“How was the Book of Mormon pronouncing guide developed?” Ensign, July 1996, 60–61
Donald W. Parry, assistant professor of Hebrew at Brigham Young University.
The pronouncing guide, located at the back of the current English edition of the Book of Mormon, contains 344 proper names. Several of those names—such as Abraham, Moab, and Lehi—can be traced to the Old World, but the majority are names of people and places found only in the Book of Mormon.
The pronouncing guide provides readers with a phonetic form of those names as an aid in determining pronunciation (for example, Nephi = ne’fi). Three names in the guide have two pronunciations (Ishmael, Israel, and Mosiah), reflecting two ways the name is pronounced among English-speaking Church members today.
Historically, the pronouncing guide was developed out of a need to create pronunciation uniformity. While presiding over a Book of Mormon convention at Brigham Young Academy in 1903, President Joseph F. Smith appointed a committee of scholars “to decide upon a method of pronunciation of Book of Mormon names” (“Book of Mormon Students Meet,” Deseret Evening News, 25 May 1903, p. 3). At that time, apparently, changes were “constantly being made in spelling and pronounciation” of Book of Mormon names, and “fads—as common in pronounciation as in everything else”—existed in the Church (ibid; original spelling preserved).
Scholars favored “a uniform arbitrary rule” of pronunciation rather than the “present diversity” that then existed (ibid., p. 4). Committee members could not initially agree in all cases on how to pronounce some Book of Mormon names. However, President Smith “showed the differences of pronounciation of even common words, related a number of amusing examples, and advised the committee not to be too technical, or too insistent, upon the adoption of favorite individual methods” (ibid.). Before the convention adjourned, scholars recommended a number of pronunciation rules.
A resulting pronunciation guide by John M. Mills, professor and educator from Ogden, Utah, was published in 1920. The First Presidency accepted the recommendations and announced that the 1921 edition of the Book of Mormon would feature a “Pronouncing Vocabulary” that “gives a simple and consistent pronunciation of practically every proper name, and of some other words, of Book of Mormon origin” (“New Issue of the Book of Mormon,” Relief Society Magazine, Feb. 1921, p. 97). President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency introduced the pronouncing guide to the Saints in general conference (see Conference Report, Apr. 1921, p. 20).
The guide appeared in the Book of Mormon for six decades until publication of the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon. Shortly before that edition went to press, the Brethren invited Soren Cox of the Brigham Young University English department to examine the pronouncing guide for possible revision and to standardize the guide so it reflected pronunciation of Book of Mormon names among present-generation Latter-day Saints.
Through this process, some minor mistakes were corrected, and a number of changes were recommended, including the addition of a few new names to the guide. The “general American dialect” was chosen as a model for pronunciation rules.
The way we pronounce Book of Mormon names today likely does not reflect the exact manner in which the Jaredites, Nephites, and Lamanites pronounced their own names and places. We simply do not know the original pronunciations, which were most likely based upon one or more Semitic languages (see Hugh Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites, in The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1988, 5:25–42, 242–46).
Hugh Nibley, however, says the Prophet’s translation of the Book of Mormon was free of conjecture regarding the pronunciation of proper names. “There was no guessing. According to David Whitmer and Emma Smith … , Joseph never pronounced the proper names he came upon in the plates during the translation but always spelled them out. Hence there can be no doubt that they are meant as they stand to be as accurate and authentic as it is possible to render them in our alphabet” (ibid., p. 31).
Yet, the Prophet was visited by a number of Book of Mormon prophets who probably introduced themselves by name as did Moroni (see JS—H 1:33; Journal of Discourses, 13:47; 17:374; 21:94, 161). The Prophet’s likely knowledge of name pronunciation is further supported by his mother’s observation that he knew the Nephite culture and peoples well enough that he was able to describe them “with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them” (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. Preston Nibley, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979, p. 83).
We can assume that the Saints in the Prophet’s day heard him pronounce some Book of Mormon names during gospel discussions and discourses given after the translation of the Book of Mormon. Of course, it is not possible to know how Joseph Smith pronounced those names, but that is not the pronunciation guide’s vital purpose. Its chief purpose is to establish uniformity of pronunciation among English speakers.