Introduction to Egyptian Alphabet Documents, circa Early July–circa November 1835
Egyptian Alphabet Documents, circa Early July–circa November 1835
After copied characters from the papyrus rolls purchased in summer 1835, JS and some of his associates began creating three Egyptian Alphabet documents, which were apparently part of their effort to study the ancient Egyptian language. Each is in the handwriting of a different individual: Egyptian Alphabet–A is principally in the handwriting of JS, Egyptian Alphabet–B is in the handwriting of Oliver Cowdery, and Egyptian Alphabet–C is principally in the handwriting of . The three versions are clearly related. They may all be derived from an earlier version, or, more likely, they may have been created simultaneously, with JS, Cowdery, and Phelps consulting with one another or referring to each other’s manuscripts. No evidence indicates that any of the individuals involved in creating these documents had knowledge of the unfolding scholarly decipherment of the Egyptian language, and their work does not comport with modern Egyptological understanding of Egyptian characters. The format of these documents, the characters featured, and the subsequent adoption and modification of the information from these documents in the Grammar and Alphabet volume suggest that JS and his scribes envisioned them less as an academic production meant to be evaluated by scholars of the day and more as a continuation of their spiritual quest to uncover ancient languages.
The Egyptian Alphabet documents show changes in ink, scribe, and style of script, which suggests that the documents were created in multiple sittings. While similarities in spelling and phonetics among many of the transliterations hint at a shared creation process, some differences among the versions suggest that the scribes did not always visually compare their work to one another’s. At other times, identical spelling of transliterated terms suggests either a visual collation or a close collaboration among the scribes. Besides this general understanding, little is known of the specifics of the creation or use of these documents. JS’s journal contains two explicit references to the Egyptian Alphabet documents. The 1 October 1835 entry states, “This after noon labored on the Egyptian alphabet, in company with brsr [brothers] and .” A month and a half later, the journal records that JS “exibited the Alphabet of the ancient records to and some others.”
Egyptian Alphabet–C (largely in the handwriting of ) was likely begun first, followed by Egyptian Alphabet–B (in the handwriting of ). Additional evidence hints that both Phelps and Cowdery inscribed at least parts of their versions as the text was dictated or read aloud. In some cases, Phelps and Cowdery appear to have expanded on earlier, simpler definitions found in JS’s Egyptian Alphabet–A, even though that version was likely begun last. Egyptian Alphabet–A is presented first in this volume because it is written in JS’s own hand.
Each scribe apparently labeled his document “Egyptian Alphabet” and drew lines to separate the information on the page into columns. Each version has columns for the “Character,” for the character’s accompanying “Sound” or transliteration, and for the definition or “Explanation” of that character and sound. The character column contains the most entries of the columns in all three versions. Both ’s Egyptian Alphabet–C and ’s Egyptian Alphabet–B also contain a fourth column that was labeled “lett[e]r.” When they began work on the Egyptian Alphabet documents, Phelps and Cowdery apparently hoped to correlate each non-Roman character with a letter from the English alphabet. However, the “letter” column fell into disuse almost immediately, and JS did not incorporate that information in his version.
Each Egyptian Alphabet document is divided into five parts. Those parts contain a number of entries, and each entry has columns for a character, a sound, and an explanation. In the second part of each version, the entries are initially ordered alphabetically by the first letter of the “sound” column—there are eight sounds beginning with a, thirteen beginning with b, two beginning with e, and two beginning with k. The frequent presence of hyphens or double hyphens (=) in the transliterations throughout these documents suggests that the scribes were concerned with guiding spoken pronunciation, rather than simply spelling out the transliterations. Though the three Egyptian Alphabet documents contain essentially the same content and organization, they also contain minor differences, particularly in the spelling of the sounds and the content of the explanations. Some characters, sounds, or explanations were omitted entirely in one or two of the versions.
The character column in each Egyptian Alphabet document drew from various sources. At least five types of characters can be found throughout these documents: Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian hieratic characters, characters associated with a document in the handwriting of that purports to bear the “pure language” of Adam, characters of unknown origin, and composite characters based on characters of unknown origin. Characters from each category are generally grouped together. The “first part of the first degree” is generally made up of composite characters and characters of unknown origin. The “second part of the first degree” contains characters associated with the “pure language” document, characters of unknown origin, and characters from the papyri. The other parts of the first degree contain characters from the papyri. Most of the characters come from the papyri—specifically from Fragment of Book of Breathing for Horos–A, which bears a vignette that was later published as Facsimile 1. Characters from the columns of hieroglyphs immediately to the right of the vignette on that fragment appear in the second part; characters from the second column to the right of the vignette appear in the third part; characters from the third column to the right of the vignette appear in the fourth part; and characters from the column immediately to the left of the vignette appear in the fifth part.
