Abstract: This study assesses some of the interpretations of the name Liahona, which are unsatisfactory from a linguistic perspective. Since a dialect of Hebrew is the most likely underlying language of the Book of Mormon, the approach taken in this study parses the word Liahona into three meaningful segments in Hebrew: l-iah-ona; a Biblical Hebrew transliteration would be l-Yāh-Ɂōnấ. This name is a grammatical construction that attaches the prepositional prefix l- to Yāh, the name of “the Lord,” followed by the noun *Ɂōnấ. The preposition l- in this context denotes the following name as the agent or the one who is responsible for the following noun, i.e., l-Yāh designates the Lord as the agent, author, or producer of the *Ɂōnấ. Languages are complex, and etymological conjectures in ancient languages are hypothetical; therefore, the explanations and justifications presented here, of necessity, are speculative in nature. Etymological explanations have to involve the complexity of linguistics and sound changes. The hoped-for result of this study is that a simple and reasonable explanation of the meaning of Liahona will emerge from the complexity, and a more reasonable translation of Liahona will be the result.
The root and meaning of the word Liahona, only mentioned once in the Book of Mormon (Alma 37:38), has been a topic of conjecture and debate for decades. In this paper I briefly evaluate four earlier studies or comments on the etymology of the word. Each study varies in its methodology and therefore comes to different conclusions. There is general agreement that Liahona is divided into three parts. Each study translates the first segment L- as “to.” The second element is identified either as Yah or Yaho, the short form of Yahweh, that signifies “the Lord.” There is no agreement in these studies as to the phonemic construction of the third element, i.e., what word it represents, what its phonemes are, [Page 212]how it is pronounced, and how it is to be translated. None of the earlier treatments identify the third element as a physical object; the Liahona is described as a round ball of fine brass with spindles (1 Nephi 16:10). An acceptable etymology of Liahona should at least take its physical characteristics into account in addition to its interpretation as a compass. The interpretation of Liahona given in the translated text is “a compass — and the Lord prepared it” (Alma 37:38). Since these studies do not address the Liahona’s physical characteristics nor its function, they fall short of an acceptable etymology for this name.
As I make clear shortly, I propose that the name Liahona is also parsed into three acceptable grammatical elements of Biblical Hebrew. The first element L- is a preposition that attaches to a name [-iah-] that is followed by an object [-ona]. In this grammatical construction L- does not signify “to,” but denotes that the named person [-iah-] is the agent, actor, author, or the one responsible for the object [-ona]. This proposal necessitates a lengthy discussion on the justification for this interpretation taken from the Bible and from epigraphic Hebrew texts of the pre-exilic period.
The second element of Liahona is Yāh, the short form of the divine name Yahweh, “the Lord.” There are no l-Yāh- expressions in the Masoretic Text, so a few l-Yahweh expressions are documented to demonstrate how this expression can be interpreted. The preposition l- occurs with other names in the Biblical text, and examples are given that show that it denotes the named person as the agent, author, or producer of the object. The l-Yāh expression identifies Yāh as the one who produced the object [-ona], or as interpreted in Alma 37:38, the one who prepared it.
The third element in the name Liahona is proposed to be *Ɂōnâ.1 This has the structure of a legitimate word in Hebrew, but it does not occur in any known Hebrew inscription or text. I propose a workaround by postulating a reconstruction of *Ɂōnâ as it would have occurred as a proto-Semitic word. The next step is to look for cognates (words that have a common origin) of the reconstructed word in related Semitic languages. Principles of historical linguistics and sound changes are utilized to identify possible cognates in other Semitic languages. Cognates are found in Akkadian, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Arabic. The fundamental meaning shared by these cognates is “vessel.” The conclusion is that *Ɂōnâ denotes “a vessel.” The name l-Yāh-*Ɂōnâ literally translates as “prepared the Lord a vessel.” The interpretation of this name is given to us by the translator Joseph Smith as “a compass, and the Lord prepared it.” The Nephites would not have had a word that signified [Page 213]a magnetic compass that indicated directions, but they would have had a word for vessel — *Ɂōnâ. A vessel is a portable physical object and qualifies as an appropriate designation for the Liahona. The proposed etymological translation of Liahona is “the Lord prepared a vessel,” and the interpretation is “the Lord prepared a compass.”
Reynolds and Sjodahl Propose a Meaning for Liahona
The etymology of the name Liahona has been of interest to some members of the church for a long time. Reynolds and Sjodahl divide Liahona into three parts.
L is a Hebrew preposition meaning “to,” and sometimes used to express the possessive case. Iah is a Hebrew abbreviated form of “Jehovah,” common in Hebrew names. On is the Hebrew name of the Egyptian “City of the Sun” …. L-iah-on means, therefore, literally, “To God is light;” or, “of God is light.” That is to say, God gives light, as does the Sun.2
Reynolds and Sjodahl propose the Hebrew name of the Egyptian city Ɂōn [Genesis 41:45, 50] as the final segment. The city Ɂōn “was celebrated for worship of sun-god Ra & hence called also sun-city.”3 Reynolds and Sjodahl likely conclude that Ɂōn is the closest word in the Hebrew Bible that would correspond with -ona, the final segment of Liahona. However, the final a is not found in Ɂōn. They explain where they believe the a came from. “The final a reminds us that the Egyptian form of the Hebrew name On is Annu, and that seems to be the form Lehi used.”4 This does not adequately explain the final a of Liahona. The a in Annu, does not follow the n but precedes it; the final a in Liahona follows the n. “This etymological explanation is rather unlikely because ancient Near Eastern people did not mix languages, especially in the onomasticon.”5 One may ask, how is the interpretation “to God is the light” compatible with the interpretation of Liahona as a compass (Alma 37:38), a physical object? There is a significant semantic difference here.
Curci Defines Liahona: “To Yahweh is the Whither”
Jonathan Curci also parses Liahona into three Hebrew segments: l– “to” + iaho, a theophoric indicator of Yahweh, i.e., “the Lord,” + ôna “whither,” “an adverb meaning direction or motion to a certain place.” Curci gives a literal translation, “To YHWH is the whither,” signifying “The Direction (director) of the Lord.”6 Curci’s study of the etymology of the word Liahona identifies the first part as Liaho “to (of) [Page 214]the Lord.”7 He identifies the last part of Liahona, ‘ona (I prefer to write aleph, a glottal stop, with the IPA symbol Ɂ. It is more visible and less likely to be confused with ayin ʕ, a pharyngeal voiced fricative.) that he derives from the Hebrew adverb ʔā́nāh,8 e.g., ʔā́nāh ṯēlḗḵî “whither wilt thou go?” (KJV), and “where are you going?” (NIV) (Genesis 16:8). The adverb ʔā́nāh derives from ʔān “where, whither” plus –āh, the he locale or directional he, that indicates the direction toward a place.9 Curci suggests that the ā vowel is pronounced as an open o.10 There is no way to know for certain the exact phonetic pronunciation of these vowel title=”10. Curci, “Liahona ‘The direction of the Lord’: An Etymological Explanation,” 65.”s in 600 bc.11
If Curci’s ʔā́nāh “whither” is the source of –ʔona, and if the Tiberian system of pronunciation were used, then both ā’s should be pronounced ɔ̄ (a low back rounded vowel) as in ʔɔ̄́nɔ̄, this would result in *liahoʔɔ̄nɔ̄, which would be transcribed *liahono. If the long ā is a low back open vowel, then we would get *liahana. Neither of these matches the spelling in the Book of Mormon, thus Hebrew ʔā́nāh “whither” is likely not the meaning of the last part of Liahona (-ona). Curci’s literal translation “to Yahweh is the whither,” uses an adverb in the place of the concrete noun compass, and his explanation of his interpretation is “the direction of the Lord.” Here he uses an abstract noun in the place of a concrete noun, i.e., a portable object “a compass.” There is a semantic disconnect between his explanation (abstract noun) and his interpretation (adverb) and the actual physical object (concrete noun) — “a round ball of curious workmanship, and it was of fine brass” (1 Nephi 16:10).
