Reading today in Alma 7, it struck me that Alma seems to be suggesting that he needs to speak to this group of people in a different language (emphasis added):
1. Behold my beloved brethren, seeing that I have been permitted to come unto you, therefore I attempt to address you in my language; yea, by my own mouth, seeing that it is the first time that I have spoken unto you by the words of my mouth, I having been wholly confined to the judgment-seat, having had much business that I could not come unto you.
2. And even I could not have come now at this time were it not that the judgment-seat hath been given to another, to reign in my stead; and the Lord in much mercy hath granted that I should come unto you.
It sounds like he’s indicating that either he shares a dialect with them that he doesn’t normally use, or that formal preaching wasn’t done in the common language, but he’s most comfortable with it, and is going to use it. Could he also be making reference to the idea that perhaps the language of Zennif’s break-off group had evolved enough over 3-4 generations that it was at least a different dialect of the Nephite language? Actually it seems extremely likely this was the case, especially since they were completely isolated from the main group of Nephites, but had lots of contact with Lamanites. It only makes sense that their language would have evolved separately, at least a little.
In turn, it would also make sense that in Zarahemla and elsewhere, Alma has to speak the main Nephite language/dialect. So that’s why he calls this variation “my language,” but also says he’ll “attempt” to use it. It might be his childhood language, but he’s used the main Nephite dialect so much as Chief Judge, leader of the Nephite army, and High Priest (and previously spreading discord in the church before his conversion), that this dialect has become atrophied for him. So that’s why he says he’ll “attempt” to use his language.
There are a couple things that have to line up to give this idea more support. And I think both have evidence elsewhere in the BoM:
A. These have to be the descendants of the same Zeniff-ite group that Alma is.
That seems likely for a few reasons:
- The land is named after Gideon, one of their great leaders who was key in “delivering the people of Limhi out of bondage,” and later a great teacher. So unless Gideon had spent a bunch of time teaching another group of Nephites, and become well enough loved by them to have them name a different area after him, it seems likely these are specifically Alma’s people.
- Alma 6:7 says “there having been a city built” and it’s also called Gideon. It makes sense that the people living there are somewhat new to that area if they only recently built a city. So the Zeniff-ite’s could have settled there.
- Alma addresses them as “my beloved brethren.” In his previous teaching in Zarahemla, just prior to this (Alma 5), he didn’t start that way. He started by telling those people who is father was and the story of their escape from first Noah and later the Lamanites. But this people he calls “my beloved” and doesn’t bother telling that story.
- As mentioned, he doesn’t tell them his father’s story. He doesn’t have to tell those same stories, because many of them lived it, or would have been taught the stories by their parents who lived it.
So if there is a “Zeniff-ite” dialect, these people that Alma feels a close affinity with, likely speak it.
B. Alma has to have grown up at least enough to learn their dialect, before being reunited with the main body of Nephites.
Since his father was the High Priest, he probably had to live in Zarahemla. This explains how he’d become partners in crime with Mosiah’s sons. So he would have likely spoken the main Nephite dialect very well. But for this theory to work, he had to have been exposed to the Zeniff-ite language enough to have learned it in his youth, or at some point.
This is supported in Alma 5:3–5 where Alma is telling the story of his Father and the people that followed him. He says “they” when telling how they were spared from King Noah and again when talking about their captivity to the Lamanites and subsequent delivery. But then he switches to “we” when telling about being “brought into this land” and establishing the church there. To me it sounds like his early memories start when escaping the Lamanite enslavement in the land of Helam. If that’s true, it suggests he was old enough to have understood his father’s language at that point.
Subsequently, he would have been closely associated with Mosiah’s household or at least the central place of government. There he would have learned the main Nephite dialect, and eventually become more comfortable with it, than his native tongue.
All this would make it much more clear why he almost seems apologetic about the fact he hasn’t been with them: they’re his people. He feels familial and social obligation to be with this sub-group of Nephites, even though he’d been the highest-ranking (and therefore busiest, I think we can assume) public and religious servant in the land. It also explains why he’s going to “attempt” to speak to them in a language that he considers his own.
What do you think? Did the Zennifite group develop a different dialect? If so, there’s further implications throughout the Book of Mormon, such as the idea that the Lamanites would have learned this variation of Nephite, since the Priests of Noah were the ones that taught them to speak Nephite.