On Sunday I devoted the first part of my class to a sort of CSI procedural illustrating how scholars think through an issue such as trying to figure out what “Anti-Nephi-Lehies” (hereafter “ANLs”) means. I thought I’d jot my notes down here for convenient future reference.

I warned the class, as I often do, that there’s no answer book. At the end of this process we will not have an answer, but a menu of possibilities, and it is up to each person to evaluate them for herself.

I started by establishing some context from the scripture. First, I think Alma 23:5 is significant:

5 And thousands were brought to the knowledge of the Lord, yea, thousands were brought to believe in the traditions of the Nephites; and they were taught the records and prophecies which were handed down even to the present time.

Verses 16-17 reflect the actual name selection:

16 And now it came to pass that the king and those who were converted were desirous that they might have a name, that thereby they might be distinguished from their brethren; therefore the king consulted with Aaron and many of their priests, concerning the name that they should take upon them, that they might be distinguished.

17 And it came to pass that they called their names Anti-Nephi-Lehies; and they were called by this name and were no more called Lamanites.

So the basic themes we’re looking for are a rejection of the traditions of the Lamanites in favor of an acceptance of the Nephite traditions, a desire to distinguish themselves as a group from their Lamanite brethren, and consultation with Aaron and many of the priests in the name selection. Not exactly a lot to go on.

Preliminarily, we have to decide whether the Nephi and Lehi here are the people (founders of the nation) or the places. A geographic reading might be suggested by the fact that anti exists as a linguistic element in some BoM place names, such as Antion and Ani-Anti. But vv. 9-12 give a catalog of the cities where the Lamanites were converted, and none bear an anti element, and the land of Nephi remained dominated by unconverted Lamanites. So I personally think the name element thing is a red herring and won’t get us anywhere.

Another thing to note is that in both O and P there are no hyphens or spaces, the three words are all just smushed together. So the hyphens are a modern editorial convenience.

There is a fundamental question our answer to which will determine our basic approach: Do we think the Anti- is a translation or a transliteration? If it is a translation, it presumably means “against” (the English preposition derives directly from the Greek language, where it bears the same meaning), and it is hard to grasp why a negative preposition would be used in front of the names Nephi and Lehi. Such a usage seems counterintuitive given the context we identified above. Some people think the existence of the term “Anti-Christ” requires a translation reading here, but I don’t think so. That is a well known term from the KJ Bible; yes, it establishes that Joseph knew what the English preposition “anti” means, which I never doubted, but it doesn’t necessarily answer the more obscure usage in Anti-Nephi-Lehies.

So, without further ado, here are the theories:

Translation Theories

1. Imitators of (Nibley). One class member suggested that standing against a wall can mean standing next to it. I told him that is along the lines of Nibley’s take, in which he explores the Indo-European background to the word:

Here’s what Nibley says about it in “Teachings of the BoM” Lecture 53 (p.404-5).

This is what he says here in verse 18: “And they began to be a very industrious people; yea, and they were friendly with the Nephites; therefore, they did open a correspondence with them, and the curse of God did no more follow them.” He tells us again right across the page here that what they did was to remove all the barriers; they opened trade to everybody. That’s what we call “glasnost” today, I suppose. They were named Anti-Nephi-Lehies. You know that Nephi-Lehi means a combination of Nephi and Lehi, and anti means “combination, face-to-face, meeting.” You have Adam-ondi-Ahman. That’s one of the richest prepositions we have. This anti means so many things. We get it in the Book of Mormon a good deal-Antiomno and things like that. There’s anti in the Book of Mormon. The Latin ante means “standing in front of a person and facing him.” Of course, that’s the Greek anti and the Arabic cinda. The Old English is *and-. The word answer, for [p.405] example, is answarian-swear back at a person. This means “face to face confrontation” whether it’s in Old Norse, Old English, Semitic, Arabic, Greek, Latin, or in the Book of Mormon. It means “a face-to-face meeting, a joining together with somebody.” We are going to find later on about an Anti-Christ, who is a person who pretends to be Christ, who matches Christ, who pretends to take the place of Christ. It’s not somebody who opposes Christ, but somebody who pretends to be Christ. We get that a little later when we get to Korihor. But first they gave themselves this name of Anti-Nephi-Lehies. “And they were called by this name and were no more called Lamanites.” So they were set apart, but they began to be an industrious people-getting to work at last. They did open a correspondence with the Nephites, “and the curse of God did no more follow them.”