Bowen’s Interpretation: “To Yahweh, Look!”
Matthew Bowen proposes an Egyptian explanation for the meaning of Liahona:
Regarding the preposition l– in Liahona, the liquids r and l were frequently indistinguishable or interchangeable in Egyptian writing … There was, in fact, no standardized writing for l as distinct from r in Egyptian until Demotic times (600 bc–ad 400) … many words with l and r continued to be spelled interchangeably. … the interchangeability of r and l in Egyptian writing and the significant semantic overlap between Egyptian r and Hebrew lĕ make them handy candidates for interlingual calquing. Thus, the final element –na (-[’]nā’ can be accounted for as an Egyptian element, Liahona need not be considered a ‘Hebrew’ expression per se, particularly if the lĕ– can be viewed as a calqued form of the [Page 215]Egyptian preposition r. The possible objection that Liahona constitutes a mixed-language construction is mitigated if not obviated. … The syntax of Liahona emphasizes the divine name yāhô in a fronted prepositional phrase.12
Here Bowen supports his interpretation that Liahona is Egyptian. The object of the preposition l- is yāhô, i.e., lyāhô, “*liahu > *liaho (û > ō).” Bowen doesn’t clarify if *liaho is the Hebrew form or the Egyptian form (the preposition l- and the divine name Yāhô are Hebrew). Bowen also assumes that the prepositional phrase is “followed by a verbal construction.” He proposes that the final segment –na derives from the Egyptian imperative verb nw that is pronounced *-naw/-nao. “It is also possible that the Lehites pronounced [Ɂi]nw as – [a > o]na.”13 There are problems with this proposal from a linguistic standpoint. The vowels i, a, and o in the same environment following a glottal stop cannot just be changed at will to satisfy a proposal; this is not how vowels change. If the initial syllable Ɂi- of Ɂinw deletes leaving only nw that vocalizes as *naw/ nao, and if Lehi used only this half of the Demotic imperative verb, then this could explain the final –na. However, Lehi lived in Jerusalem and spoke Hebrew, so why would a partial Demotic verb get mixed in with the obvious Hebrew lĕ-yāhô-? Another problem with Bowen’s proposal is that he expects the final syllable -na of Liahona to be a verb. Bowen states: “I propose an Egyptian explanation that provides the expected verb.”14 A verb as the final segment is not required nor necessary in this type of grammatical construction, as will be shown in my discussion of the prefix lamed. The verb that Bowen settles on is Demotic Ɂinw, an imperative verb “look!” or “see!” Bowen’s interpretation of Liahona is an imperative statement: “‘To Yahweh, look!’ — that is, ‘Look to the Lord!’ or ‘Look to God!’”15 The Liahona is described in the Book of Mormon as “a round ball of curious workmanship, and it was of fine brass” (1 Nephi 16:1016). It is a physical instrument of some kind that is interpreted “a compass.” A compass is a concrete noun not an imperative statement. It is not necessary to go to Egyptian to define the nature of this marvelous instrument, when the first part of the name is Hebrew. Bowen’s proposal doesn’t account for the physical characteristics of the name Liahona.
There is substantial evidence that the original “language of the Book of Mormon is probably not Egyptian. … The original language of the Book of Mormon is based on a dialect of Hebrew.”17 The Egyptologist John Gee makes this observation:
[Page 216]The term language occurs forty-three times in the Book of Mormon, and can represent both script (Mosiah 1:4; 8:11; 9:1; 24:4; 3 Nephi 5:18; Ether 3:22) and speech (1 Nephi 1:15; 3:21; 5:3, 6, 8; 10:15; 17:22; 2 Nephi 31:3; Omni 1:18, Alma 5:61; 7:1; 26:24; 46:26; Helaman 13:37), and thus it is often ambiguous (e.g. 1 Nephi 1:2).18
Gee comes to this conclusion: “With the original tongue of the Nephites being Hebrew, what is Egyptian must be the script. A Hebrew dialect written in Egyptian script fulfills all the conditions set forth by both the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith for the ‘language’ of the Book of Mormon.”19 Sidney B. Sperry long ago came to the conclusion that the spoken language was Hebrew and the written language was a “reformed Egyptian” script.20
At the end of the record of Mormon, Moroni writes, “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. And if our plates had been sufficiently large, we should have written in the Hebrew; but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also. And if we could have written in the Hebrew, behold, ye would have had none imperfection in our record” (Mormon 9:32–33). This specifies that the record was written in Egyptian characters (indicating a script and not the spoken Egyptian language) that did not always express the nuances of their spoken Hebrew language, thus there were imperfections in the text. “None other people knoweth our language [script], therefore he [the Lord] hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof” (Mormon 9:34), that is, the Lord would provide the interpretation of the “reformed Egyptian” script and the underlying Hebrew-derived Nephite language. Lehi, as a relative of Laban, likely learned this script from his father or grandfather, therefore he could read the plates of brass, and Nephi used this same script to write his record in his native Hebrew by using the “reformed” Egyptian script.21 A spoken language can be written in different languages or writing systems as long as the language or script can represent the phonemes and morphemes of the spoken language. Also, it is no surprise that the spoken Hebrew of the Nephites “hath been altered by us” in the thousand years since the time of Nephi. Spoken languages naturally change over time.
There are many who conclude that “the language of the Egyptians” in 1 Nephi 1:2 refers to both Egyptian speech and Egyptian script.22 It is true that there are a number of Egyptian derived names in the Book of Mormon narrative,23 but this by itself does not justify concluding [Page 217]that they spoke the Egyptian language. These Egyptian type names may have become part of the Israelite culture during their long sojourn in the land of Egypt. The names may have persisted in Joseph’s lineage (his wife was Egyptian), and they are also likely to be on the plates of brass.
Spendlove’s Interpretation is an Exclamation: To Jehovah!
Loren Spendlove offers another explanation for Liahona. He writes:
its derivation [is] based on the Hebrew language. … I also believe that the initial part of the word derives from the Hebrew ליהו (le’yaho, meaning “to or toward Jehovah”). Generally speaking, the various explanations often vary from each other only in the final syllable of the word Liahona, -na. I propose that the final syllable in Liahona comes from the Hebrew particle נא (na), described by Koehler and Baumgartner as a “particle giving emphasis,” and by Brown, Driver and Briggs as a particle of “entreaty or exhortation.” It has also been described as a “pleading for what is desired.” In the Hebrew Bible this word is translated most often as now, please, oh!, I beseech thee, or I pray thee. However, none of these translations really do service to this Hebrew word. I would describe נא (na) as an exclamation without any translatable meaning in English. Perhaps it could be best rendered as simply ! (exclamation point). If we join the particle נא (na) to the initial part of Liahona (ליהו le’yaho) we arrive at ליהו-נא (le’yaho-na), to Jehovah!, or toward Jehovah!24
Spendlove’s interpretation agrees with the general consensus that Liaho– is a combination of the Hebrew preposition lĕ, meaning to, with the theophoric element yaho, a form of the divine name Yahweh (or Jehovah) — that is, “to Yahweh,” or “to the Lord.” Spendlove proposes that the final syllable –na is an exclamation without any translatable meaning in English, i.e., it is an exclamation. A problem with this interpretation is similar to Bowen’s in that na is a particle and not a concrete noun like a compass. The Liahona is a physical object whose interpretation in English is a compass, so how is it possible to get the interpretation of “a compass” out of an exclamation “to Jehovah!”?
