“How did we get the ‘Pronouncing Vocabulary’ in the Book of Mormon?” Ensign, Feb. 1980, 68
Robert G. Patch, professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, and Marcus von Wellnitz, graduate student at BYU The actual pronunciations used by the Nephites and Lamanites are unknown. The “Pronouncing Vocabulary” was produced some time after the Book of Mormon was translated in an effort to encourage a uniform pronunciation of Book of Mormon names.
It has been speculated by some that Joseph Smith knew how to pronounce the names in the Book of Mormon—but unfortunately he never recorded those pronunciations. He may have shared them verbally, however. As his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, recorded:
“During our evening conversations, Joseph would … describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958, p. 83.)
Although Joseph’s mother makes no mention of names or their pronunciation, it is possible that Joseph’s “recitals” included them. It also seems likely that Joseph would have heard some names spoken by Moroni in one of their many interviews. But no record was made from either source. Thus, when it was clear that a uniform system of pronunciation would be helpful, it had to be invented on the basis of reasoning—or through arbitrary judgment.
A logical place to begin would be with the original languages. It is known that the Book of Mormon contains elements of both Hebrew and Egyptian (see Morm. 9:32–33 and Mosiah 1:4). Sidney B. Sperry has identified the names Pahoran, Paanchi, and Pacumeni as Egyptian, and some Book of Mormon names can also be found in the Bible. But much is still unknown about both those ancient languages. And how does one pronounce Moriancumer, Cumorah, Hagoth, Rameumptom, or Cezoram?
To help resolve the difficulty a conference was held at Brigham Young University on 23 May 1903. At that conference President Joseph F. Smith approved appointments to an examining committee with the provision that “you do not afterwards cut me off the Church if I don’t pronounce the words according to the rule adopted by the committee.”
The following day, May 24, Charles W. Penrose, one of the committee members, presented to the conference the pronunciation rules recommended by the committee:
Words of two syllables are accented on the first syllable.
Words of three syllables are accented on the second syllable, with some exceptions like Deseret, Helaman, and Korihor.
Words of four or more syllables were to be accented on the third syllable, with a few exceptions like Abinadi, Amalickiah, and Abinadom.
Words with final i always carried the long vowel, as in Nephi.
An initial g was always to be hard, as in Gad.
(See Deseret Evening News, 25 May 1903, p. 3; 26 May 1903, p. 4.)
Between 1903 and 1910 Professor John M. Mills, an Ogden educator who served as Superintendent of the Ogden City Board of Education, created the “Pronouncing Vocabulary,” applying the committee’s rules to the actual names in the Book of Mormon. This work was apparently first published in the 1910 edition of George Reynolds’s A Dictionary of the Book of Mormon. The introduction to the vocabulary explained that President Anthon H. Lund and Dr. James E. Talmage had assisted in the work, which was sponsored by the Deseret Sunday School Union. The vocabulary was submitted “solely in the interest of uniformity. … Euphony in English, ease in translation into other languages, and possible conflicts with other proper names, have been kept in mind throughout.” (A Dictionary of the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1910, appendix.)