Uto-Aztecan and Semitic: Too much of a good thing

Brian Stubbs’s argument for extensive ancient contact between Semitic and Proto-Uto-Aztecan has received some attention recently in Mormon apologetics, but I don’t think Stubbs’s proposal is going to pan out. First, though, a few important messages.

Stubbs’s book, Exploring the Explanatory Power of Semitic and Egyptian in Uto-Aztecan, is not crackpot pseudo-science. It reflects a lifetime of work by someone with extensive training and experience. He follows established scholarly models and takes into consideration the cautions that go with linguistic reconstruction, and he is familiar with the relevant scholarship. As the author of important works on Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics, he is not an outsider to the primary field of his study.

Also, I fully support the idea of laying out one’s evidence and making a forthright argument for an idea outside the mainstream that may not find acceptance soon, if ever. Stubbs has made his work available online, and he has done quite an admirable job of making his methods and data accessible to reasonably educated readers who want to invest the effort to inspect them.

Stubbs’s hypothesis is that the Uzo-Aztecan family of American Indian languages, which today ranges from Central America to California and the western U.S., arose from an infusion of Semitic and Egyptian speakers into a much larger native community. As evidence, he provides a list of over 1500 cognates along with extensive discussion of phonology and rules of sound change, morphology, and other aspects of Semitic and Uto-Aztecan languages. He finds Semitic or Egyptian roots behind the majority of reconstructed Proto-Uto-Aztecan core vocabulary (7.8, p. 347) and throughout the Uto-Aztecan pronoun system (3, pp. 91-93), and argues that the proposed Semitic input would solve several problems in Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics (6.1-6.7, pp. 306-22).

Uto-Aztecan is not my field, so this is not a review. For positive reviews of Stubbs’s work from scholars trained in Uto-Aztecan and Mayan, see here and here. Instead, consider this post an example of the kinds of judgments people often have to make about academic work outside their narrow expertise.

With all that said, my own experience with historical linguistics tells me that Stubbs’s hypothesis won’t pan out. This is based on three broad areas of concern.

1. Stubbs’s hypothesized derivations of Uto-Aztecan vocabulary from Semitic forms are extensively documented and carefully reasoned. Many of the proposed derivations involve fossilized grammatical forms—the equivalent of linking a word meaning “hear” in one language not with English “hear,” but with hears, hearing, hearer, heard, or overhear. With a Semitic verbal morphology that includes prefixes, suffixes, pronoun object suffixes, and an extremely rich system of derived forms, the possible targets for a hypothetical etymology are very numerous. Stubbs is certainly correct that much remains unknown about the actual spoken language of ancient Israel, but drawing on Aramaic and other forms of Semitic in addition to Hebrew, as well as the hypothesized phonological changes in the derivation from Semitic to Uto-Aztecan, only increase the number of possibilities.

So, for example, Stubbs compares the Arabic root mrr to Uto-Aztecan *miya (Nr. 65, p. 84). The sound changes involved are certainly possible, and Stubbs provides examples of similar changes in the Mayan languages. But with so many possible sources to choose from, it seems that it would be impossible not to find cognates. The long list of cognates is actually a problem. I would actually find a shorter list using stricter criteria much more convincing. In particular, the numerous proposed Egyptian cognates are troubling, as they increase the suspicion that a similar list could be found for almost any language.

2. Historical linguists differ about the status of reconstructed languages. Are they merely schematic representations, a type of intellectual game, or do they represent a historical and linguistic reality? I tend to side with the historians, and I suspect Stubbs would as well. But I don’t see how a real language contact situation could result in what Stubbs proposes, where a creole arose that included a massive amount of Semitic core vocabulary (including words for “daughter,” “eye,” “neck,” and color words), pronouns, and fossilized grammatical forms, but did not include the Semitic grammatical system itself. I don’t see how you get such close contact that pronouns are borrowed, while at the same time grammatical morphemes survive in fossilized forms (7.11, p. 356). It’s as if someone decided to to call a strange yet delicious new food “heygivemebackmynachos” based on what his neighbors said when they pointed at it, while also adopting his neighbors’ words for I, you, and we.

Semantically, the Semitic and Egyptian cognates are all over the map, which is another problem, as it would suggest that the immigrant community was fully bilingual in both Egyptian and a form of Hebrew, instead of reserving one language or the other for specific purposes. If you are part of a larger native population, why adopt foreign words for common body parts, basic verbs, and pronouns? There doesn’t seem to be any logic to why the proposed cognates would be adopted. Here again, a handful of cognates for foreign imports or items of cultural significance would have been far stronger. (See, for example, the case for ancient Polynesian contact with South America, where the strongest evidence currently is not DNA, but the resemblance between words for “sweet potato” in Quechua and Polynesian languages.) The phonological processes Stubbs proposes are all quite plausible, but the resulting semantic patterns of the hypothesized mixed language do not seem convincing at first glance.