Parsing Liahona into Meaningful Segments
The word Liahona should not be divided into syllables based on possible English pronunciation and syllable patterns, for example, it could be [Page 218]pronounced in English either lèe-a-hóe-na or líe-a-hòe-na. I have heard it pronounced both ways. A more appropriate way to determine the probable ancient pronunciation and meaning would be to parse the word into meaningful segments based on Biblical Hebrew grammar. The first Hebrew segment is the letter l– or lamed that is a prefixed preposition that attaches to a substantive (in this case, a name), and in this phonemic environment it has no vowel.25
The second meaningful segment is –iah-. This is a short form of the name of the Lord or Yah. The Book of Mormon spelling follows the Greek or Septuagint system using iota, i for Hebrew yod, y. The theophoric element -iah occurs as a suffix on some Book of Mormon names.26 Since the yod in –iah- is a consonant, I prefer to use y instead of i. Scholars believe the full name of the Lord, the Tetragrammaton or four letters Yhwh, is pronounced Yahweh.27 The short form yh or Yāh occurs as a suffix on many names, and it is also a stand-alone name (Exodus 15:2; 17:16; Psalm 68:4 plus 20 more). It is also the final name in the phrase, halǝlû-yāh “praise ye Yāh (the Lord)” (Psalm 105:45 plus many more). Of the above scholars, who have proposed the etymology of Liahona, only Reynolds and Sjodahl choose yh or Yāh, the short form of Yahweh, as the second segment in Liahona. Curci, Bowen, and Spendlove choose the other short form yhw that is vocalized in the Masoretic Text as yǝhô- when it is a prefix and –yā́hû when it is a suffix. The form yhw only occurs as a prefix or a suffix in names. The problem with yhw or yahw as a prefix is that the vowel a deletes or reduces to schwa in propretonic position (two syllables before the tone or stress) based on Masoretic pointing, and the consonant w changes to the vowel ô, e.g., yǝhôɁāḥāz (2 Kings 10:35). The suffix vocalization of yhw is –yā́hû, where a lengthens and w changes to the long vowel ū, e.g., Ɂăḇîyā́hû “Abijah” (2 Chronicles 13:20).28 Only Curci discusses this issue. His answer is that -yaho- is the middle of the word.29 The final syllable is –na that he proposes comes from Ɂā́nāh “whither.” He merges the o of -yaho- with the first syllable Ɂā– of Ɂā́nāh to get Ɂona.30 Bowen and Spendlove keep the final syllable -na as a separate entity. The selection of –yaho– as the middle segment creates problems of interpretation; yhw only occurs as a suffix on theophoric names with the vocalization –yā́hû. If the vowel o is part of the middle segment, then the final syllable –na has to function as a meaningful element in the name that identifies the object as a compass. If Yāh is selected as the middle segment, as Reynolds and Sjodahl do, then the final segment has two syllables, which is more acceptable as a Hebrew noun. If Yāh can be a stand-alone name for the Lord, then it can be prefixed by the [Page 219]preposition l-. The name Yāh occurs as a stand-along name in these scriptures: Exodus 15:2; 17:16; Psalms 84:5; 68:19; 78:12; 89:9; 94:7, 12; 102:19; 115:18; 118:5, 14, 17–19; 122:4; 130:3; 135:4; Isiah 12:2; 26:4; 38:11; and it is the final name in the hallǝlû-Yāh expression about twenty-five times in Psalms.
With Yāh as the middle segment, o becomes part of the third segment and not part of the divine name. The final segment is, therefore, two syllable –ona. Hebrew words begin with a consonant not a vowel. The most likely choice for the first consonant is the aleph, transliterated ʔ, a glottal stop; this results in the word *ʔona. Neither English nor Greek have a letter that represents a glottal stop, so the glottal Ɂ is not transliterated, it is simply ignored when spelling Hebrew names, e.g., ʔāḏām “Adam,” ʔaḇrām “Abram.” Biblical Hebrew has long and short vowels, but these are not evident in the transliteration of Book of Mormon names. The conclusion is that the name Liahona can justifiably be parsed into three Hebrew segments l-Yāh-*ʔōnâ.
The Lamed Prefix
The prefixed preposition l– in Biblical Hebrew has a broad semantic range, so there are a number of possible interpretations for it. Koehler and Baumgartner give twenty-six nuanced definitions of the prefixed l-.31 Languages are complicated. Choosing only the first definition of l– “to, toward” to solve the meaning of Liahona is not the only approach. Each definition should be looked at to see which one best fits the context. In a grammatical construction where l- attaches to a name or title that is associated with an active verb, then the interpretation “to” is appropriate, e.g., Jonathan “gave it to David” (l-David) (1 Samuel 18:4), “They have ascribed (credited) unto David” (l-David) (1 Samuel 18:8), “Thus shall ye say to David” (l-David) (1 Samuel 18:25). This is the grammatical construction that Bowen expects in his analysis of the name Liahona.32 However, if the verb in this grammatical construction is passive then the meaning of l– is not “to,” but l– signifies the agent or originator — “the one who performs the action,”33 e.g., “blessed be Abram by God [l-Ɂēl] Most High” (NIV Genesis 14:19). In other words, the expression l-God does not mean “to God,” but means that God is the originator or agent of the blessing, and this is best expressed in current English with by. The KJV translates [l-Ɂēl] “of God.” Of in the 15th century introduced the agent or originator of the action; today we would say by, as per NIV translation. The English preposition of, like the Hebrew preposition l-, is very complex in its many uses.34
[Page 220]In a phrase where a noun follows the prefixed name instead of a verb, the prefixed l– denotes something similar to the construction that has a passive verb, i.e., the named person is the originator of the object. For example, there are many psalms that are attributed to David as the author, and many begin with l- prefixed to his name, l-dāwid “of David” (Psalms 25–27). The introduction to many of David’s psalms include the word mizmôr “psalm” either before or after l-David, e.g., l-dāwid mizmôr (Psalm 24) or mizmôr l-dāwid (Psalm 23) “a psalm of David.” It doesn’t seem to make any difference in meaning if mizmôr precedes or follows l-dāwid. The noun, in this case mizmôr “psalm,” functions like the passive verb “blessed be” where l-God is the originator or the one doing the blessing, while l-David is the originator or author, the one doing (writing) the psalm. The prefixed l- in this case is an expression of the subjective genitive (the subject or originator of the object). Gesenius writes that the introduction: A psalm of David, indicates that it properly belongs to David as the author. “Moreover, the introduction of the author, poet, &c., by this Lamed auctoris is the customary idiom also in the other Semitic dialects, especially in Arabic.”35 The lamed of authorship is also evident in Psalms 17 and 86 “a prayer of David” tp̄illāh l-dāwid, in Psalm 90 “a prayer of Moses” tp̄illāh l-mōšeh, and Habakkuk 3:1 “a prayer of Habakkuk” tp̄illāh la-ḥăḇaqquq.36 It seems reasonable to interpret the lamed in these examples as authorship, since the written prayers of these three individuals would have originated with them.37
In Biblical Hebrew when “to, unto, or toward” the Lord is expressed, it can be done with the full preposition Ɂel, e.g., “Cain said unto the Lord [Ɂel-Yahweh]” (Genesis 4:13); “mine eyes are ever toward the Lord [Ɂel- Yahweh]” (Psalm 25:15); priests “came near to the Lord [Ɂel- Yahweh]” (Exodus 19:22). When the preposition Ɂel “to” is accompanied by an active verb, it denotes “motion to or direction toward.”38 Likewise, when the prefixed lamed has the meaning of “to, unto, or toward” there is an active verb in the grammatical construction.39
The l-Yāh construction does not occur in the Masoretic Text, but the other prefixed preposition bet does, as in b-Yāh (Psalm 68:4; Isaiah 26:4). The l-Yahweh construction is the one that occurs in the Masoretic Text. When l-Yahweh is accompanied by a passive verb, it denotes that the Lord is the originator or agent, e.g., Saul said to Samuel, “blessed be [bārûḵ] thou of the Lord [l-Yahweh].” (1 Samuel 15:13). When the l-Yahweh phrase is accompanied by a noun, it also signifies that the Lord is the originator or agent, e.g., l-Yahweh hayǝšûʕāh (Psalm 3:9), literally “l-Yahweh the salvation.” How is this to be understood? The [Page 221]KJV has “salvation belongeth unto the Lord,” where l- is translated with a possessive significance, in that the Lord owns or possesses salvation. If l-Yahweh means that Yahweh is the originator (subjective genitive), then l-Yahweh hayǝšûʕāh can be translated “Yahweh is the originator or author of salvation.” The NIV translates l-Yahweh hayǝšûʕāh “From the Lord comes deliverance.” The NIV translation indicates that deliverance comes from or originates (lamed auctoris) with the Lord; this is more in line with the concept that the Lord [l-Yahweh] is the originator or author of deliverance or salvation.
