How the Guide to English Pronunciation of Book of Mormon Names Came About
English-speaking Christians probably never pronounce biblical names as they were originally spoken. The reason for this is obvious. Historical variations have naturally occurred over the intervening generations. Even the principal personality’s name in the New Testament was transformed: our Savior’s name originally sounded like Yoshua or Yehoshua, then in Greek it became Jesus (“yay-soos”) and eventually came into English as Jesus (“gee-zuss”).
Ancient names in the Book of Mormon also were translated and have evolved. Hence English-speaking Latter-day Saints pronounce Nephite, Mulekite, and Jaredite names differently than was anciently the case. One might ask, “Does it really matter how Book of Mormon names are pronounced?” A practical answer is “not much.” The message of Nephi’s record is the same whether we say “Nee-fi” or “Neh-fee.” However, there is merit in Latter-day Saints who speak any given tongue approximating the same pronunciation in order to abate internal confusion and ease embarrassment. Therefore, the process by which the Book of Mormon’s current pronunciation standard developed is worth studying.
Early Latter-day Saints’ Pronunciation of Book of Mormon Names
Variations must have existed between Mormon’s pronunciation of the proper names in his record and that of Joseph Smith. Joseph’s explanation of the method by which he translated the Book of Mormon in the spring of 1829 is limited. In the “Wentworth letter” the Prophet simply states, “Through the medium of the Urim and Thummin I translated the record by the gift and power of God.”1
Joseph’s scribes give more detail about the general mode of translating. Specifically, witnesses of the translation process have told us that the Prophet spelled out unfamiliar proper names.2 According to Hugh Nibley, scribes David Whitmer and Emma Hale Smith concurred that the Prophet “never pronounced the proper names he came upon in the plates during the translation but always spelled them out.”3 It appears that by spelling out the proper names of people and places, the prophet was trying to be “as accurate and authentic as it is possible to render them in [the English] alphabet.”4
Church historian B. H. Roberts, preoccupied with how Joseph Smith translated, interviewed many of those who had known Joseph.5 On the basis of what he learned from them, as well as from his own experience with translating, Roberts was confident that the overall rendering of the Book of Mormon was not a “word-for-word bringing over from one language into another.” He also concluded that Joseph dictated each letter of at least some proper names.6
BYU English professor Royal Skousen’s extensive research on the original Book of Mormon manuscript has found that at the first occurrence of an unfamiliar name, the scribe’s initial phonetic spelling was later crossed out and on the same line a corrected spelling was given. An example is found in Alma 33:15 where Oliver Cowdery originally wrote Zenock using the familiar English spelling for the k sound when preceded by a short vowel. It would appear that Joseph then corrected Cowdery and had him cross out the first spelling of this name and write Zenoch. (While it is not altogether clear how the name should be pronounced, at least we may be confident that it should end with a k sound.) Skousen also found that in some cases of repeated names, Joseph’s pronunciation as he dictated may have produced spelling errors on the part of the scribe. A case in point involves the name Amalickiah, which Cowdery often spelled Ameleckiah. It seems likely that Joseph stressed the first syllable in his pronunciation instead of the second thus producing Cowdery’s misspelling of the ambiguous second vowel.7
A few differences in the spelling of proper names have also been found between the original and printer’s manuscripts that Cowdery copied. We cannot be sure why “Mulek appears as Muloch in the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon and as Mulok in printed editions from 1830 to 1852, [which] then became Mulek.”8 Such changes in spelling call into question whether uniformity of pronunciation existed in the early days of the church.