3. Stubbs makes a number of comparisons between his proposed scenario of Uto-Aztecan arising from a creolization of Semitic and an indigenous language, and, somewhat closer to my area of expertise, the history of English and other Germanic languages. English, Stubbs notes, provides an example of a language that borrowed massively from other languages. I don’t think the example of English fits well, however, as the numerous loans into English from French, Latin, Greek, and other languages left almost all the core vocabulary of English intact.

An important comparison for Stubbs is Yiddish (pp. 356, 362), which he treats as a parallel case of a Semitic language being infused with a great amount of material from unrelated languages, in this case primarily German (“Yiddish […] results from the original Hebrew-Aramaic idiom being subject to many centuries of mostly German influence…”). But this is not an accurate portrayal of Yiddish. While the history of the language is not entirely settled, no one sees it as developing among speakers of Aramaic. A widely accepted proposal is that Romance-speaking Jews moved to German-speaking areas before 1250 and adopted the local variety of German, so that Yiddish is best seen as a Germanic language with extensive vocabulary drawn from Hebrew and other languages.

I would very much like Stubbs’s hypothesis to be correct. I like my apologetics served rare, and linguistic evidence of ancient contact with Semitic in the Americas would be awesome. Stubbs’s case is worth making and considering, but I think it will not ultimately work out.

But Stubbs is not ridiculous (and, please note, this is not a place to ridicule him or the historicity of the Book of Mormon). Stubbs is a scholar who is asking others to pore over his evidence and come up with something better if they can. Someone should take him up on it.

16 comments for “Uto-Aztecan and Semitic: Too much of a good thing

  1. Clark
    January 6, 2019 at 11:16 pm

    Great post that echoes a lot of my concerns.

  2. Dsc
    January 6, 2019 at 11:33 pm

    This is fascinating to me. I always appreciate it when people acknowledge the limits of their arguments, which seems to happen all too rarely in apologetics (both for and against any given topic). Our knowledge of the past is based on educated guesses, and the gaps in knowledge are enormous. It’s good to see attempts to fill those gaps, and it’s nice to see people making sure we don’t go off on wild conjecture. Again, very interesting.

  3. John W
    January 7, 2019 at 2:21 am

    Thanks for the honest review which appears to not be fully convinced of Stubbs’s work. I know that many LDS scholars have used his work as evidence of Semitic languages being used and spoken in the ancient Americas. I have known about Stubbs for a while. He appears to have worked the hardest to find a connection between ancient Semitic languages and ancient American ones, going as far as to immerse himself in cultures of Uto-Aztecan speakers. These are not languages with large amounts of resources for learning, so his efforts have been impressive. Although I have studied a number of foreign languages I do not have a linguistics background, let alone a background in Uto-Aztecan languages or Semitic languages (although I have studied Arabic, both only to be able to read and speak it, not classify and compare it with other languages) to be able to evaluate the quality of his work. The reviews from other BYU professors are interesting. I would be curious to hear reactions from other linguists outside Mormonism and the BYU network.

    As far as my study of languages permits me, you’re right about what the loan words tend to be. I will say this about the influence of Arabic in other languages. It has significant influence in the lexicon of nearly all languages that are spoken by large Muslim populations. This is particularly true of Persian where nearly 50% of the most widely used vocabulary in the modern spoken language has an Arabic origin. However, the simpler elements of language of Persian (pronouns, numbers, basic vocab) are not Arabic, but Indo-European. Persian grammar has nothing to do with Arabic grammar. It is the same thing for Turkish and Urdu, also having significant Arabic loan words. Numbers, pronouns, basic verbs, and common body parts, however, are not influenced by Arabic.

  4. Steve J
    January 7, 2019 at 9:51 am

    Valuable contribution.. and I hope Stubbs will at some point address the concerns expressed in the post

  5. Franklin
    January 7, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks. This is helpful. I tried to find a reviewer for an article distilled from Stubbs’s latest book, “Changes in Languages: From Nephi to Now,” which takes his Uto-Aztecan theories and makes specific claims about the Book of Mormon and its original language. Since Uto-Aztecan is a very narrow field, it was impossible to conceal the identity of the author from potential reviewers. Almost all of them said the same thing: They liked Brian; they thought he was a solid scholar; but they wouldn’t touch the topic with a ten-foot pole. They found it highly problematic and too over-reaching. I finally found two professors who were willing to review the article. They identified significant problems with it and, by extension, the book. All too often this is the case with apologetics. We want so badly to prove the Book of Mormon true in one way or another that we reach conclusions first, then try to find evidence to support those conclusions. This inevitably results in cherry-picking and ignoring evidence that goes against our preconceptions.

