Tolman presents a fresh translation of the word Liahona, which he translates as “a vessel prepared of the Lord.” That translation arguably aligns with the interpretation provided in the Book of Mormon, and though parts of it aren’t based in known Hebrew usage, he posits a path through which it might have been present in the Hebrew of Lehi’s day.
In this article, Calvin D. Tolman conducts a linguistic exploration of the term Liahona, presenting his own interpretation based on both ancient Hebrew usage and conjectural changes from Proto-Semitic. While agreeing with previous commentators that the segment iah corresponds to “the Lord”, Tolman provides two unique contributions: 1) interpretation of l-as a prefix designating production or authorship (as opposed to a prefix meaning “to”), and 2) interpretation of -ona as *Ɂōnâ, with the proposed meaning of “vessel” based on similar terms in other Semitic languages. This interpretation appears to be the closest available match to the meaning provided in Alma 37:38, of “a compass; and the Lord prepared it.”
In presenting this view, Tolman also reviews interpretations that have been previously proposed, explaining why he doesn’t accept them. His review includes:
- An interpretation by Reynolds and Sjodahl, where they interpret the word as “To God is light”, based on the Hebrew name for the Egyptian “City of the Sun” (or “On”). Tolman declines this interpretation, as he does not see a compelling explanation for Liahona’s final “a”.
- A proposal by Jonathan Curci for the meaning “to Yahweh is the whither”, based on the Hebrew adverb ʔā́nāh meaning “where” or “whither”. Tolman sees issues with aligning the pronunciation of that word with what we see in Liahona, as well as with using an adverb in place of the concrete noun “compass”.
- Matthew Bowen’s interpretation of “to Yahweh, look!”, based on a mixed-language construction from Hebrew and Egyptian, derived from the Egyptian verb Ɂinw (perhaps pronounced “*-naw”). Tolman objects to the proposed vowel shift, the semantic mismatch between the imperative statement “look!” with the concrete noun “compass”, and the reliance on Egyptian, as Tolman’s view is that the original language of the Book of Mormon was Hebrew.
- Loren Spendlove’s proposal of “To Jehovah!”, which interprets the final -na as a Hebrew particle adding emphasis, entreaty, or exhortation. Tolman here takes similar issue with the use of a particle in place of the Book of Mormon’s proposed concrete noun.
Tolman then discusses how he breaks the word Liahona into segments, which he does based on Hebrew grammar rather than pronunciation, focusing on his selection of the second segment as -iah- (rather than -iaho-). For Tolman, the name Yāh can easily stand alone in referring to the Lord (as it does at various points in the Bible), and it allows Tolman to preserve the final segment as *ʔona (with the crook symbol representing a glottal stop—imagine a frog performing a split-second jump into your throat after you say “Liah”).
This leads Tolman to the word’s first letter, l-, or Lamed, a prefix that has, in one assessment, 26 nuanced definitions. Though “to, toward” is the first of these definitions, Tolman prefers an alternative, “of, by”, as used in the phrase “of God” in Genesis 14:19. He views the term as signifying “the agent or originator” of an action or object (e.g., Psalms “of David”, l-dāwid). As Tolman frames it, the phrase l-Yāh- would indicate that God is the originator of the object to which the phrase is attached. He sees this as aligning well with both Nephi’s and Alma’s indication that the compass was “prepared of the Lord”. The Lamed prefix is arguably used in this way in a number of extra-biblical sources, though it requires assuming that the prefix is “subjective” (i.e., the “subjective genitive”; the word “genitive” is a linguistic term indicating a connection with nouns or pronouns)—in the case of l-Yāh, this would mean God is the subject of the phrase rather than the possessor (possessive genitive) or the object (objective genitive).
But the bulk of Tolman’s task is building a case for the final segment, *Ɂōnâ. Though not found in the Hebrew Bible, and having a modern Hebrew meaning with no likely connection to the Liahona (“deed of purchase”), it’s possible that the word existed anciently but has since been lost to time. Tolman first works backwards from *Ɂōnâ to try to identify what that word might have looked like in Proto-Semitic (*ʔunaw or *ʔunáy, with ō descending from a u, and the weak –y or -w consonant being dropped, as with the change from Śaráy to Śarâ”; page 227)). He then looks for potential cognates of those Proto-Semitic words in other Semitic languages, including Akkadian (unū, with a stem, únūt-, suggesting merchandise, vessels, or belongings), Aramaic (m’ny’, a cognate of the Akkadian únūte which is generally translated as “vessels”, and with the stem Ɂnay at its core), and several cognates with the Aramaic word, including Canaanite (anayi, meaning “ship”), Ugaritic (Ɂny, “ship”), Arabic (ɁināɁ or Ɂny, “eating dish”), and Hebrew itself (Ɂŏnî and Ɂŏnîyâ, “ship”, or Ɂny “to grasp, contain”). Tolman suggests that this word may have developed into *Ɂōnâ, particularly in the Northern Kingdom, closer to Aramaic speakers, whereas it might have been replaced by the word klî (“article, utensil, vessel”) in the Southern Kingdom.
Tolman thus sees “vessel”, a portable metal object, as the most likely meaning of the reconstructed word *Ɂōnâ, a meaning he sees as a much closer match for “compass” than previous proposals (particularly if the Book of Mormon’s meaning of compass is “to encircle,” though Tolman doesn’t explore this). He explains the difference between “vessel” and “compass” by appealing to a distinction between translation and interpretion–translations from one language to another give us a literal meaning, but they often don’t carry the cultural intent behind it. (An example that comes to mind is a word from Hawaiian Pidgin: dakine. Its literal meaning is “thing,” but context usually delivers a more specific interpretation.) To truly understand what the word means requires an interpretation, which Alma himself provides as “a compass—and the Lord prepared it.” Though Tolman admits that his reconstruction is complex, he reminds us why we should remain open to that complexity:
“Languages are always changing both phonetically and semantically. Some words in a language may last for thousands of years, while others may last a century or two or even a few decades before passing out of favor…Etymological explanations, comparative linguistics and philological arguments are very complicated. There are no easy answers, and conclusions are always tentative.”
Tolman presents some intriguing possibilities here, and ones that give new life to the interpretation provided by Alma for the term Liahona. After several decades of interpretations that assiduously avoided Alma’s gloss of “compass,” one could wonder if there was any path to validity for the Book of Mormon’s stated interpretation. Tolman essentially answers: yes, there is a path, but it requires taking the road less traveled—interpreting l- “of, by” as subjective genitive instead of “to,” where the name becomes the object of the preposition. The interpretive term “compass” relies on a cultural interpretation to close the semantic gap between Semitic “vessel” and Book of Mormon “compass.” This will be enough for some to dismiss it, but I see it as fitting for a book (and an object) that provides few easy answers for those attempting to understand its origins.