The prophet Jonah, after being swallowed by the great fish, prayed to the Lord and promised to complete his mission, then he said: yǝšûʕāṯāh l-Yahweh “Salvation is of the Lord” (KJV Jonah 2:9); “Salvation comes from the Lord” (NIV). The subjective genitive interpretation of l-Yahweh denotes that Yahweh is the originator or author of salvation in this verse.40
If we apply the subjective genitive interpretation to the first part of the name Liahona, we get a better understanding of what l-Yāh– signifies, i.e., that Yāh is the originator of *Ɂōnâ, “the compass.” The Book of Mormon plainly explains what the interpretation of l-Yāh– is, but unless we have the correct understanding of the Hebrew phrase it won’t be recognized. Alma gives us the name of the ball or director — “our fathers called it Liahona, which is, being interpreted, a compass — and the Lord prepared it” (Alma 37:38). “Our fathers” surely refers to Lehi and Nephi, the first possessors of it, who likely gave it the name Liahona. There are two parts to the name Liahona and two parts to its interpretation. The second part of the name is *Ɂōnâ, the interpretation is “a compass,” and the first part of the name is l-Yāh, the interpretation is “the Lord prepared it.” It is important to understand that in Hebrew syntax (word order) the modifier follows the head noun, while in English the modifier precedes the head noun; therefore, the last part of the name is interpreted first in English, and the first part is interpreted last. The first part of Liahona, as discussed above, is l-Yāh, which signifies that the Lord is the originator or the one who made the object; to paraphrase the words of Alma, the Lord was the one who prepared it. The semantic similarity between originator, author, and preparer is recognizable. The originator is the source of the product, an author produces a written product, and a preparer produces a finished product that is ready for use.
In the writings of Nephi, the Liahona is referred to by its interpretation not by its name, i.e., “the compass [*Ɂōnâ], which had been prepared of the Lord [l-Yāh]” (1 Nephi 18:12).41 This clause is semantically equivalent to [Page 222]Alma’s statement, “a compass — and the Lord prepared it” (Alma 37:38). The only difference is which is added before prepared. In Biblical Hebrew the relative pronoun which can precede the prefixed lamed, e.g., Ɂăšer l-. The Ɂăšer l- construction “may be used instead of l in some cases in order to give more precision or more emphasis.”42 An example is the first line in Song of Songs: šîr haššîrîm Ɂăšer lišlōmōh “The song of songs which is Solomon’s” (Song of Solomon 1:1). Here in KJV ăšer l-išlōmōh is translated as possessive genitive, Solomon’s, i.e., the songs belong to Solomon. But if ăšer l- is translated as a subjective genitive then Solomon is the originator or author — the one who produces the songs, i.e., “Song of Songs which are authored by Solomon.” Solomon is accredited for three thousand proverbs and a thousand and five songs (1 Kings 4:32). If we use the Book of Mormon phraseology we would get, “Song of Songs, which had been prepared of Solomon.” I believe the phraseology in Song of Solomon 1:1 is equivalent to this Book of Mormon phrase: “the compass, which had been prepared of the Lord” *hāɁōnâ Ɂăšer l-Yāh.
There are other statements involving the compass that may not have included the l-Yāh expression, but conveyed its intended meaning with a verb.43 These expressions are even more explicit in crediting the Lord for its manufacture, such as: “and also the ball or compass which was prepared for my father by the hand of the Lord” (2 Nephi 5:12); “and the ball or director which led our fathers through the wilderness, which was prepared by the hand of the Lord” (Mosiah 1:16).44 The phrases “prepared by the hand of the Lord,” and “prepared of the Lord” are semantically equivalent, the first statement leaves no doubt as to who prepared it. The preposition of in this case is an expression of the subjective genitive, where the subject is the agent, the originator, the doer, the maker.45 The most likely interpretation of the first part of the name Liahona, l-Yāh, based on the Hebrew and scriptural evidence discussed above, is not “to the Lord,” but is “prepared of/by the Lord,” i.e., “the Lord prepared [l-Yāh] a compass [*Ɂōnâ]” to guide Lehi and his family to the promised land.
The Prefix Lamed in Epigraphic Sources
I believe that it is important to look at extra-Biblical sources to see how the information from the epigraphic record can illuminate our understanding of the nuanced meanings of the prefixed preposition l- that occurs on a name followed by a noun. This is the same syntax as the segments in Liahona, i.e., l– (prefix), + Yāh (name), + *Ɂōnâ (noun). This same grammatical construction is found in many epigraphic [Page 223]sources from the pre-exilic period (before 586 bc). Inscription #1 in tomb I from Khirbet El-Kôm (Qôm), dates to the mid-seventh century bc, and contains an inscription with a prefixed lamed before a name: lʕwpy bn ntnyhw hḥdr hzh, and is translated: “Belonging to ʕOphai, son of Nethanyahu, (is) this tomb-chamber.”46 The noun in the inscription, “this tomb-chamber,” occurs last in the phrase following l-ʕOphai and his father’s name. “The accepted principle in Hebrew epigraphy is the lamed prefixed to a proper noun not preceded by a verb should be considered possessive.”47 However, if lʕwpy (l-ʕOphai) is interpreted as subjective genitive, then ʕOphai was the agent or originator, the one who made or produced the tomb-chamber. If we use the interpretation in the Book of Mormon, then l-ʕOphai means that ʕOphai prepared the tomb-chamber. ʕOphai may have hewed the tomb-chamber out of the stone, and left his name on the wall, indicating that he had made the tomb. Compare this to NIV translation of Isaiah 22:16: “What are you [Shebna] doing here and who gave you permission to cut out a grave for yourself here, hewing your grave on the height and chiseling your resting place in the rock?” ʕOphai may have hewed out the burial place in the soft rock just like Shebna, and wrote his name on the rock, becoming either the preparer (subjective genitive) or the owner (possessive genitive) of the burial chamber or both, the interpretation being ambiguous.
