Book of Mormon ALMA could be from the Hebrew common noun עלם ՙlm, meaning "youth" or "lad," which occurs twice in the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 17:56 and 20:22, plus a hypocoristic ending ā meaning “Lord.” (Its feminine form, עלמה ՙalmâ, appears nine times in the Old Testament, where it means “a young woman,” including the famous passage in Isaiah 7:14.) ALMA would then mean “Young man of God.” Alma the first, when initially introduced, is called a “young man” (Mosiah 17:2).
ALMA reflects the Hebrew qatl form of the segholate noun, עלם ՙelem, as for example in 1 Samuel 20:22. Though the anglicized forms ALMA and ՙelem do not appear to be related, a common but simple transformation occurs in Hebrew when an ending is added to a Hebrew segholate noun: the noun reverts generally back to its qatl form. Thus, with the addition of the hypocoristic ending –a, the segholate form ՙelem would become ՙalmā՚. (The pausal form, because of the shift in accent, also reveals the original /a/ vowel, e.g., as in the pausal form in 1 Samuel 17:56. Of interest is the fact that the King James translation of this verse renders ՙelem [in this verse it is written ՙālem with sillûq] as “stripling.”)
The root ՙlm, meaning "youth" or "lad," occurs in other Semitic languages, though not always with the same spelling as in Hebrew. This vocable is pronounced in proto-Semitic with an initial ǵ (ǵayin). But because the proto-Semitic phonemesʿ (ʿayin) and ǵ (ǵayin) fell together in Hebrew orthography, the Hebrew character ע represents both phonemes. However, the Hebrew spoken in Lehi’s day no doubt still made the distinction. Thus, in Ugaritic literature (at least 600 years before Lehi), this vocable is attested in the spelling ǵlm and means “young boy, young man, page, valet,” etc., similar to Hebrew.
Of significance for the name ALMA is the fact that it appears as an epithet of the hero in one of the more famous epics from Ugaritic, namely, KRT (pronounced either “Kirta” or “Keret”). Therein, the hero is called ǵlm ՚l, "lad of [the god] El" (KTU 1.14.II.8-9). If the Book of Mormon ALMA is analogous to this epithet, then the hypocoristic form ALMA would mean exactly what the Ugaritic epithet meant, "lad of God," a rather appropriate meaning for both Book of Mormon prophets who bear this name, especially since Alma the first, when initially introduced, is called a “young man” (Mosiah 17:2). In this sense, ALMA would be analogous to the Hebrew גבר geber, which means “man, hero,” and appears in names such as Gabriel, “hero/man of God.”
Hugh Nibley, some years ago, seized on the appearance of ALMA in an undeniably Hebrew/Semitic context as evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon name. In one of the letters of the Bar Kokhba period, from the Second Jewish Revolt against the Romans in Palestine around the year A.D. 132, the personal name ՚alma՚ ben yehudah (as the scribe at the time normalized the name), appears in a business document. In Lehi’s day the name would have been spelled with an initial ՙayin (representing the phoneme /ǵ/), namely, ՙlm, not with an aleph as in the Bar Kokhba letter. However, in the definitive publication of this letter, this name has been reinterpreted as Aramaic ՙallima՚, “strong, powerful.” In this reinterpretation, the final aleph of the name has been interpreted as the common Aramaic ending, thus leading to an Aramaic etymology. The fact that the second appearance of the name in the Bar Kokhba letter is spelled with a final he rather than an (Aramaic?) א aleph means that the scribe for that particular line of the text probably did not recognize the name as Aramaic, and/or confused א aleph for the ה he, both of which can represent /ā/, and both of which can be used for hypocoristica.
Be that as it may, the etymology of ALMA in the Book of Mormon is not dependent on the reading of the name in the Bar Kokhba letter. The etymology is based on the biblical Hebrew vocable עלם ՙlm, as explained above, and its Ugaritic cognate, ǵlm. Additionally, it seems that the vocable is attested even earlier than Ugaritic, namely in the Ebla cuneiform texts that predate the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt by about a thousand years. There the name is written al6-ma, as would be expected in cuneiform. Therefore, if ALMA is a possible reading in the Bar Kokhba letter, then the Book of Mormon name ALMA is bracketed before and after the time of Lehi, and appears in a Ugarit epithet a century or two before the time of Moses, and occurs twice as a common masculine noun in the Hebrew Old Testament.
Of course, other etymologies are possible, though less likely. The Arabic root ՙalama / ՙalima, "knowing, erudite; distinguished; chief, chieftain," etc. (both Robert F. Smith and John A. Tvedtnes, early onomasticon scholars of the Book of Mormon, mention this possibility), yields plausible meanings and may even contribute to a (as yet unrecognized) play on words. Also, אלם ՚lm means "to bind" or "to be dumb" in Hebrew, and could possibly mean, with hypocoristic aleph ending, "He (God) is bound." However, this root is attested in Hebrew only in two oblique verbal forms, the niphal and piel, neither of which would allow the spelling as it appears in the Book of Mormon.
Deseret Alphabet: 𐐈𐐢𐐣𐐈 (ælmæ)
- There are also qitl and qutl forms, in addition to the qatl forms. For a discussion of the qatl/qitl/qutl forms in Hebrew and the forms they can take, see Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed., enlarged and revised, E. Kautzsch and A. E. Cowley, 2nd English edition, 1910 (Reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), §84a, commonly called Gesenius.