There has been some conjecture that Joseph Smith personally heard Book of Mormon prophets’ names from the mouth of Nephites.9 After all, various resurrected Nephites visited him and could have introduced themselves by name, while speaking in a language that Joseph could understand.10 While Moroni was talking with Joseph, he may also have mentioned other names and places from the Book of Mormon. But heavenly messengers probably would have used pronunciations within the prophet’s range of linguistic competence, expectations, and familiarity. In like manner, when the Lord himself spoke to Joseph Smith via revelation, as in Doctrine and Covenants 76, most likely he identified himself as “Jesus Christ,” rather than “Yehoshua Mashaiah,” which is approximately how his full name would have sounded in his native Aramaic. Though most Latter-day Saints would feel that Joseph Smith pronounced the name of Jesus Christ as we do today, we are not certain exactly how Joseph said the Nephite prophets’ names. Joseph’s family apparently heard him pronounce Nephite proper names on several occasions. Lucy Mack Smith claimed that her son knew the Nephites well enough that he was able to describe them “with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.”11 Though Lucy’s account does not mention that her son pronounced various Book of Mormon names, Joseph’s descriptions of the ancient inhabitants to his family members could have included a recitation of some of their proper names. But despite such possibilities, the fact is that Joseph never formally recorded his pronunciations.12 Surely other contemporaries of Joseph Smith besides his family also heard him recite these names; however, few early Latter-day Saints recorded the Prophet’s pronunciation.
Though there must have been considerable variation according to English dialect and local custom in how Latter-day Saints pronounced Book of Mormon names over the next one hundred and seventy years, research has revealed little about that topic. Linguist John Gee has traced the current pronunciation of the name Nephi among Latter-day Saints as “nee-fi” back to at least 1837.13 The pronunciation of a few other Nephite names by some early church members also seems continuous with later tradition, but early editions of the scripture did not contain pronunciation guides.
One early attempt at harmonizing pronunciation may have taken place during the publication of the Book of Mormon in the Deseret Alphabet (1852–1869). When Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, and other pioneers developed the phonetic Deseret Alphabet they had the means available to represent how they were pronouncing the Nephite names. Their pronunciation would surely have differed little from that of Joseph Smith. This major undertaking of examining Book of Mormon proper names in mid–nineteenth-century pronunciation as recorded in the Deseret Alphabet has yet to be done. Though there is nothing concrete in this speculation, such an unfulfilled possibility is worthy of mention because the Deseret Alphabet edition of the Book of Mormon represents the only attempt made by church leaders in the 1800s at setting a consistent pronunciation for Nephite proper names. (Frederick M. Huchel has made a beginning to this task on pages 58–59 of this journal.)
Development of the 1920 Guide
A full, formal guide to pronunciation by Latter-day Saints of Book of Mormon proper names was not produced until eighty years after Joseph Smith’s death. Dr. M. H. Hardy explained that in the intervening period of time, “changes which were constantly being made in spelling and pronunciation” and “fads—as common in pronunciations [as] in everything else” existed in the church.14
A Book of Mormon convention was held at Brigham Young University on 23 24 May 1903. Pronunciation of Book of Mormon proper names was part of the discussion. J. E. Hickman, BYU professor of physics and psychology, addressed the problem of discordant Book of Mormon pronunciation then prevailing among Latter-day Saints. Elder George Reynolds of the Seventy also referred to the question and mentioned a “present diversity” among Latter-day Saints in pronouncing Book of Mormon places and names. Reynolds favored consistency but was sure that “some of the pronunciations which had been given by Bro. Hickman and others were wrong and he supposed these brethren would be just as certain that they were right.”15
After Reynolds’s discourse, Hickman moved that the First Presidency appoint a committee to decide on a method to determine the pronunciation of Book of Mormon names. President Joseph F. Smith, who was present, made a motion to form such a committee and jokingly warned, “provided you do not afterwards cut me off the Church if I don’t pronounce the words according to the rule adopted by the committee.”16 The motion carried, and President Smith expressed a hope that the committee would be able to make a report during the convention. George Reynolds, Charles W. Penrose, J. E. Hickman, Benjamin Cluff Jr., and M. H. Hardy were appointed on the spot. President Smith suggested that the committee report their guidelines the next day. Reynolds, not as optimistic as the prophet, stated that he did not think the committee could complete its work during the convention. Yet by the next afternoon, recommendations from the “Pronunciation Committee” were made by Elder Penrose who submitted “uniform arbitrary rule(s)” which the committee had formulated, and which have basically been retained:
1. Words of two syllables should be accented on the first syllable.
2. Words of three syllables should be accented on the second syllable, with these exceptions, which are to be accented on the first syllable; namely: Amlici (soft); Amulon; Antipas; Antipus; Corihor; Cumeni; Curelom; Deseret; Gazelam; Helaman; Joneam; Korihor; Tubaloth.