Tomb II at Khirbet El-Kôm contains a memorial inscription (#3) that leaves a blessing on the deceased and was apparently written by the person who is named last, his name being prefixed by the lamed, l-ʔOniyahu “(written by) ʔOniyahu.” This is interpreted as a lamed auctoris (subjective genitive) signifying that the named person is the originator or author of the inscription and not the owner or occupier of the tomb.48 The lamed in Tomb II inscription #3 of Khirbet El-Kôm refers to the person who wrote the inscription. The lamed in Tomb I inscription #1 could refer to ʕOphai as the owner of the tomb-chamber, or it could refer to ʕOphai as the one who prepared or hewed the tomb-chamber.
Some inscriptions on Samaria ostraca employ the lamed before personal names that are “receipts written in the royal storerooms, when the delivery arrived.” The receipts are for wine or oil that was delivered to the royal storehouse by the individuals named on the pot sherd. The word order is, l- + name + noun, e.g., ostracon No. 10: lʔḥnʕm . nbl . yn . yšn “(belonging) to Aḥinoʕam. A jar of old wine;” and ostracon No. 18) lgdyw . nbl . šmn . rḥṣ “(Belonging) to Gaddiyau. A jar of fine oil.” Yadin suggests that the named individuals were the owners of big estates, and are “the producers of the wine or oil sent to the palace.”49 If [Page 224]Yadin’s suggestion is correct, then the inscription should be translated as subjective genitive and not possessive genitive, i.e., “produced by Aḥinoʕam, a jar of old wine” and “produced by Gaddiyau, a jar of fine oil.” The lamed on these ostraca identifies the person as the one who produces or prepares the oil or wine.
A decanter from the Hebron district dating to the eighth or seventh century bc records “both the name of the owner and the contents: ‘Belonging to Yaḥzeyahu, wine of Kḥl.’ Koḥel is probably the place after which the wine was named.”50 If this phrase is translated with the subjective genitive, it means that Yaḥzeyahu produced the wine of Koḥel.
Incised jar-handles from wine jars that were found at Gibeon record the site name gbʕn along with the lamed on personal names. “It is believed that these were wine-jars for commercial use and that the inscriptions record the name of the vineyard where the wine was produced and the name of the owners.”51 If the lamed is seen as subjective genitive, then the lamed identifies the owners as the ones who produce (prepare) the wine.
Many hundreds of jar handles dating to the seventh century bc have been found that bear royal seal impressions that include the prefixed lamed on the word for king l-mlk, which is interpreted as possessive genitive, “belonging to the king.” It is believed that these lameleḵ vessels either had a capacity guaranteed by the crown, or that the vessels were manufactured at a royal pottery factory in a city whose name also appeared on one of the handles.52 “A jar from Lachish is incised bt lmlk, ‘royal bāt,’ indicating the royally approved measure of capacity.”53 The lmlk impressions on jar-handles could mean that they were the personal property of the king, or if interpreted as subjective genitive, it would mean that the king was responsible for manufacturing them through his loyal subjects to be used as the royal standard for trade, taxes or tribute. This interpretation is supported by the NIV translation of 1 Chronicles 4:23: “They were the potters who lived at Netaim and Gederah; they stayed there and worked for the king.” The potters were apparently making pots (jars) for the king in those places, which probably had good clay for making pottery, and they would stamp them as a product of the king lmlk, a royal jar.
An impression of a seal or signet ring appears on small pieces of clay called bullae (plural) or bulla (singular) that are used to seal papyrus documents. The papyrus has a written message, and it is folded or rolled up and tied with cord or string, and then a small piece of clay is placed on the cord to which an impression is made with a signet ring or a seal [Page 225]that bears the name of the individual sending the document.54 The bulla usually breaks when the document is opened. Most of the bullae contain the name of a person prefixed with the lamed.55 This was like sealing the letter or document; if the cord were untied the clay seal would break, since it is very fragile. The backsides of the bullae show the impressions of the cords and/or fibers of the papyrus. Some edges of bullae even show the fingerprints of the one making the impression. Many hundreds of these seal-impressions have been found giving an “eloquent testimony to the widespread use of papyrus for letters and documents in the time of the Monarchy.”56 The seal-impressions on the bullae with the prefixed lamed are usually interpreted as possessive genitive, meaning that the papyrus letter belongs to the person. However, if the subjective genitive interpretation is employed, then the named person is the agent, the one responsible for it, i.e., the one who “prepared” it. This is equivalent to lamed auctoris (the author or originator), e.g., the psalms (of/by) l-David.
The lamed on personal names or titles on jar-handles is ambiguous meaning that the wine or oil either belonged to the person or to the king, or that the wine or oil was prepared or produced by the person or by the king. Similarly, the lamed on the ostraca from Samaria that is prefixed to the names of the owners of big estates designates them as the producers of the wine or oil that was sent to the palace. The dates of all of these examples of the prefixed lamed are from the time of Lehi or earlier in the pre-exilic period, and were written with the Old Hebrew alphabet. If the lamed is translated as the subjective genitive in these examples, then the interpretation of l– as an agent, originator, author, or preparer matches the interpretation of l-Yāh in Liahona, i.e., the Lord is the agent, originator, or preparer of the compass *Ɂōnâ.
The lamed prefixed to a proper name or title in the above epigraphic examples is an abbreviated phrase. When all that is available is the space on a signet ring or on a stamp, the message has to be short and simple. As a result, the lamed carries the semantic load, it’s meaning being determined by the context and by the thing (noun) it refers to. The ambiguity is to know if it is possessive genitive or subjective genitive to arrive at the intended meaning. The main take away of this discussion is that there are three components to these phrases: 1) the prefixed lamed, 2) the name, and 3) the product. The product may be an inscription, a papyrus letter, a psalm, a prayer, a tomb-chamber, wine, oil, or any other thing including a compass.
If the lamed prefixed on a proper name was only interpretated as ownership (possessive genitive) in Lehi’s day, then it is very likely that [Page 226]the l-Yāh of Liahona would signify “belonging to Yah.” However, this interpretation does not fit the interpretation given in the Book of Mormon. The text reads: “Liahona, which is being interpreted a compass — and the Lord prepared it” (Alma 37:38). The interpretation in Alma is not that the compass “belonged to” the Lord, but that he “prepared” it. The Lord was the originator, the one who prepared and provided the Liahona for Lehi, so the first segment l– is interpreted here as subjective genitive to agree with the narrative in the Book of Mormon.
A Possible Semitic Origin and Meaning for *-Ɂōnâ
If the analysis that *Ɂōnâ is the final segment in Liahona is correct, then the assumption is that there should be a Semitic noun *ʔōnâ in Biblical Hebrew. However, this noun is not found in the Hebrew Bible, thus the difficulty begins. In Modern Hebrew ʔônâ (plural ʔônôt) is a “deed of purchase.”57 A deed of purchase isn’t suitable, since it doesn’t match the description of a round brass ball with pointers that can direct one to the promised land, so this is likely not a meaning that makes much sense as a compass. If the noun *Ɂōnâ is not found in the Hebrew Bible or any other ancient Hebrew texts, that does not mean that there never was such a word in the language. Ancient written Hebrew texts only contain a fraction of the actual words of the language. Since *Ɂōnâ is not known to exist in early Hebrew writings, it may be possible that a cognate (a word with the same linguistic derivation) to *Ɂōnâ exists in another Semitic language. To find a cognate, it is necessary to postulate what the Proto-Semitic word might have been, and then to look for possible cognates in other Semitic languages. Each Semitic language would have slightly different changes in their consonants and vowels, so the proto form of *Ɂōnâ would develop differently in related languages.
