Deseret Part Deux

Seven posts beneath this one is a little paper I wrote, Kevin L. Barney, “On the Etymology of Deseret,” BCC Papers 1/2, November 2006, in which I argued for a possible Semitic etymology of the word deseret. In the comments, Matt W. mentioned that his father-in-law, Walt Cowart, had written Hugh Nibley asking about a similar idea back in December of 1981, and had received a response. I assumed Matt had misunderstood the nature of the correspondence, but he produced it, and indeed Walt had posed basically the same idea I put forward in my paper. So this is an amazing opportunity to see Nibley critique this idea, from beyond the grave, as it were, in a letter he wrote 25 years ago. As a long-time Nibleyophile, I thought this was incredibly cool, so rather than bury it in the comments to the original thread, I am posting a new thread here.

Walt’s original letter to Nibley may be read here.

Nibley’s response may be read here.

My thanks to Walt for graciously giving us permission to publish these letters, and to Matt W. for recognizing their relevance to my paper.


  1. Agreed. This is sooooo cool.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    “Yours truly, mistakes and all”

    I love it. Thanks all.

  3. As I said before, thanks for the bonding moment with my Father-in-Law. Glad you enjoyed his correspondance. I was absolutely thrilled by it. My favorite is the “just off the cuff bit.”

  4. Jonathan Green says:

    Kevin, Matt, this is excellent stuff. Thanks for putting this together.

    The Indoeuropean comparison Nibley suggests won’t work out, since the Germanic -f and the Greek -t in the words for ‘five’ seem to be independent developments from an original -kw- (which is, however, one of the less common and less regular sound shifts). That being said, the most important part of the letter is the last three lines.

  5. Stephen Taysom says:

    I’m not a huge Nibley fan, but this is a cool artifact. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Speaking of Semitic etymology, I recently came across this quick note on Deseret in B.H. Roberts’ New Witnesses for God:

    Then there is the Jaredite common name “deseret,” meaning honey bee. In passing I call attention to the fact that the Hebrew proper name, “Deborah” also means “bee,” that is, honey bee; and it is quite likely that the proper name “Deborah” is derived from the same root whence comes “Deseret.”

    (New Witnesses for God, v. 3, p. 144)

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Justin, I was not aware of that Roberts quote.

  8. Ladies and Gentlemen,
    The power of the blog.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, it really is amazing, Ronan. This has been tremendous fun.

    The “no time for deep stuff” bit reminds me of a Fox Trot comic strip that reran in the paper the other day. It originally ran on Nov. 11, 2003.

    Jason is going to pass a football, and tells Marcus to “go deep.” Marcus responds with a paradox on free will and preordination [the kind we often debate in the ‘Nacle]. “Too deep,” says Jason. So Marcus comes back with “If Batman died, would the Joker be happy?”

  10. I feel like I just won at show and tell or something…

  11. Agreed, a great piece of memorabilia and a useful application of blogdom, but my original concern that the conversion of dbr->dsr would require much longer time than is available i believe is important. Nibley’s free association wouldn’t pass muster in a historical linguistics conference largely on those grounds. Given several millennia you can get almost any change, but you don’t have several millennia for this change, not if you are expecting the Nephites to speak sufficient Hebrew that the brass plates would make any sense.
    And a nagging voice tells me that the Zebul/Zebub variants aren’t precedent-setting in the way hoped for, though I could of course be wrong.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Linguistic processes can happen pretty quickly. We go from *ky or *chy to -tt- in Attic to -ss- in Ionic, as seen in

    Attic thalatta sea
    Ionic thalassa sea

    Attic glotta tongue
    Ionic glossa tongue

    Attic tettares four
    Ionic tessares four

    Admittedly, in this case the -tt- and the -ss- are both alveolars, and we have an extensive literature in both dialects to study, so we have some understanding of the linguistic development. But what if all we had were Attic literature, and a single rogue occurrence of thalassa? It wouldn’t be so easy to figure out what was going on, but we wouldn’t reject the authenticiy of the rogue orthography; we would start from the assumption there was a good linguistic reason for it.

    Yes, that the b and s are different classes of consonant complicates the linguistics considerably. I agree with that. But as Nibley showed, Arabic (a Semitic language) daftar also appears as dastar, and that is a change that didn’t take thousands of years to happen.

    I think it is possible that there is a linguistic process at work here that we simply do not understand.

  13. Kevin, thanks, this is outstanding.

  14. I have just discovered this website and it looks great. I have just one question. Is deseret a Jaredite or a Nephite word? If it is a Jaredite word then this word would be an original word from the language of Adam. If it is a Nephite word then it might be a corruption of a Hebrew word that had a similar sound and spelling. I have not studied this word in depth but it seems to me that if this is a direct translation of the Jaredite record then this would be an original word from the Adamic language and if this word was used in the Semitic languages at the tower of Babel this word would become corrupted over time just as B.H. Roberts suggests.
    Just some thoughts.

  15. Kevin,
    dafter -> dastar is much more likely because it isn’t uncommon for consonant clusters to assimilate (all that shift indicates is a shift in location for a voiceless fricative in order to make it easier to get to the beginning of the next syllable). The b -> s shift in *dbr -> *dsr wouldn’t have the same motivation (the shift doesn’t make it any easier to say the following r). Also, there is, in all likelihood, a vowel between the s and r in original *dsr, providing another obstacle for your proposal. This doesn’t make it impossible, of course, just very unlikely.

    You are assuming that Jared and his crew were speaking Adamic originally, which isn’t an assumption that we have to make.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    HP, good point about the consonant clusters. That limits the usefulness of Hugh’s example to some extent.

    I would qualify your “very unlikely” with something like “based on known ancient Semitic linguistic processes.” In my original article, I gave three reasons why there are other processes at play that make this more of an unknown wild card situation.

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