- For an explanation of hypocoristic names, see under “Kurznamen,” in Martin Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung (Reprint: Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms, 1966; from the original Stuttgart, Germany: Kohlhammer, 1928), 36-41. In general, hypocoristic endings often represented a theophoric element (the name of a deity in a sharply contracted form), as Noth states, by a single final consonant, often aleph (such as in the first occurrence in the Bar Kokhba letter mentioned below), but also with final heh (such as in the second occurrence in the Bar Kokhba letter), and with yod, among other suffixes. A good example is the personal name חנא from Samaria ostracon 30:3, from the eighth century BC, long before any substantial Aramaic influence could account for the final aleph in a personal name. This name, according to Shmuel Aḥituv (Echoes From the Past: Hebrew and Cognate Inscriptions from the Biblical Period, trans. Anson F. Rainey [Jerusalem: Carta, 2008], 481) is vocalized ḥānnāʾ and is a “hypocoristic from חננאל.” (I count 14 names in Aḥituv’s book that have a hypocoristic aleph ending, thus, along with the Bar Kokhba letter mentioned below, forming a bracket of Lehi’s day.) The name probably means “Grace of God,” or “God is grace,” analogous to “young man of God” proposed below for ALMA. See also from the Solomonic time period the hypocoristic name Abda, meaning “servant of deity” (1 Kings 4:6 passim). The plene form of the name (not the same individual) appears later as a diminutive in 1 Chronicles 9:16 as Obadiah, meaning “young servant of Yahweh.” (See Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, tr. M.E.J. Richardson, The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, CD-ROM Edition, [Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, NV 1994-2000]. Hereafter HALOT.) The same is true of the biblical personal name Shebna (Isaiah 22:15), which is most likely "a short form, probably from" Shebanyah(u) (HALOT). There is also an Ammonite analog to ALMA, ՙbd՚, that would mean "the servant of [the god]." See Robert Deutsch and André Lemaire, Biblical Period Personal Seals in the Shlomo Moussaieff Collection (Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications, 2000), nos. 150 and 177.
- The best example of this shift in vowels when a suffix is added is the feminine form ՙalmâ, which comes from the masculine form ՙelem. The Arabic cognate, ǵulām, which carries many of the same meanings as Hebrew ՙelem, is not a qatl form.
- The fact that some nouns containing an ʿayin were transliterated into Septuagint Greek as if the ʿayin were a /g/ (e.g., Hebrew עַזָּה, became Greek Γάζα), demonstrates that at the time of the production of the Septuagint the difference between ʿ (ʿayin) and ǵ (ǵayin), was still, at least historically, if not in pronunciation, distinct.
- Ugarit was a small city-state that flourished between about 1500 and 1200 BC just north of present-day Latakia on the Syrian coast. The language spoken there is related to Hebrew and shares with it many precise poetic structures and vocabulary.
- For the Ugaritic see the definitions in Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretz, Analytic Ugaritic Bibliography (Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag, 1996), 821. See also J. Hoftijzer and K. Jongeling, Dictionary of the North-west Semitic Inscriptions (New York: E. J. Brill, 1995), 862, where the definition “man” is given.
- Manfried Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquin Sanmartin, The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places (Münster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995), 37.
- See Matt Bowen, “‘And He Was a Young Man’: The Literary Preservation of Alma’s Autobiographical Wordplay,” FARMS’ Insights 30/4 (2010).
- Hugh W. Nibley, book review of Bar Kochba by Yigael Yadin, BYU Studies 14/1 (Autumn 1973): 121.
- Yigael Yadin, Bar Kochba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Last Jewish Revolt against Rome (Jerusalem: Steinmatzky’s Agency, 1971), 177. At the end of the fourth line from the top it is spelled אלמא ՚lm՚, and at the beginning of the fourth line from the bottom אלמה ՚lmh.
- As explained earlier, because the Hebrew alphabet did not have separate signs for ՙayin and ǵayin, both are represented by the same sign in the orthography. By the time of the Bar Kokhba letters, the aleph, the ՙayin, and the ǵayin were on occasion confused in the orthography, no doubt because they were not distinguished in pronunciation. This is especially true in the first centuries B.C. and A.D., of Samaritan and Hasmonean Hebrew. The same interchange occurs in Phoenician, e.g., both אלם ՚lm and עלם ՙlm mean "eternity."
- The Documents from the Bar-Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Hebrew, Aramaic and Nabatean-Aramaic Papyri, eds, Yigael Yadin, Jonas C. Greenfield, Ada Yardeni, and Baruch Levine (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society/Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology/Shrine of the Book/Israel Museum, 2002), 47. A verbal form of this root, עלמא ՙlm՚, exists in Jewish Aramaic, and means “to be strong.” See Hoftjzer and Jongeling, p. 858.
- The Ebla texts containing the personal name al6-ma come from the latter half of the Early Bronze Age, around a thousand years before Moses, and are written in a Semitic language related to Hebrew.
- See Terrance L. Szink, "The Personal Name 'ALMA' at Ebla," The Religious Educator 1/1 (2000): 53-56.
- Based on the lower chronology.
Dietrich, M., O. Loretz, and J. Sanmartin, The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugaritic, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places, 1.14.II.8-9. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995.
Gordon, Cyrus H., The Ancient Near East, 93-100. Norton: New York, 1965.
Huffmon, Herbert B., Amorite Personal Names in the Mari Texts, 130-131. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1965.
Jackson, Kent P., "Ammonite Personal Names in the Context of the West Semitic Onomasticon," in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman, 507-521. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983.
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Moscati, S., et al., An Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages, §8.51-58. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1969.
Noth, Martin, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung. Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1966. [photomechanical copy of the Stuttgart 1928 edition], 38.
Yadin, Yigael, Bar Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt Against Rome, 176-177. New York: Random House, 1971.
Zadok, Ran, On West Semites in Babylonia During the Chaldean and Achaemenian Periods: An Onomastic Study, 148-150. Jerusalem: Wanaarta and Tel-Aviv University, 1977.