The first step is to identify the original consonants and vowels of a Proto-Semitic (PS) word that could develop into *Ɂōnâ. To do this requires some knowledge of the sound changes that occurred in the historical development of words from PS to Biblical Hebrew. The original PS vowel system consisted of three vowels: short and long /i/-/ī/, /a/-/ā/, and /u/-/ū/.58 The Hebrew vowels o and ō were not part of the PS vowel system, therefore, the vowel ō in *Ɂōnâ must derive from another PS vowel. The Hebrew vowel ō derives from at least three sources: 1) the PS long vowel *ā raises to ō when stressed, this is called the Canaanite Shift for it occurs early in the development of the language;59 2) the diphthong *aw changes to ō;60 and 3) PS *u changes to ō by two paths, a) in a stressed closed syllable,61 and b) pretonic *u changes to ō in an unstressed open [Page 227]syllable.62 The most likely origin of ō in l-Yāh-Ɂōnâ is from the third option, Proto-Semitic *u, since it is an open unstressed syllable.63
Most Hebrew word stems have three consonants and one or two vowels. The variation of vowel quality and how they relate to the consonants determines the meaning of the word. The “sequence of vowels [is] called a melody, … and the arrangement of consonants and vowels [is] called a template.”64 Different arrangements of vowels and consonants form patterns that define word classes.65 In Semitic literature, the three consonants q-t-l are used as substitutes for the true stem consonants, whatever they may be, and the vowels retain their original quality. It is a convenient way to discuss the various template patterns and vowel melodies in Semitic languages without writing the true consonants for each word separately.
The final vowel in Liahona likely derives from PS *a. There is no apparent consonant following the final vowel; this may indicate that the final third root (III) consonant is a weak consonant like *w or *y that either deletes or contracts with the vowel. The vowel melody with *u in the first syllable and *a in the second syllable forms the PS qutal noun pattern. From PS, “The expected regular development to Hebrew is qutal > qōtāl. This pattern is almost unattested” in Hebrew.66 The qutal noun pattern is more evident in Arabic. Arabic has some verbal nouns with a qutà pattern that lacks a final consonant, “which may be considered the III-weak reflex of qutal, found with both III-w and III-y roots.”67 In other words, III-weak is the third consonant of the stem that is either *w or *y. “In [Classical Arabic] III-weak roots … with a before the final radical, the stem ends in –ā.”68 In other words, the third consonant w or y deletes or contracts with the vowel causing it to lengthen, i.e., qutaw or qutay > qutā. Qutā is the expected template and vowel pattern that would develop from PS *Ɂunaw or *Ɂunay > *Ɂunā. The resultant *Ɂunā develops into *ʔōnấ when u changes to ō.
The final (III-w) Proto-Semitic consonant *w changes to *y in Central and Northwest Semitic languages, including Arabic, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Canaanite and Hebrew among others.69 The reconstruction of *ʔōnấ would be *ʔunáy in the Northwest Semitic languages, but for Proto-Semitic it is likely *ʔunaw. In the development of Hebrew, the final stressed –ay of *ʔunáy changes to –ā, for example, Śaráy (Sarái in Genesis 11:29) changes to Śarấ (Sarah) by this sound change.70 The unstressed pretonic open *u of *ʔunā́ changes to ō by natural sound change rules resulting in *ʔōnấ.
[Page 228]The Cognates of *Ɂunaw and *Ɂunay
The ancient Semitic language that has the largest corpus of words is Akkadian, an East Semitic language. The name derives from the third millennium bc kingdom of Akkad. The language is also called Assyrian or Assyro-Babylonian from the latter kingdoms of Mesopotamia. The language was written in cuneiform script that wrote syllables containing both consonants and vowels. The later Semitic alphabetic scripts did not write the vowels, but only wrote the consonants. The best source for Akkadian or Assyrian words is The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago that is usually referred to as the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary or Cad with some twenty-one volumes.71
The PS word *Ɂunaw would not look like this in Akkadian. The first consonant aleph Ɂ- is “lost in most environments,”72 so Ɂ would not be written in Akkadian. The final -aw also changes; “the Akkadian diphthong *aw became ū.”73 As a result, we would need to look for a word like unū in the Akkadian dictionary. In volume twenty, there is a noun únūtu that is both masculine and feminine signifying “l. merchandise, goods (OA), 2. Equipment, gear, tools, 3. Utensils, furnishings, vessels, belongings.”74 The –t– in únūtu is the feminine marker, and final –u is a case ending.75 The PS feminine form of the noun would likely be *Ɂunawt- that develops into Akkadian únūt-. The *aw > ū sound change happens with PS *mawt– that changes into Akkadian mūt- “death.”76 The feminine form of the noun prevails over the masculine form, possibly because it has two consonants. The Akkadian stem unūt- derives from PS *Ɂunawt– by established sound change rules, and it signifies, “merchandise, equipment, tools, utensils, vessels or belongings.” The Liahona is a piece of equipment or a vessel made of brass that contains spindles and writing that gives direction to Lehi on his journey to the promised land.
The Cognate *Ɂunay in Aramaic
An Aramaic cognate of Akkadian unūt- shows up on the ninth century bc Tell Fekherye inscription. A bilingual inscription is engraved on the front and back of a basalt statue of a standing man. There are thirty-eight lines of Akkadian text in cuneiform script on the front, and there are twenty-three lines of Aramaic in alphabetic script on the back.77 The Akkadian noun ú-nu-te is on line 27. “It is uncertain whether the noun ú-nu-te should be considered as a Babylonian form.” “This word often designates ‘vessels’, but its semantic range is wider and it can be used for any ‘movables’, even the statue.”78 Lipinski translates the Akkadian [Page 229]in line 27, “movables of the temple of Adad, my lord.”79 The translation of únūte into Aramaic is m’ny’ (vowels are not written in this script. The aleph or glottal stop ’, I write with Ɂ). Lipinski translates mɁnyɁ as movables rather than vessels.80 “The word m’ny’ is generally translated by ‘vessels’, but it can designate all kinds of implements and utensils in clay, wood, leather, stone, copper, iron, silver, gold, also weapons, musical instruments, pieces of furniture, even garments in linen or wool.” … “The [Aramaic] expression m’ny’ zy bt Hdd is exactly paralleled in Ezra 5,14 by m’ny’ dy byt ’lh’.”81 The Aramaic of Ezra 5:14 transliterates and vocalizes as: māɁnayyāɁ ḏî-ḇêṯ-ɁĕlāhāɁ “the vessels of the house of God.” I see the Aramaic word māɁnayyāɁ parsing into three parts: mā– is a noun prefix;82 -Ɂnay- is the triconsonantal stem or root; and the suffix -yāɁ indicates a plural emphatic that denotes a determinate or definite noun.83 The Aramaic construct form of “vessels” develops from the absolute maʔnay that loses stress; the final syllable –ay “in a closed secondary-accented syllable it becomes –ēy.”84 This results in the construct form māʔnēy ḇêṯ-ɁĕlāhāɁ “vessels of the house of God” (Ezra 6:5).
The Aramaic stem Ɂnay is the semantic core of the word. This stem has the three consonants of the proposed proto word for *Ɂōnâ, which is *Ɂunay in the Northwest Semitic languages and *Ɂunaw in Proto-Semitic. The original first vowel *u is pretonic in an open syllable, and the phonetic rule of Aramaic is: “Short vowels in a pretonic open syllable become shewa, and are not lengthened as they often are in BH [Biblical Hebrew].”85 We know that the deleted pretonic vowel is *u from the Akkadian cognate; the first consonant is Ɂ; and the last syllable is –ay, i.e., Ɂnay, a perfect match for the proposed proto noun. Therefore, the reconstructed *Ɂunay is a reasonable possibility based on ancient texts and historical linguistic principles of sound change.