The scribes gradually ceased work on the Egyptian Alphabet documents. After completing about four pages, JS and his clerks abandoned this project, moving on to work on the Grammar and Alphabet volume. As they began to transition to other projects, the scribes failed to fill in all the detail they had planned for each column, and they appear to have prioritized the inscription of the characters over that of the sounds and explanations. For instance, by the middle of the second page of Egyptian Alphabet–C, filled in detail only for the character and sound columns but did not fill in the explanation column. By the time he had begun inscribing the third page, Phelps filled the character column almost exclusively—without filling in the columns for sound or explanation. The content of the final entries of each version varies, demonstrating the uneven cessation of work on the Egyptian Alphabet documents. The Egyptian Alphabet documents influenced later documents even after JS and his scribes set them aside. The Grammar and Alphabet volume, for example, adopts and further develops the structure found in the Egyptian Alphabet documents. Whereas in the Egyptian Alphabet documents, some definitions build upon others within the same part, in the Grammar and Alphabet volume, a character’s definition becomes more complex as it appears in progressively higher “degrees.” The Grammar and Alphabet volume also contains composite characters similar to those in the Egyptian Alphabet documents.
The annotation in these documents does not track the differences between the instances of each character in each version. The annotation does not include close comparison of the differences in spelling or slight word changes, nor does it compare these explanations with those found in the Grammar and Alphabet volume. Each character has, however, been assigned an identifying number by the editors, and the Comparison of Characters chart facilitates easy comparison of each instance of each character throughout the Egyptian-language and Book of Abraham documents.
Phelps made space for a “letter” column, and Cowdery followed suit. Phelps supplied data in that column for the first three entries, while Cowdery did the same for the first entry only. Phelps’s inclusion of more data suggests that his work began before Cowdery’s. (See Egyptian Alphabet, ca. Early July–ca. Nov. 1835–B and –C.)
At character 2.6, it appears that “under or less” was heard and interpreted differently by Phelps and Cowdery. Phelps seems to have begun to write “under,” but then upon hearing “or,” he replaced “under” with “less.” Cowdery, on the other hand, heard “under or less,” and wrote the entire phrase, interpreting the “or” as a clarifying word. (See Egyptian Alphabet, ca. Early July–ca. Nov. 1835–B and –C.)
See Egyptian Alphabet, ca. Early July–ca. Nov. 1835–A. This change may have signaled a move away from an attempt to outline a direct correlation between an ancient alphabet and the English alphabet to a more generic approach that identified characters, sounds, and explanations.
In 1832, early church member and scribe John Whitmer copied a document he titled “sample of pure language” into a collection of revelations. This document contained sounds and definitions of a few words that Whitmer apparently believed were part of the pure language spoken by Adam and Eve. In May 1835, William W. Phelps sent a more developed version of that document to his wife, Sally Waterman Phelps. Phelps’s version listed characters from an unknown source in addition to the sounds and definitions found on the earlier version. (Revelation Book 1, p. 144; Sample of Pure Language, between ca. 4 and ca. 20 Mar. 1832; William W. Phelps, Kirtland, OH, to Sally Waterman Phelps, Liberty, MO, 26 May 1835, William W. Phelps, Papers, BYU.)
In Egyptian Alphabet–B, Cowdery provided two sounds and one explanation for character 5.27. Phelps, in Egyptian Alphabet–C, provided two sounds for character 5.27 and one sound for 5.28, though the initial sound for 5.27 was removed from the entry for 5.28 and placed there. In Egyptian Alphabet–A, Cowdery provided the sound and explanation for character 5.28; the explanation of that same character is later expanded on a subsequent page.
Character 1.15 in the Egyptian Alphabet documents, for instance, has the sound of “Iota tou-es Zip-Zi,” which is a composite of the sounds of characters 1.10 (“Zip Zi”), 1.13 (“tone tahe or tohe tou-es”), and 1.14 (“Iota”). The explanation for character 1.15 is also an amalgam of the definitions of characters 1.10, 1.13, and 1.14. The character itself also is composed of individual characters 1.10, 1.13, and 1.14. A similar system exists in the Grammar and Alphabet volume. (See Egyptian Alphabet, ca. Early July–ca. Nov. 1835–A, –B, and –C; and Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, ca. July–ca. Nov. 1835.)