One of the many strange things in W.W. Phelps' Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL) is his discussion of the "parts of speech." He shares some strange theories about how characters need to connect to the different parts of speech. But in discussing parts of speech, Phelps does not mention nouns. The word "pronoun" occurs once in the GAEL, but "noun" does not, while verbs are discussed a couple of times and mentioned as one of the "parts of speech." Here are two excerpts from the GAEL transcript at the Joseph Smith Papers Project website:
Page 1:
By counting the numbers of st[r]aight lines and preseving them, or considering them as qualifying adjectives we have the degrees of comparison There are five connecting parts of speech in the above character, called Za-ki an hish These five connecting parts of speech, for verbs, participlesprepositions, conjuntions, and adverbs. In translation translating this chara[c]ter, this subject must be continued until there are as many of these connecting parts of speech used as there are connections or connecting parts found in the character.

Page 15:
For instance, the first connection should be called Jugos, which signifies verb or action: and the second conneton should be called Ka=Jugos, which is a variation, according to the signification of the second degree: Kah Jugos sould <​be​> preserved in the second degree. It signifies an action passed: The third connection is called Kah pr=ga=os, which signifies an action to be receved or <​to​> come to pass. The fourth connection is called Ka=os-Ju which signifies connection and the fifth is called Ka-os=Juga=os and is used to qualify according to the signification of the fifth degree. whether for prepositions, verbs, adve[r]bs &c.

When I first read Phelps' comments in the always painful to read GAEL, I was puzzled about his apparent omission of nouns as a part of speech, when they clearly are present in the GAEL. A possible explanation might come from Phelps' study of Hebrew. 

Perhaps Phelps was influenced by the discussion of the relationship of nouns and verbs in some of the Hebrew books he may have encountered when the Saints began delving into Hebrew. Consider one of the major works on Hebrew in the early 1800s: Hyman Hurwitz, The Eytmology and Syntax, in Continuation of, The Elements of the Hebrew Language, (London: John Taylor, 1831); available at Google Books (Google Books also has a downloadable PDF; also see the 1835 2nd edition at, but note that this begins after his 96-page The Elements of the Hebrew Language, 2nd ed. (London: John Taylor, 1835) -- the latter is more useful because it can be searched).

Hurwitz makes an argument over several pages that nouns tend to come from verbs and that verbs should take priority: follows that these two species of words [verbs and nouns] must have formed the very rudiments of language. But, as if both could not have been invented at the same time, it has been made a question which of the two has a right to claim the priority. Most of the Oriental Grammarians have decided in favor of the Verb.  (p. 8)

...the class of words which grammarians denominate nouns, must originally have been verbal, (somewhat like the words called participles,) expressive of some property of circumstance by which the named object was characterized. And indeed, such is still the character of the far greater portion of Hebrew nouns, even of those which designate natural objects [here a list of examples is given including ra-ki-a, the firmament, and l'ba-nah, the moon, like Libnah in the Book of Abraham].(p. 10)

This being the case, we can easily comprehend how the same word would frequently be used both as a noun and as a verb.... (p. 12)

In all these examples it is evidence that there is no distinction whatever between the noun and the verb; but even in those where a distinction exists, it is so slight, as clearly to show the common origin of the words... (p. 13)
Both theory and fact lead me, therefore, to conclude that the Hebrew nouns were originally verbalia; and that verbs ought to be considered as the elements of speech, not on account of their priority of invention, but because they generally contain the primary signification of words. (p. 14)

Hurwitz also uses the phrase "parts of speech" eight times in his text, with "part of speech" occurring four times. This may seem like a common phrase, but a search in Google Books for "parts of speech" between 1700 and 1835 yields only 14 hits. The singular "part of speech" over that time period yielded 12 hits. These are miniscule numbers. "Parts of speech" may not be a very common phrase at all, yet Phelps uses it nine times in the GAEL (six times on the first page) and Hurwitz uses it almost as much in his book. Hurwitz's first use is in pointing out that verbs will be the starting place for treating the different parts of speech:
In treating of the different parts of speech, Orientalists generally begin with the verb. (p. vii)
The early Hebrew Grammarians reckoned only three parts of speech : 1) the name, in which they included nouns and adjectives : 2) the verb : 3) the particle in which they included the other classes. [Hebrew omitted] (p. 6)
Could Phelps' emphasis on verbs and omission of nouns as "parts of speech" derive from study of Hurwitz?