Koehler and Baumgartner discuss Aramaic *māɁn “receptacle, vessel” and its possible cognates in other Semitic languages. They include Canaanite anayi “ship”(El-Amarna 245:28; Cad A/II: 106a), Akkadian unūt- “equipment”, Ugaritic Ɂnyt [the feminine form] and Ɂny “ship,” Arabic ɁināɁ “receptacle, eating dish,” and Hebrew Ɂŏnî and Ɂŏnîyâ “ship.” They write: “the underlying root of the sbst. [substantive] is uncertain; it could be Hebrew II Ɂnh [originally Ɂny (see p. 70)] … with the meaning ‘to grasp, contain’, or perhaps even *’un ‘to be strong, be massive’.”86 The triconsonantal Ɂny shows up as a cognate in Classical Arabic.87 This evidence, I believe, increases the possibility that the proto [Page 230]form *Ɂunay was a real word that developed into Hebrew *Ɂōnâ by regular sound change rules, and was a word in pre-exilic Hebrew.88
*Ɂōnâ may have been more commonly spoken in the Northern Kingdom, where Lehi’s tribe (Manasseh) lived, being closer to Aramaic and Ugaritic speakers. In the Southern Kingdom, *Ɂōnâ possibly was displaced by kĕlî that has the same meaning, i.e., “article, utensil, vessel.”89 The plural is kēlîm. Klî has a broad range of meaning including objects made of any material. It is translated as “jewels” (Genesis 24:53), “weapons” (Genesis 27:3), “stuff” and “household stuff” (Genesis 31:37), “sacks” (Genesis 42:25), “vessels” (Genesis 43:11), “instrument” of cruelty (Genesis 49:5), “furnishings” of Tabernacle (Exodus 25:9; 31:7), “utensils” on a table — dishes, pans, bowls, jars (Exodus 37:16), “a thing” (garment) of skin (Leviticus 13:52), earthen “vessel” (Leviticus 14:50), wooden “vessel” (Leviticus 15:12), “instrument” of iron (Numbers 35:16), “weapons” (Deuteronomy 1:41), “armour” (1 Samuel 14:1), and “bag” (1 Samuel 17:40). If klî became the common expression for “things,” then it likely superseded or displaced the more restrictive word *Ɂōnâ that had earlier been used for sacred temple vessels of precious metals or movable (portable) royal objects in the king’s palace. The simplest explanation, in my opinion, is semantic overlap. Klî replaced *Ɂōnâ and became the word of choice for all the above-mentioned things, thus *Ɂōnâ fell out of favor and was not written in the Masoretic Text. Lehi knew that the Lord had provided the Liahona, so why would he use klî, the common term for any household object, rather he would use the older Semitic term for sacred metal objects associated with the temple.
Languages are always changing both phonetically and semantically. Some words in a language may last for thousands of years, while other words may last a century or two or even a few decades before passing out of favor. Just because *Ɂōnâ does not show up in the Bible or in any Hebrew epigraphic records doesn’t mean it never existed in pre-exilic Hebrew, especially if closely related languages had cognates of that word. The presence of cognates in closely related languages suggests the possibility that such a word may have existed in early Hebrew. We don’t have enough information, and we may never get confirmation of this word’s existence in Hebrew unless someone wrote it down, and it has been preserved in some record that has not come to light.
Etymological explanations, comparative linguistics, and philological arguments are very complicated. There are no easy answers, and conclusions are always tentative. If *Ɂōnâ had existed in the Bible then Reynolds and Sjodahl would have solved the problem long ago. My attempt [Page 231]here has been to use the principles of historical linguistics to approach the etymology of Liahona from a new perspective, and to arrive at a reasonable translation of Liahona. Translating the last part of Liahona, -ona or *Ɂōnâ, as a vessel, a portable metal object (a noun) makes more sense to me than translating –ona as Ɂon the “sun city” that represents “light;” –(o)na as “whither,” an adverb; -na as Egyptian imperative “look!,” a verb; or –nāɁ as an exclamation point. I propose that the translation of Liahona is: “a vessel prepared of the Lord,” and the interpretation is: “a compass prepared of the Lord” (Alma 37:38).
Translation vs. Interpretation
It is important to distinguish the difference between translation and interpretation. There is semantic overlap in these terms. Interpretation is explaining, making clear or explicit the meaning of a word so it can be understood within a language or culture, while translation transfers the meaning of a word from one language or culture to a word in another language or culture with comparable meaning. A translation is an interpretation, but an interpretation is not necessarily a translation. For example, the translation of the final segment in Liahona, *Ɂōnâ, is proposed to be “a vessel,” since that was a word they likely had in their language. However, *Ɂōnâ is interpreted into English as “a compass,” because of what the instrument (vessel) was able to do. The interpretation compass is the closest meaning in the English language that describes how the ball or director functions, but compass falls short of conveying the full functional range of the *Ɂōnâ “the vessel.”
Nephi was able to ascertain the exact direction they were traveling by means of the ball or director, not only in reference to the four directions, but in reference to sixteen directions on the compass.90 The ball or director was more than a compass. A compass has one magnetic needle that points north-south. The director has two spindles, one likely was a magnetic spindle that pointed north to establish a reference point,91 while the other spindle pointed to the direction they should travel. The second spindle operated by another spiritual force that was connected to their “faith, and diligence and heed” (1 Nephi 16:28–29). There was also writing on the ball that “changed from time to time” (16:27–29). The Liahona was a marvelous vessel (*Ɂōnâ) prepared of the Lord (L-Yāh) to guide Lehi and his small group to the promised land.
The concept of an instrument with a magnetic spindle that pointed toward the north was unknown to Lehi and his contemporaries, therefore, they would not have had a word for it in their language. Lehi [Page 232]and Nephi called it *Ɂōnâ that denotes “a vessel,” and it was prepared by the Lord, l-Yāh. The prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery during the translation likely never knew, as most readers of the Book of Mormon, that the phrase “prepared of the Lord” [l-Yāh] was the first part of the name. Most readers probably assume that the name Liahona only refers to the instrument, the “ball or director,” and they would not associate the phrase “prepared of the Lord” as part of the name. The general assumption is that the phrase “the Lord prepared it” was there because the Lord provided the instrument not that this phrase was part of the name.
Alma explains to his son Helaman “concerning the thing which our fathers call a ball, or director — or our fathers called it Liahona, which is being interpreted a compass — and the Lord prepared it” (Alma 37:38). The name Liahona is only used once in the Book of Mormon, and it is in this verse.92 “Our fathers” likely refers to Lehi and Nephi since they are the ones who found it and used it in their journey through the wilderness and on the sea to the Promised Land. The everyday language of Lehi and Nephi was Hebrew, and this increases the likelihood that the term Liahona derives from Hebrew for that is what they called it (qārăɁû), i.e., the name that they gave it.93 The interjection “being interpreted a compass — and the Lord prepared it” defines the term Liahona for a modern reader, but who is responsible for this insertion? Did Alma insert this phrase to clarify to Helaman, who may not have known what the archaic word meant?94 Or, did the redactor Mormon insert the interpretation of Liahona as a compass prepared of the Lord for the benefit of those who would receive his abridgement? Or, did the insertion “being interpreted a compass — and the Lord prepared it” happen in the divinely assisted translating process? The answer as to who inserted the interpretation is important to know, since it would help us understand what the definition of “compass” is.95 If Alma or Mormon inserted the interpretation of Liahona as a “compass prepared of the Lord,” then the word “compass” would refer to its round or circular shape, or an instrument to draw circles, for that is what the KJV word translated as “compass” signifies in Biblical Hebrew.96 It is unlikely that the Nephites or Lamanites would have manufactured an instrument like a magnetic compass, and they would not have had a word for such an instrument. Neither Alma nor Mormon likely had a word in their language comparable to English compass that meant an instrument with a magnetic spindle that pointed to the north; therefore, they would not be responsible of the insertion of the interpretation. Furthermore, Mormon and Alma had the Liahona in [Page 233]their possession, as it was part of the sacred relics and records. They knew its name and how it functioned. Alma used the Liahona as a teaching prop to explain to Helaman the importance of faith and following the direction of the Lord (Alma 37:40–47). There would be no motivation for them to explain its meaning in the record; it was part of their culture. However, the translator would have to give an explanation of its name by using comparable words that could be understood in English.