Personally, I think Nibley is trying too hard, and I don’t find his convoluted musings compelling.

2. Against Nephi (Sam B.). Sam proposes a fascinating theory in a BCC post. He takes anti in a straightforward sense, as really meaning “against.” How were the ANLs against the Nephites? They weren’t anymore, but this is a bit of social penance; the name refers to their prior stance. The advantages to this theory are that it takes the anti straightforwardly, it helps to explain the short duration of the name, and Julie Smith is taken with it, which is a plus! I have a subjective problem with it; it’s hard for me to imagine Aaron and the priests signing off on so negative a name, which fails to credit their repentance and change of heart.

3. Lehites Not Descended through Nephi (Kent Jackson and others). This theory suggests that the name means they are descended form Lehi (skipping over Laman), but not through Nephi. I think this one makes excellent conceptual sense, but is weak linguistically. Anti and non both have a negative sense, but they are not the same thing. My next door neighbor is a non-Mormon, but that doesn’t make him an anti-Mormon, a very different thing.

Transliteration Theories

4. Those who are of Nephi and Lehi (Stephen Ricks). This is based on a suggestion that anti represents the Egyptian relative adjective nty. I looked this up in my Egyptian dictionary (Faulkner’s Dictionary of Middle Egyptian), and nty does indeed mean “who, which.” Then I looked it up in my Gardiner’s Egyptian Grammar, and found over two pages of detailed discussion of this word. The word can be used invariably, and can stand for a noun. Therefore, even though there is no stated antecedent, one could be implied: “they who are of…” This one works pretty well both conceptually and linguistically.

5. “The People of Nephi and of Lehi.” (Moi). This was a speculation I came up with off the top of my head a long time ago on the Nauvoo message boards (created by Orson Scott Card). I had forgotten all about it, but found it again in the course of preparing my class.

My idea is based on an assumption that the language is Hebrew. If that is correct, this kind of piling up of words without connectors between them would appear to be something called a construct chain. And if that leap of intuition is correct, then it tells us some things about the anti: It has to be a noun (not a preposition), it has to be a plural, and it has to be a construct form.

Now, when I originally did this I came up with a guess of what I thought would make the most sense in the anti- position, and my guess was the word “People.” If you do a search, you’ll find “people of X” is an extremely common naming formation in the BoM. Indeed, when the ANLs arrive in Zarahemla they take a new name, the “People of Ammon.”

How would you say “people of” in Hebrew? Man is ‘ish, the plural, men (gender inclusive, people) is ‘anashim, and “people of” is ‘anshe (spelled with a y at the end in Hebrew). I noticed that that word is pretty close to anti, and the i could represent the final yod of ‘anshe, as it often does in English transliteration (as indeed is the case with the name Lehi itself). So the only real difference is that classical Hebrew as an sh where the BoM has a t.

When I originally cooked this up, I didn’t really pursue that very much. I simply observed that we’re more than 500 years removed from Jerusalem, so there has certainly been linguistic evolution, as Moroni expressly tells us. Try reading Chaucer in the original ME text sometime; you might understand 60 or 70 percent of it, but to grasp it fully you need to read an intralingual translation. It is written in English, but the English of 600 years ago. I also gave a Greek example I happened to be familiar with: the word for “sea” in Ionic is thalassa, but in Attic is thalatta.

But last week I decided to see whether there is any evidence for this kind of shift from a sibilant to a dental in Hebrew itself. And I thought the easiest way to do this was to look at Aramaic, a sister Semitic language to Hebrew. So I look in that fount of all human knowledge, Wikipedia, and they have a list of six characteristic differences between Hebrew and Aramaic, and one of the six was that Hebrew sibilants often become dentals in Aramaic, a tendency that is ongoing even today in modern Aramaic dialects.

So take the Hebrew word for “three,” which is shalosh. The Aramaic equivalent is tlat. That’s not a different word, but the same word with the Hebrew sh replaced by t. Similarly, the Hebrew word for ox or bullock is shor, which becomes tor in Aramaic; same change.

So anti could be an evolved form of the classical anshe, meaning “people of.” (I also note that anshe is common in modern synagogue names, such as a major synagogue in Chicago, Anshe Emet, “People of Truth.”)

Julie asked me a couple of questions about this. One was, why a transliteration here, but translation in other cases? Simple variation, I imagine, just as most proper names are transliterated, but some are not, like “Bountiful” or “Desolation.” Another was why the quick name change to “People of Ammon?” My thought there is that being the People of Nephi would be a good name in contradistinction to their brethren the Lamanites, but once they arrive in Zarahemla among the Nephites, it would get confusing pretty quickly.