Another characteristic of the GAEL is the frequent use of the term "signification" to describe various aspects of the words being examined. There are 25 occurrences of this term in the relatively brief text. Hurwitz also uses that word dozens of times. It's more common than "parts of speech," though, so this is probably not a significant clue. Correction: It's not super common before 1835. On Google Books, there are only 19 hits between 1700 and 1835. So maybe it should be considered as another possible link between Hurwitz and Phelps. Not too much can be made of using a known but not highly common word, though. But in combination with "parts of speech" and the teaching of the priority of verbs over nouns, perhaps there's a basis for believing that Hurwitz's book has either directly or indirectly shaped Phelps during the early 1836 period of intense Hebrew study among the Latter-day Saints.

The possible relationships between Phelps' writings in the GAEL and a book on Hebrew by Hyman Hurwitz could be one more indication that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers cannot be understood without recognizing the impact of Hebrew study on their content.

We see hints not only from (1) the many terms in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers related to Hebrew letters including aleph, beth, daleth, gimel, he, and possibly ayin,  (2) awareness of the meaning and numerical value of beth and the numerical value of aleph, (3) apparent awareness of diacritical marks such as the lone dot to represent the vowel sound "i" ("iota") and dots placed in various positions relative to characters similar to Hebrew pointing, (4) use of at least one and possible several Hebrew coin letters from Moses Stuart, including the surprisingly appropriate use of the unusual coin letter form of beth for the number 2 in the Egyptian Counting document, and now (5) incorporation of Hurwitz's teachings on the lack of distinction of verbs and nouns with priority given to verbs, expressed in language referring to the "parts of speech."

It seems to me that the role of Hebrew study on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers needs more attention and research. It is true that Joseph ceased translating (or had already finished most of the translation) of the Book of Abraham a few days after Oliver returned to Kirtland on Nov. 20, 1835 with a batch of materials on the Hebrew language, which Joseph asked him to acquire, perhaps believing the study of Hebrew could strengthen the intellectual study of Egyptian. But the cessation of Joseph's translation work does not mean that his peers ceased their work on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. In fact, the surviving documents seem to show various influences from their zealous Hebrew study.

Unfortunately, in Volume 4 of the Joseph Smith Papers dealing with the Book of Abraham, it seems to be assumed that the work with the Kirtland Egyptian Papers was pretty much completed by the time serious Hebrew study started. There seems to be essentially no recognition of the impact of Hebrew study on the project or on the documents. This may have resulted in a missed opportunity to more accurately date the undated documents and to more fully understand the influences that shaped the study and speculations of early Latter-day Saints, however fallacious those purely human intellectual efforts were. But recognizing that at least significant parts of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers were shaped by Hebrew study in early 1836 (ranging from the early Egyptian Counting document to the later GAEL, where Hebrew influence is seen from beginning to end) helps us recognize that those documents were probably prepared with an already translated (and revealed) text in hand and were probably not being used to "translate" the Book of Abraham in the first place. It may be time to seriously reconsider the Joseph Smith Paper's Project date of "circa July–circa November 1835" for the GAEL and other documents related to the apparent "translation" of "Egyptian" (I use quotes because many of the "Egyptian" characters aren't even from the scrolls, but may come from other influences that are not adequately considered in JSP Vol. 4, such as Masonic characters from W.W. Phelps, Hebrew coin characters and other versions of Hebrew letters published by Moses Stuart, etc.).

This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

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