If the insertion “being interpreted a compass — and the Lord prepared it” is part of the divinely assisted translation process by Joseph Smith to help us understand the meaning of Liahona, then the word “compass” is not the literal translation of a Nephite word, but it is an interpretation into a modern English word that best defines the instrument. Royal Skousen might call this a “cultural translation.”97 Brant A. Gardner points out that some Book of Mormon expressions “necessitate some conceptual distance between the plate text and the translation.”98 “The idiomatic phrase makes sense in Joseph’s time but had no referent in ancient America. It cannot be a literal translation of a plate text idiom using Mesoamerica as the plate text culture.”99 His final conclusion is: “Although the meaning of the language might have been on the plates, the form of the resulting translation cannot represent a literalist translation of the plate text.”100 I believe that compass is a cultural and not a literal translation from the plate text. It is an interpretation of its function that we understand, and not a word in the Nephite language. The Nephites and Lamanites likely never had a magnetic compass or a word for it, but they had the word vessel, so the proposed literal translation of Liahona is, L-Yāh-Ɂōnâ “prepared the Lord, a vessel;” and its literal interpretation is “prepared the Lord, a compass.” The word compass is the most appropriate English word that describes the function of the Liahona, and the Lord, as the agent, prepared it.
Previous explanations of the origin and meaning of Liahona have not given a satisfactory account of its fuller meaning as an object that the Lord prepared. The interpretation of the lamed prefix l- as “to, toward” is not suitable in the grammatical construction of a prefixed l- attached to a name followed by a noun. The lamed prefix more likely designates the following name as the agent or originator or the person who is providing or producing the object (a noun). These types of grammatical constructions have been identified in the Hebrew Bible and by examples from extra-Biblical epigraphic texts. The general interpretation of [Page 234]the prefixed lamed l– in this type of grammatical construction is that it designates the possessor of the object (possessive genitive), i.e., “belonging to.” However, in many of these grammatical constructions, l– is best interpreted as subjective genitive, where the named person is the agent, originator, author, or producer of the object. This is more in line with the interpretation given in the Book of Mormon that the Lord is the one who prepared (produced) the round ball made of fine brass.
The second segment in Liahona is -iah-, the short form of the divine name Yahweh or Yāh. Yāh occurs many times in the Bible as a shortened Yahweh. It can stand alone as a name, or it can serve as a suffix on a name. On the other hand, the yhw short form is only used as the prefix yǝhô or the suffix yā́hû as part of a name, therefore, it is highly unlikely that -yaho- is the second segment of Liahona. The origin and meaning of the third segment of Liahona has been the most difficult to ascertain. There is no appropriate word in the Hebrew text that fits the description of a round ball made of fine brass with spindles. Reynolds and Sjodahl pick the Hebrew name of an Egyptian city Ɂōn, based on the phonemes, as the likely source of -ona, but it lacks final a, and a city is not a round brass ball and neither is light. Curci combines the final o of yaho- with Ɂā́nāh, the adverb indicating direction toward, to get Ɂona “whither,” but whither is an adverb not an object that is round like a ball and made of fine brass. Bowen and Spendlove focus on the final syllable –na, and search for its meaning. Bowen goes to Egyptian and finds an imperative verb that somewhat matches the phonetics, but an imperative verb doesn’t describe the round brass ball with spindles. Spendlove picks the Hebrew particle nāɁ as the final syllable that he says is not translatable and is an exclamation, but this doesn’t describe the ball or director that has two spindles and is made of fine brass. These explanations inadequately define the interpretation given in the Book of Mormon that the Liahona is a compass prepared by the Lord.
Since the word *Ɂōnâ is not found in Hebrew texts, my approach is to reconstruct the word as it might have been in Proto-Semitic by using established sound change rules of historical linguistics, and to look for cognates in related languages to see if any of them might shed light on this problem. The word *Ɂōnâ can be reconstructed in Northwest Semitic as *Ɂunay-, and as *Ɂunaw- in Proto-Semitic. The Akkadian cognate unūt- signifies “equipment, tools, utensils or vessels.” The Aramaic cognate mɁny signifies “vessels” of the temple and other portable objects. The Arabic cognate ɁināɁ signifies “vessel, container, receptacle, or kitchen ware.” The Ugaritic cognate Ɂnyt, Ɂny signifies “a ship;” they were close [Page 235]to the Mediterranean Sea, so a vessel of the sea is a likely adaptation. The related Hebrew word Ɂŏnîyâ, Ɂŏnî signifies “a ship,” a vessel of the sea. The presence of cognates in closely related languages increases the likelihood that *Ɂōnâ was a legitimate word in pre-exilic Hebrew. The word *Ɂōnâ probably fell out of favor in the language and was displaced by klî that covers the same semantic range, thus *Ɂōnâ does not occur in the Masoretic Text.
The structural sequence of the segments in the name Liahona follow typical Hebrew word order (VSO), where the prefixed lamed represents the verb, l– “prepared” + the subject, Yāh “the Lord” + the object –ona [Ɂōnâ] “a vessel,” i.e., “prepared the Lord a vessel.”101 Normal English word order would be “the Lord prepared a vessel (SVO).” Alma’s explanation places the object first that is a Hebrew technique to give more emphasis to the object,102 “Liahona, which is being interpreted a compass — and the Lord prepared it” (Alma 37:38). It is proposed that *Ɂōnâ “vessel” is an appropriate Semitic word for the physical object; it is portable; it is a container with spindles; it indicates directions; it is made of fine brass; and it is interpreted “a compass.”
If the above explanation of the etymology of Liahona is correct, then this unusual word derives from the Semitic languages of the Ancient Near East, the Book of Mormon is truly an ancient record whose underlying language is a dialect of Hebrew, and Joseph Smith Jr. had to receive divine assistance to be able to translate the plates of Mormon into the Book of Mormon. As the three witnesses testified, the plates “have been translated by the gift and power of God, … wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true.”
Skousen uses the word Bible (2 Nephi 29:3–6) as an example of a word that is a cultural translation; the word Bible dates to medieval times or later and would not have been written by Nephi on the plates. The Old French word adieu (Jacob 7:27) is such a translation. It connotes a farewell to beloved friends commending them to God, but adieu was not written on the plates; there must have been a Hebrew phrase or word that conveys the intended meaning of adieu. The name Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ (Mosiah 3:8; Alma 7:10) may be a cultural translation, and was likely written maryām, an early form of Miriam (before the first a attenuated or raised to i). The Septuagint has Μαριαμ (iota = yod) (Exodus 15:20). The last syllable –ām may or may not have been on the plates. The name Jesus Christ may also be a cultural translation, as is baptism and other so-called anachronisms.
[Page 252]I believe that compass is a cultural translation, since it is an instrument that we understand. The Nephites likely never had the word compass that was a directional finding device with a magnetic spindle that pointed toward the north, but they had the word *Ɂōnâ “a vessel,” and incorporated it into the name Liahona, a vessel prepared of the Lord.