One of the common complaints about and arguments against the Book of Mormon is the claim that it was written in “Reformed Egyptian” – a unique and obsolete language that was peculiar to the Nephites and could not be read by anyone else. There have been many things written about this issue over the years, some of which are merely skeptical and more of which are mocking. One of the common themes has been, “Well, that’s convenient. There’s no way to check any language for accuracy and veracity. Great con scheme.” What the people who wrote these things in the past and say them now didn’t and don’t realize is that there is a modern example of exactly such a language – one that is unique to its own people and, in many instances, cannot be read even by those from whom its written foundation was taken.
That example is modern Japanese.
First, Mormon 9:32 is the only verse in the Book of Mormon that includes the actual phrase “reformed Egyptian”. It says:
And now, behold, we have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian, being handed down and altered by us, **according to our manner of speech**.
I make a record in the language of my father, which consists of the learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians.
For it were not possible that our father, Lehi, could have remembered all these things, to have taught them to his children, except it were for the help of these plates; for he having been taught in the language of the Egyptians therefore he could read these engravings, and teach them to his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God, even down to this present time.
The premise of these passages is that Lehi read Egyptian and used the hieroglyphs as the basis of the written language that was used in engraving the record he kept on the large plates (and which he taught to Nephi, at least, so he could continue the record) – but that, over time, those hieroglyphs were modified from their original forms to become a unique written language called “reformed Egyptian”. It also is apparent that Lehi’s children did not read Egyptian naturally – that Lehi had to “teach them to his children” and have them “teach them to their children”. It has been argued that this written language was reserved for the sacred and historical records – that it was not the “common written language” of the people, if there even was such a common language. Given the numerous statements in the Book of Mormon about the need to write in a condensed form due to the size of the plates, this makes perfect sense – as does the practice of passing them down along bloodlines (inlcuding “non-prophets” at the end of the small plates, particularly in the Book of Omni), then ruling lines, then prophetic lines. This practice is common throughout history with written records, since the vast majority of people were illiterate, but it plays a particular role in the formation of a “new” language, as it emphasizes the driving force behind the on-going modification of the language – the need to conserve space on plates that were difficult to make and, at the beginning especially, limited in total space. Thus, the written language of the records was continually “altered by us” over time.
Now, to Japanese:
There are many good descriptions of the Japanese writing system, but Wikipedia contains one of the simplest. The entry for “Japanese Writing System” includes a very good intorduction to the multiple “scripts” used in written Japanese. In summary, there are three main scripts: “Kanji” – Chinese symbols that provide the foundation for the MEANING of words, pronounced totally differently than their Chinese pronunciation; “hiragana” – native Japanese alphabetic symbols that match to the spoken language, are syllabic in nature (each symbol represents a syllable, rather than an individual sound [“phonene”] as in English) and provide the necessary “fillers” (articles, conjunctions, conjugators, etc.) necessary to bridge between the kanji and spoken Japanese; and “katakana” – a modified form of hiragana used to designate the use of foreign words not found in native Japanese. Also, in the last decades, “romaji” (Romanized spelling, where an American could read the standard English alphabet and pronounce the words as they would sound in Japanese) has been included. Thus, modern Japanese is a combination of four separate “scripts”. (There is an excellent, side-by-side chart with some examples of how one word could be written in all four scripts in the Wikipedia article. Only one form, the original kanji, would be understood by a Chinese reader.)
What makes this fascinating in conjunction with “Reformed Egyptian” is not just that a new, unique language has been created, but that many modern Japanese kanji (the characters that were borrowed from Chinese) often cannot be recognized or read fluently by Chinese who have not studied them. Over time, many of the most complex kanji have been altered significantly – always as simplifications of the former symbols, removing “strokes” from the original to make it easier to learn, less time consuming to write and easier to teach to children. Furthermore, since spoken Chinese and Japanese are as different as spoken Japanese and English, the inclusion of hiragana and katakana further complicates the process of reading Japanese for those Chinese who have not studied it. Most can get a good or general feel for the meaning of sentences that are strictly comprised of kanji and hiragana, since the kanji still match and convey MEANING (not pronunciation), but when more of the simplified kanji are included, along with katakana and words spelled entirely in hiragana, it becomes much more difficult for Chinese people to understand written Japanese. (As I just said, untrained Chinese can’t understand spoken Japanese at all, so a Japanese could be reading something to a Chinese that the Chinese could understand if she read it – and the Chinese would not be able to understand what the Japanese was saying.)
In Book of Mormon terminology, modern written Japanese is “Reformed Chinese” – in EVERY sense that the term “Reformed Egyptian” is used in the Book of Mormon, right down to a complex hieroglyphic system being co-opted for meaning rather than pronunciation, that hieroglyphic system being simplified over time to make it easier to write and teach, and, perhaps, eventually being assimilated into some other script(s) and becoming nearly unreadable and “foreign” to those trained in the original hieroglyphic system.
There is no indication that Joseph, Emma, Oliver, Sydney or any of those who were prominent in the early history of the Book of Mormon were knowlegable to any degree of Japanese – and, in fact, many of the most radical transformations of written Japanese have occurred AFTER the publication of the Book of Mormon.