Hamblin 28: Homophony and Proper Names

Hamblin 28: Homophony and Proper Names July 8, 2015

Another possible avenue for evaluating the historicity of the Book of Mormon is proper name homophony.  This is a complicated methodology that can be easily misunderstood and misused.  Basically, this scholarly methodology is founded on the recognition that proper names in language A are generally transliterated rather than translated into language B.  Therefore remnants of language A can sometimes be seen reflected in language B–especially given that ancient names generally had some meaning.  Furthermore, it is widely recognized that pronunciation and transliteration from language A to language B nearly always entailed elements of mispronunciation and mistranscription.  As an example, we have biblical names that first appear in Hebrew, then Aramaic, then Greek, then Latin, and from those last two languages are later transferred to all the languages of Europe, and most of the world as the Bible continues to be translated.

As an example of how the pronunciation of proper names can change through time, let’s look at the example of the name John.  Originally it was Hebrew Yehochanan/Yochanan, which was transliterated into New Testament Greek as Ioannēs, and Latin as Iohannes (with the “I/J” pronounced as “Y” in classical Greek and Latin).  From there it was transmogrified into numerous linguistic variations.  Here are a few:

English = John

Spanish = Juan (pronounced Wan)

Irish = Sean

Portuguese = Joao

Italian = Giovanni

Russian = Ivan or Vanya

German = Johann, Hans

Scottish = Iain/Ian

Arabic = Yahya

Without an immense amount of linguistic and textual data (which we don’t have for Preclassic Mesoamerica), there would be no way to “guess” that all these different names are ultimately derived from Hebrew Yehochanan.  (Ian = Yohochanan?  Really?)

To this general problem are added several additional problems when dealing with name homophony in the Book of Mormon.  First, the original ancient pronunciation of BOM names is often uncertain, since they have been transliterated into English (where the phonetic value of the script is ambiguous, and where pronunciation changes through time).  To properly evaluate BOM name homophony we must try to reconstruct ancient pronunciation behind the BOM name, rather than the nineteenth century pronunciation, or the early twenty-first century pronunciation.  (For extensive studies on this topic for all BOM names, see the Book of Mormon Onomasticon Project.)

The second problem is that early Classic Maya proper names are even more complicated, with various interpretations of pronunciation and transcription, along with the problem that an ancient Maya name probably would not have been pronounced 1500 years ago, just like names in modern Maya–in its many dialects–are pronounced today.   We also have the problem for English readers that Maya is transliterated into Spanish pronunciation of letters, not English.  We thus need to transliterate the Hispano-Maya names into English-Maya pronunciation if we wish to examine possible correlations with Book of Mormon names.

Furthermore, homophony can also occur by random chance rather than by semantic cognates.  Homophonic study must carefully contextualize proper names in their language, culture, location, and period.  We thus need to recognize the limitations of name homophony.  Nonetheless, some interesting results occur–more than I think we should expect from random chance homophony.  I should emphasize that I’m not a linguist, I’m a historian.  What I’m saying here is necessarily speculative.  However, I’ve studied a number of ancient and medieval languages, and am familiar with the philological arguments made by scholars about these matters for biblical names.

First we can look at possible Balam (Ba’lam) names in the BOM.  Balam “jaguar” is very common in Classic Maya royal names, perhaps the most common component.  There are two possible examples in the Book of Mormon.  The first is Ablom, a Jaredite place name (Ether 9:3).  In Maya A-blom could be read as “aj-ba’lam” (pronounced in English as ah-balam)= “[place] of the Jaguar.”  We also have Shiblom/Shi-blom, a Nephite commander in the last war (Mormon 6:14, also a Jaredite king (Ether 1:11-12)).  Shi-blom might  be rendered in Hispano-Maya as “xib-ba’lam” = Shib-balam = “man of the jaguar,” or “Jaguar Man.”  It is interesting to note that both of the blom/balam names in the Book of Mormon actually make sense in Maya.

Next we have “-ihah” names in the Book of Mormon.










In Maya the word for “lord/king” is ajaw = English ahaw.  It generally follows the name of a city or polity.  For example, Tikal was probably pronounced Mutal anciently, and thus “Mutal-ajaw” means “lord/king of Mutal/Tikal.”  It’s a common and integral part of Maya emblem glyphs.  The Book of Mormon -ihah may thus be the Nephite rendering of ajaw/ahaw.

We have one Lamanite ruler mentioned in the last section of the Book of Mormon, Aaron (Mormon 2:9, 9:17), dating to roughly the 330s or 340s.  At first glance this certainly appears obviously be the biblical name of Aaron, brother of Moses.  And no doubt it is.  But that may simply be the way the Nephites heard or pronounced a Maya name.  In reality, Aaron in Hebrew was pronounced “Aharon.”  The “H” gets dropped in Greek and Latin transliteration, from which we derive our English Aaron.  Thus, Aha-ron may be the closest name to the way the Nephites heard the Maya Ahaw/Ajaw-XX.

Finally, there is a bit of homophony between Maya royal names attested in the 4th century AD, and BOM names of the fourth century AD.  One Maya king of Tikal is named Yax, which is homophonic with the BOM Josh (X in Maya = sh; BOM J pronounced Y in Hebrew).  Maya has no R sound; in such cases an R sound often comes out as a W (eg. Elmer Fudd’s “Wascaly Wabbit”).  Thus in the royal name K’inich Muwan Jol (Great Sun Hawk Skull), the Muwan/Hawk name might be a homophonic cognate with his contemporary Moron(i) from the Book of Mormon.

Admittedly many of these suggestions are speculative.  But the fact that BOM names contain plausible Maya components–some of which actually make sense out of otherwise apparently random sounds–means the BOM broadly fits the very limited and ambiugous Maya name data we have for the early Classic period.


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