  6. Steve J
    January 7, 2019 at 1:34 pm

    I felt the need to make another comment based on two assumptions that were made by posters here. That Stubb’s arguments come from him either reaching conlusions first and then trying to find support and/or he specifically studied these languages to find the connection. I specifically remembering reading where he was surprised at the connections he believes he found and hesitated for many years to publish anything based on the radical nature of his hypothesis and the innuendo of him being Mormon.

    Now this is not saying that his conclusions are correct and I would be interested in seeing those professors reviews and again any response by Dr. Stubbs tho their identification of problems.

  7. Steve J
    January 7, 2019 at 1:36 pm

    Direct quotes by him, and I would take him at his word, unless anyone has evidence to the contrary. “Knowing how unwelcome such a proposal would be in the linguistic community and being a peace-loving recluse by nature, I have been in no hurry to invite the avalanche of controversy upon me… However, equally risky is pressing my luck in postponing (presenting his evidence) that should reside on this side of the mortal divide. So as youth becomes a more distant memory, I end the four-decade delay to share these findings,

  8. Truckers Atlas
    January 7, 2019 at 1:38 pm

    John W writes: “I would be curious to hear reactions from other linguists outside Mormonism and the BYU network.” You and me both, John. Stubbs appears to have legitimate academic credentials, and so there has to be a reason he hasn’t published this research with a press commensurate with those credentials. If he attempted to do so, I’d be interested to know how that process played out.

  9. January 7, 2019 at 4:11 pm

    In this particular case, I didn’t think that Stubbs was cherry-picking – this wasn’t the amateurish, slapdash apologetics we’ve seen too much of. For me the overriding issue was parsimony: why does it make more sense to assume that an Uto-Aztecan word is derived from Semitic/Egyptian immigrants and not from an existing Uto-Aztecan root? That’s an extremely complicated solution when a much simpler one might be preferable. Someone more versed in Uto-Aztecan would have to decide if the payoff – the otherwise unsolvable problems in Uto-Aztecan historical linguistics – justify the complication. I suspect they won’t.

    But I think I understand what motivates Stubbs. I’ve had my own version of it, where you find a handful of what seem like weird coincidences at first, and then corroborating evidence, and eventually you find that you have a theory that would explain some very interesting things. All along as you’re connecting dots, you’re wondering if the dots are really there, or just momentary flashes of static. At some point, instead of merely pointing out that hypothetically an interesting argument could be made for X, you decide to just lay out the argument for X and let everyone else do what they want with it. After reading through the book, I decided that Stubbs had made the right choice about publication venues. The cost in time and effort to convince an editor and 2-5 reviewers and a press editorial board may not have been worth it – Mormon Studies as an academic field is many times larger than Uto-Aztecan. And then his work would be locked away by copyright until 95 years after he died.

    And at the end of the day, there are still weirdly similar words that don’t require a lot of phonological gymnastics to compare. One possibility is that something extremely unlikely happened in history. The other is that something extremely unlikely happened in language. Very weird things sometime do happen – do you realize that Semitic n-suffixed inflexion plays the exact same role in indicating definiteness as the n-suffixed weak adjective inflexion in Germanic? – but I suspect the case of Uto-Aztecan and Semitic will ultimately turn out to be a case of linguistic rather than historical oddity.

  10. Truckers Atlas
    January 7, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    Jonathan, regarding efforts to make viable, sound claims regarding possible evidence of Book of Mormon historicity, what could be worth more than convincing a non-Mormon Studies editor, 2-3 reviewers, and a press editorial board?

    You’re also being misleading when you suggest that his publication options would be limited to those strictly focused on Uto-Aztecan. Stubbs’s study is a linguistic one, no? I can’t imagine the field of Mormon Studies to be “many times” larger than that of early linguistics, or precolumbian linguistics for that matter.

    I’ll be frank in my opinion: When it comes to the reasons credentialed scholars like Sorensen, Muhlestein, Peterson, Pergo, and now Stubbs don’t publish Book of Mormon-specific research outside of Mormon Studies, I doubt “cost in time and effort” ranks high on the list.