Just because this is something I came up with myself, I remain pretty agnostic on this subject. I’m not really sure what Anti-Nephi-Lehies means. But I do think it’s fun to try to figure it out.

(If you have a theory of your own, please share it in the comments.)


  1. Dave K. says:

    I’m partial to number 3 because, as you point out, it makes the most sense conceptually. I chalk the linguistic problem up to mistranslation. Joseph read “ante” but Oliver wrote “anti”. Simple honest mistake. And it only requires one hoop to jump through, unlike so many other theories.

  2. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    I really like your idea number 5. May I suggest an additional question? I assume that when Mormon was editing the record of Alma, he might NOT be reading a phonetic alphabet, but one that is based on a ideographic language like Egyptian and Chinese. Certainly the text on the plates appears to have been ideographs and not a phonetic alphabet like Hebrew. So how does a particular pronunciation get assigned to the word in the abridgment written by Mormon? In Japanese writing, the pronunciation of unfamiliar Chinese characters is shown with small writing in another script showing the pronunctiation. It is called Furigana.

    If the pronunciation could be preserved as part of a proper noun, it could represent the pronunciation by Mormon, who has had another 400 years to have evolved in his pronunciation from the time of Ammon and the AntiNephiLehies. Somehow the pronunciation of the proper names of people and places have been transmitted to Joseph Smith, but would not have been part of a simple translation of the concepts in ideographs. Is there some kind of metalanguage that transmits the pronunciations of names, instead of or in addition to their meanings? Or is there an intermediate translator who knows how Reformed Egyptian was pronounced so the pronunciations of proper names could be inserted into the English language version which was seen and read by Joseph Smith?

  3. Though I hate to put a comment that does not further the discussion, I will still say, “wow, that is insightful and interesting!”

  4. Perhaps “Anti” is a personal proper noun, the name of another founder that the people admired. Perhaps Lamoni’s father and/or brother (Alma 24:3) was named Anti. You mentioned that it was an element of place names. It was also in Lamanite personal names; Lamoni had a friend named Antiomno (Alma 20:4). In that case, I guess it would mean something like “the followers of Anti, who follows Lehi and Nephi.”

    I know, it’s a stretch, but you already took all the good answers.

  5. Or, it’s just a name like Nephi and Lehi. If you read a non-English version of the BoM, you’ll see that Anit-Nephi-Lehi is still Anti-Nephi-Lehi (or the phonetic variation), which throws out the translation theories. The transliteration theories could still hold in which case the name should probably be Antinephilehi. However, Anti appears to be a proper name and the name Anti-Nephi-Lehi is probably based on some naming convention used by the Lamanites/Nephites.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    No. 2, yeah, I was assuming that Mormon was preserving the word in his source text, but you’re right that he could have used the word as it then existed in his day. That’s about a millennium removed from Jerusalem. English from a millennium ago is Old English, and unless one has specifically studied it, a modern English reader can’t even read it, it’s like a foreign language.

    Nos. 4 and 5 helpfull point out that Anti instead of a geographic name could be a personal one. I don’t know how likely that is, since we’re not told anything about this Anti, but I agree we need it on the menu to keep all our options open.

    No. 5, thanks for the point about how ANL is treated in non-English translations. Fascinating! But I don’t think we can put too much weight on that; a modern translator probably doesn’t have any choice but to transliterate the Anti, since we don’t know for sure what it means.

  7. rameumptom says:

    I think it is an invention of Mormon. I’m thinking he wanted to play with future minds, and said, “you know, if I give these converted Lamanites a wacky name, future scholars will spend incredible amounts of time scratching their heads and trying to come up with answers that never quite seem to fit perfectly”….

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Nice write-up, Kevin. Thanks.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    That Mormon was such a prankster!

  10. When I was a kid, my parents told me it was because they were against the separation of peoples into “-ites.” I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now. I like a few of these ideas, however. Thanks.

  11. Ok, those were fun.

  12. 3. Lehites Not Descended through Nephi (Kent Jackson and others) – is always the one that has made the most sense to me.

  13. Sorry – this is really late.

    The original way that I had interpreted this was as Anti-Nephi Lehies (without the last hyphen). In other words, they were followers of Lehi, but against Nephi (the land of the Lamanites). I noticed this reading wasn’t in your list.

  14. There is a very interesting commentary on this issue at the end of this hard-hitting news report:

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