The Language of the Egyptians: 1 Nephi 1:2
Excerps from the book “Step by Step Through the Book of Mormon” by Alan C. Miner
Nephi says he wrote in "the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2). John Sorenson explains that most single Egyptian hieroglyphs stood for whole concepts. Signs representing sounds--syllables and individual sounds comparable to our letters--were also used. After [the Egyptians] had evolved a set of letter signs for the principal signs of their language, they might perfectly well have discarded all the rest of their hundreds of hieroglyphic characters . . . but for three thousand years they clung to these multiple characters, and wrote pictographic and phonetic characters jumbled together because of the force of tradition. This type of writing has been labeled the Alphabet-included Logographic System. Not only Egyptian but the Chinese and Mayan [Central American] scripts fit into this category. [John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 77
This illustration shows how Egyptian writing would represent the name "Ammon" moving from complicated "Hieroglyphics" to an extremely abbreviated "Reformed Egyptian" at 600 B.C. [Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah, F.A.R.M.S., p. 149]
Thus, we could call the style of the written characters of the small plates "reformed Egyptian,” but that style was probably not exactly like the "reformed Egyptian" of Mormon and Moroni's time because according to Moroni, as it was handed down, "it was altered by us according to our manner of speech" (Mormon 9:32). [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes
Hugh Nibley notes that it is not surprising the Book of Mormon is written in Egyptian. It's much more concise and easy to handle. Moroni tells us if they could write in Hebrew they would, but it is too large and takes up too much space (Mormon 9:33). At [the time of Lehi] demotic writing was the official writing. It had only been in for a hundred years, but it was the new shorthand. Everybody was using it because it was very convenient. It was so much shorter than anything else discovered.
Hugh Nibley writes “In room 35 (I think) of the Cairo Museum there is an inscription. I should have brought along pictures of it. The inscription is in Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, Egyptian demotic writing, and Greek. The Greek and Egyptian take up so much space. The demotic takes up just about seven lines. All the other inscriptions take up half a wall, but this one is just like that. It's amazingly economical. That's why they were using it.” [Hugh W. Nibley, Teachings of the Book of Mormon, Semester 3, p. 37]
Nephi mentions that he wrote on the small plates according to the "learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians" (1 Nephi 1:2). It is hard to tell just how much the Nephite recordkeepers had altered the written characters used on the small plates or their meaning by the time Mormon took charge of them, but one thing that Moroni tells us is that the changes were linked to "[the Nephite] manner of speech" (Mormon 9:32-34). Modern wordprint analysis has given us some tremendous insights into the difference in speech between the times of the early authors of the small plates, the times of Alma, and the times of Mormon and Moroni. According to a 1995 F.A.R.M.S. article by John Hilton, wordprinting is based on what appears to be a normal human phenomenon. Without being consciously aware of it, when we freely speak or freely write each of us uses a differing set of personal preferences of the available word patterns. Many of the wordprint patterns measure to be stable over a lifetime. Even more significant is the finding that the wordprint of a language remains stable even through translation. Thus, although the words of a text might be in English, a wordprint can determine whether the original language was Hebrew or Greek. Wordprint analysis has developed dramatically over the last 14 years and although it is still developing, it is now used to unravel many classical authorship controversies. In wordprint studies related to the Book of Mormon, Hilton has analyzed the major authors and come up with some amazing insights. [John Hilton, "Update of Wordprinting on the English Isaiah Texts and the Book of Mormon," F.A.R.M.S., p. 1]
According to statistics graphed on page 14 of Hilton's paper, the language of the small plates authors was not the same as that of Alma; and the language of Alma was different than that of Mormon and Moroni's time (Hilton, "Update," p. 14). The Book of Mormon reader will find significance in these three distinct language changes not only because of the different time periods these major authors wrote in, but also because of the changes in the geographical setting of the story: (1) The small plates recordkeepers started with Nephi, who came from Jerusalem and settled in the land of Nephi (2 Nephi 5:7-8); they ended with Amaleki who tells of Mosiah's flight from the land of Nephi to a land of Zarahemla (Omni 1:13). (2) Alma2 lived and preached in the land of Zarahemla (Mosiah 29:44); and (3) Mormon with Moroni were part of a culture tied to the land northward (Mormon 1:2-6).
Moreover, comparing these three groupings of Book of Mormon authors with the translated Hebrew of Jeremiah reveals that while the language of Alma2 and Mormon differs, that of the authors of the small plates corresponds almost exactly with Jeremiah's Hebrew. Thus, if Hilton's work proves correct and if we follow the ideas of Nibley presented previously, then Nephi recorded on the small plates using reformed Egyptian characters to convey the thoughts of Hebrew language. Furthermore, Nephi or Jacob might have also transcribed at times from existing records written in Hebrew (1 Nephi 1:17, Mormon 9:33). [Alan C. Miner, Personal Notes]
The learning of the Jews (Illustration): This is a graph showing the wordprint analysis of the major authors of the Book of Mormon as measured against a standard of 19th century writers and the Hebrew of Jeremiah's time. Notice that the language of the small plates was different from that of Alma, which also was different from that of Mormon and Moroni. [John Hilton, "Update of Wordprinting," p. 1, Figure 8 part 2.]