  11. Clark Goble
    January 7, 2019 at 6:37 pm

    The problem is that even if you have a pretty convincing argument, intrinsically the plausibility of the argument requires archaeological evidence first of Judaic contact. Without that people tend to not give the arguments a whole lot of credence. Further even if someone made a completely compelling argument, the implications of saying something good about it would be damaging career wise. That’s just the reality of academics.

    Even something like chicken or sweet potato contact with polynesians where there is even archaeological evidence is controversial I suspect largely because of the Mormon context in the background. Just because Mormons have made this a position, it’s disreputable academically. And that’s with non-Mormons making the argument. If a Mormon makes it, then that makes it’s nature orders of magnitude more controversial. You need pretty indisputable strong evidence before any of this passes muster academically if only so academics can distance themselves from association with what they see as “woo” (i.e. Mormonism)

  12. January 7, 2019 at 7:53 pm

    Truckers Atlas: Originally I had some of the same reservations, but after reading through the book I changed my mind. I’m quite serious about the relative size of fields, by the way. The one talk I ever gave at a one-off Mormon Studies-related conference had well over 100 highly engaged people in the audience, and the resulting edited volume sold several hundred copies, which is quite strong for an edited volume in the humanities. The largest audience I’ve ever addressed in my own academic field was much less than half that size, and often it’s a tenth that size, and my field is pretty mainstream. I’d estimate that the audience of Uto-Aztecanists who would entertain the possibility of Semitic connections is very, very small.

    And academic publishing is not quick. For my first book, it took around 9 months from querying editors to getting a book contract, and then another 15 months or so before the book appeared. In between, there was a lot of waiting, interrupted by unpredictable spurts of hectic activity on a short deadline. And today my book is available only to those willing to pay for it, or people associated with the several hundred university libraries who have purchased a copy. Even the miracle of interlibrary loan isn’t easily available at underfunded schools.

    If you had a slam-dunk case, then yes, publishing with a prestigious university press would certainly be worth it. But if what you have instead is a lot of intriguing evidence and a complex, highly detailed argument, an editor will rightly wonder why a tiny potential market would justify the expense of finding and paying a copy editor who can deal with historical linguistics and source material in 30 American Indian languages and a half-dozen Semitic languages. Even print on demand doesn’t solve that economic conundrum. And then it’s probably not an unreasonable guess that trying to convince an editor and editorial board would be wasted effort (see the comment by Franklin above). It’s not at all unheard of for senior professors with nothing left to prove to avoid the hassle and publish with an undistinguished press. If you’ve created the summation of 40 years of work, do you take the risk that every day you delay publication increases the chance that your work will die with you and never be read?

    You’d have to ask the people you name why they don’t publish work on the Book of Mormon outside of Mormon Studies outlets. What seems like the obvious answer to me is that you can say one set of interesting things about the Book of Mormon by operating with the secular assumptions of academic publishing, and you can say another set of interesting things by operating under the non-secular assumptions that hold in some Mormon Studies outlets. As getting an academic publisher to suspend its criteria for a book or article on the Book of Mormon would basically come down to convincing them that Joseph Smith translated an ancient record by the power of God, then yes, I think it’s safe to say that the time and effort required to publish that kind of work in those outlets would be considerable. It’s much more efficient to publish in the existing outlets, rather than having to start by proving that the Book of Mormon was written by ancient prophets.

  13. p
    January 9, 2019 at 1:39 pm

    Why not have those secular editors read the research, then read the BoM, and pray about it? Why should that process be somehow beyond the purview of inspiration, as if secular knowledge & knowing exists in a sphere all its own not part of dietiy’s larger creation?

  14. at
    January 11, 2019 at 11:00 am

    I think the invitation to all men and women everywhere to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it has already been made like an infinity times. Would the so-called secular editors respond differently if there was an invitation made to them alone?

  15. Jim Bennett
    January 17, 2019 at 3:33 pm

    Ever since first hearing about this, I have longed for a review or a summary of Stubbs’s thesis that a layman idiot like me can understand, and I have yet to find it. That may well be because this is too complex a subject to dumb down for non-linguists, but if anyone knows of a good “Book of Mormon Uto-Aztecan for Dummies” resource, Is love to see it.

  16. January 18, 2019 at 11:32 pm

    Jim, the first place to start would be Stubbs’s book, linked above. The introductory sections really do quite a nice job of presenting the basic concepts in an approachable way. Also, Stubbs has published another version of his argument specifically for popular audiences. Here’s a link to a presentation he did, which shares the same title as his popular book:
    https://www.fairmormon.org/conference/august-2016/changes-languages-nephi-now

    I haven’t read the book or the presentation transcript, but it’s a reasonable place to start.

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