because, as outlined above, glottalized consonants and long vowels are not available in English so some substitution would had to have taken place. It is hard to know exactly what the original symbols would have been by comparing how the Maya transliterate their language into English today, and how Joseph Smith may have transliterated the language to portray the meaning of the record to his English-speaking readers. We can arrive at a rough approximation of what the original meaning of the name might have been. I have discovered a pattern in the Book of Mormon when it comes to the introduction of characters.

In 1 Nephi 2:9

And when my father saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea, he spake unto Laman, saying: O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!

As mentioned above, in Mayan, Laman is La Ma N(a). La Ma means, ends not. While I could be in error, I take 'continually running' and 'ends not' to mean the same thing. The other way that the name can be presented is by adding in the meaning of the last Cv group Na which means house. So we get “ends not house” or the better parsing would be “house that ends not.” Nephi knew that Laman’s and Lemuel's seed would eventually destroy the Nephites. This is just speculation on my part, but what better way to torment Nephi than taking the name Laman. A continual reminder that their house would not end but Nephi's would.

1 Nephi 2:10

And he also spake unto Lemuel: O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!
Hem Nal is the Mayan phrase for valley place. It might just be coincidence that Lemuel and Hem Nal sound so similar and both are referenced as valleys. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether a correlation is there.

1 Nephi 2:16

And it came to pass that I, Nephi, being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, and also having great desires to know of the mysteries of God, wherefore, I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father; wherefore, I did not rebel against him like unto my brothers.
I would like to argue that the name Nephi is short for the Hebrew word Nephilim. It was a name bestowed upon Nephi by his older brothers. But like the name Christian and Mormon, which were first considered pejoratives, were adopted by the groups as an honorific. It was the same for Nephi.

Wikipedia states:
"Nephilim" (נְפִילִים
) probably derives from the Hebrew root npl (נָפַל), "to fall" which also includes "to cause to fall" and "to kill, to ruin.” The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon gives the meaning as "giants." Robert Baker Girdlestone2 argued the word comes from the Hiphil causative stem. Adam Clarke took it as passive, "fallen", and “apostates.” Ronald Hendel states that it is a passive form "ones who have fallen,” equivalent grammatically to paqid "one who is appointed" (i.e. overseer), asir, "one who is bound” (i.e. prisoner), etc.

Nephi can also be translated into Mayan as Ne Pi. But I have as yet been unable to determine the meaning of the symbols. Each of these meanings of the word Nephilim applies to Nephi. He killed Laban. He was appointed ruler over his brothers. His brothers could have considered him apostate for not following them.

There is another aspect where the Book of Mormon conforms to Mayan naming practices and that is when it comes to the mentioning of females. In Mayan, the compound Ix is always included in the names of females. Of particular interest is the woman Abish. She is described as a Lamanitish woman. Once again the pattern that I have outlined above is followed with Abish. There are three ways that Abish can be separated into its Mayan components. Ah Bi Ix, which would gloss as “your traveling female,” which corresponds to the tale that is told about her traveling among the people to show them that a wonderful event had happened to the King and Queen. Ab Ix can also mean year female. Possibly designating that she was assigned to serve the queen for a year. It can also mean Ab Hix - year of the Jaguar. By converting the name into Mayan we can gain a much deeper understanding of what is happening in the Book of Mormon.

The non personal names that we have in the Book of Mormon might be able to help us to more accurately pinpoint the geography of the Book of Mormon. While the Maya do not have a word for Bountiful they do have a word for plentiful and abundant which is Yax. There are hundreds more examples that I could use from the Book of Mormon. Each of them follows the same pattern. A character is introduced, then there is a description of an event or prophetic admonition. When the name is translated from English into Mayan the Mayan meaning reflects the scripture passage.   

Finally, I would like to present one more word for consideration and that is the word, Cumorah. In Mayan it is Ku' Mo Yah. Ku is Mayan for god. Mo means macaw. But it is symbolic of the creator god of the Mayan pantheon. Yah can be interpreted as either love or pain. The Mayan word for Hill is witz. In Mayan, it would be Witz Ku'MoYa. Or hill of the creator gods love/pain. I cannot really think of a better way to describe Ku'Mo Ya, than that, the place where two nations were destroyed and caused God great pain, but also God was showing his love by ending that amount of time they had to spend in wickedness.

I conclude by stating that I am convinced that Mayan is the language that the Book of Mormon peoples spoke. I have provided a few brief examples of how the names in the Book of Mormon can be translated into Mayan by going over the names Laman, Lemuel, and Cumorah. Nephi is the odd one as it is a Hebrew name. But it could have a Mayan equivalent .The decipherment of the Mayan language enables us to study the Book of Mormon in its original language. I have a database, which is a work in progress, where I have taken all the Book of Mormon names and attempted to translate them into Mayan.  

Gray, David