Critics of the Book of Mormon often deride it for its apparent lack of archaeological corroboration. Indeed, most of the evidence that bears on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is “internal,” meaning evidence derived from the text of the book itself. Those given to rejecting an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon often denigrate the value of internal evidence, perhaps considering anything not in the purview of Indiana Jones to not be “real” evidence. For some, it seems, physical remains are all that counts.
As someone whose interests are primarily linguistic, and as someone who loves and believes in the Book of Mormon, I find this intellectually and spiritually disingenuous. Frankly, ignoring the importance of linguistic evidence in a study is unscientific.
Consider the study of the Indo-European language family, and its prehistoric origins among groups of people who spoke a language that we call Proto-Indo-European.
For those not familiar with this, here’s an introduction: European languages often have obvious cognates with each other. For example, English and Spanish share many word roots that point to common influences; the Spanish word “pensar” means “to think,” and the English word “pensive” means “in a thoughtful mood.”
Going back through history, we see that many languages ranging from Western Europe even to India have such roots in common. Here’s a fairly simple “family tree” of the Indo-European languages from Rutgers University, showing the relationships between tongues as seemingly-unrelated as Italian and Polish, Welsh and Sanskrit; you can see English evolving out of German. Bet you didn’t know we had so many cousins!
(Old English, the language of Beowulf, sounds more like German than English to our ears. Spanish cognates come from Latin’s later influence on English, mostly starting with the French invasion of England in 1066. These two heavy influences are one reason why English has so many synonyms, such as the Germanic “handbook” and the Latinate “manual.”)
Analyzing enough languages far enough back in history, we find some very diverse early languages with common material. This suggests that there were related tribes of early peoples who spoke a parent language that gave us many of the modern world’s languages.
Here’s what this has to do with Book of Mormon evidence: it’s by linguistic analysis that we learn about Proto-Indo-Europeans. For instance, we can tell that they were familiar with cold climates, because multiple ancient languages in this family have common root words that mean “snow.”
But there’s very little archaeological evidence for their existence. In fact, the earliest evidence for Proto-Indo-Europeans, and the bulk of what we know today, comes from the language material they left us in later languages. It’s only been since the 1950’s that the scant, new physical evidence from proposed sites for these peoples has been able to bear on the study at all.
We don’t have a lot of artifacts or positive identification for sites where Proto-Indo-Europeans lived. They didn’t even have writing, so our knowledge of their language is only based on reconstruction from second hand material. Yet their existence is universally acknowledged, and has been for centuries, and that consensus is on the strength of linguistic evidence.
Someone wanting to discount the veracity of the Book of Mormon because most of what we know about its origin is textual rather than archaeological should reconsider their critical criteria.
Textual, linguistic evidence is real. It’s scientific. It counts.