3. Words of four syllables should be accented on the third syllable with the following exceptions, which are to be accented on the second syllable; namely: Abinadi; Abinidom; Amalickiah; Aminadi; Aminadab.
4. Ch is always to be pronounced as in the English choir.
5. G at the beginning of a name is always pronounced as in guy.
6. I at the end of a name should always take the long sound of the vowel, as in alibi.
7. The accepted pronunciation of Bible names should be followed.17
There is no evidence that the committee attempted to base their rules on how Joseph Smith articulated the ancient names or how the Nephites, Jaredites, or Mulekites themselves said the names.
However those recommendations must have had little effect, for between 1903 and 1910 the Deseret Sunday School Union Board appointed its own committee to provide an actual “Pronouncing Vocabulary” list based on the rules adopted at the 1903 convention. Leading members of this new committee were Anthon H. Lund of the First Presidency, James E. Talmage, former president of the University of Utah and future member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and John M. Mills. The principal author of the resulting guide was Mills, an educator who served as superintendent of the Ogden City Board of Education. However, Talmage kept a tight rein on the work. Sidney B. Sperry observed, “Talmage was a stickler for good English. . . . He knew as well as anyone the imperfections of the literary dress of the First Edition of the Nephite record and took a prominent part in correcting many of them in a later edition of the work.”18
The committee expressed the difficulty of arriving at the correct pronunciation of the words according to the rules and submitted their list “solely in the interest of uniformity.”19 They declared that “where there were not serious reasons in favor of changing the established pronunciation of certain words, it has been allowed to stand. Euphony in English, ease in translation into other languages, and possible conflicts with other proper names, have been kept in mind throughout. Wherever Bible names occur, the Biblical pronunciation has been preserved.”20
The Sunday School Committee’s work was published in 1910 in the back of George Reynolds’s A Dictionary of the Book of Mormon. Ten years later, the First Presidency announced the publication of a new edition of the Book of Mormon. For the first time the Book of Mormon itself carried a pronunciation guide, which was to give “a simple and consistent pronunciation of practically every proper name.”21 In April conference, President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency commented on the pronouncing guide. He told church members that a committee chosen from the Council of the Twelve had carefully examined all previous editions of the Book of Mormon, including the original, and compared them carefully, checking all footnotes and references before the new edition had gone to press.22 Actually the guide was basically similar to that produced by the Sunday School committee a decade earlier. The guide used in the 1920 edition was reproduced in all successive printings of the Book of Mormon in English for the next sixty years.
The 1981 Guide
During the 1970s President Spencer W. Kimball formed a new committee “to assist in improving doctrinal scholarship throughout the Church.”23 The succinct recommendation from that committee was that the church publish new editions of scriptures. In 1979, Dr. George Horton, director of curriculum over the Church Education System served on the committee to revise the Bible and Book of Mormon. In visits with Elder Bruce R. McConkie, Horton suggested that the new editions of scriptures, including the Bible, needed a pronunciation guide. Subsequently, in 1979, the Brethren decided to remove the Bible Pronunciation Guide because members of the church who spoke languages other than English would pronounce the names and places in their own language.24 After the new edition of the Bible (the King James Version) was published in August 1979, a new triple combination was announced, to become available in 1981.25
Before commencing the publication of a new edition of the triple combination, a committee preparing the topical guide made recommendations to the Scriptures Publication Committee of the Quorum of the Twelve (Elder Thomas S. Monson, chair, Elder Boyd K. Packer, Elder Bruce R. McConkie) that included revising the “Pronouncing Vocabulary” for the Book of Mormon for consistency and simplicity. This recommendation was approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.26 McConkie told Horton that although no one knew the original pronunciations, he agreed that for the sake of uniformity an amended one was needed.27
Shortly before the new edition of the Book of Mormon went to press, during the winter of 1980, the Brethren appointed Professor Soren Cox of Brigham Young University’s English department to examine the 1920 edition of the pronouncing guide for possible revision and to standardize the guide so it reflected pronunciation of Book of Mormon names currently used by Latter-day Saints.28 Elder McConkie gave Cox four general guidelines as follows:
1. Do not try to relate Book of Mormon names with Hebrew or Egyptian names.
2. Do not try to think of how the Nephites might have pronounced their own names.
3. Simplify where possible.
4. The main objective should be uniformity.29
Cox corrected minor mistakes. For instance, it was discovered that two rather obscure names had been misspelled. In Mormon 6:14, Joneum and Camenihah were corrected to Jeneum and Cumenihah on the basis of the original manuscript. A few new names were added to the guide (e.g., Ishmael and Samuel). Furthermore “a key explaining the sound represented by each symbol [was] also included.”30 The new guide was made more consistent and simplified by reducing the number of symbols it used. For example, Jared was corrected from ja’red to jer’ud.31 “The ‘general American dialect’ was chosen as a model for pronunciation rules.”32 The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve approved the corrections and “felt good about each of them.”33
This pronunciation guide is currently included in the back of the English Book of Mormon editions; it contains 344 names, giving the phonetic form of each name (for example, Lehi = le’hi). Ishmael, Israel, and Mosiah have two variations reflecting the ways they are “pronounced among English-speaking Church members today.”34
Pronunciation in Non-English Languages
The English pronunciation of names was relatively more important in the church’s earlier years. Now that nearly half of the church’s membership speaks languages other than English, no doubt disorder prevails in pronunciation. To alleviate this confusion some have suggested that future Book of Mormon translators use Hebrew or Egyptian roots for the proper names. So that with each translation of the Book of Mormon into another language, the translators could start at a more cohesive place of translation, closer to the original. The problem with this advice is in determining the Book of Mormon’s original language.
From the time of the printing of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, scholars, critics, and members of the church have asked, “What was the language of origin of the proper names?” LDS linguists have usually held that the volume was written in either the Hebrew or Egyptian tongues, but it is impossible to separate any Hebrew from any Egyptian elements in the proper names.35 In any case, sounds and pronunciation of words surely changed historically over Nephite history; after all, between Lehi and Moroni there was a span of a thousand years. Furthermore, we know very little about the language of the Mulekite group. It could have involved several possible tongues perhaps Phoenician, Greek, or Arabic.36 But for practical purposes, we realize that the original language of Book of Mormon proper names is English.
Meanwhile support mounts for the proposition that Egyptian and Hebrew names, and perhaps some in other Old World languages, lie behind Book of Mormon names. Archaeological discoveries have shown it increasingly possible and reasonable that Semitic names were used in ancient America. Though such attestations comfort us and may even shed light on some meanings, they do little to help Latter-day Saints pronounce the names in our book.
In addition, for most members of the church who speak major languages, the pattern of pronunciation of these names is already set by local custom and is unlikely to change. Generally, people pronounce proper names as they have learned to in their experience in the church context. Another consideration is that English is now a second language for a large number of church members and investigators. In many of these cases it is likely that their English pronunciation of names is influenced by their original language.
No study on how Latter-day Saint English speakers actually pronounce the names has ever been conducted. For instance, it could be interesting to compare pronunciation by church members living in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and in the Deep South of the United States. Such might at least establish whether the degrees of existing variation are actually troublesome to anyone. It would also be informative to learn if many Book of Mormon readers have actually ever used the guide provided in their scriptures.
The main reason behind the current Book of Mormon Pronunciation Guide is to create some measure of uniformity among Latter-day Saints in their pronunciation of the names. A synopsis of the development of this guide is as follows:
1. Though there appears to be some unity in the way names were pronounced in the church’s early years, neither Joseph Smith nor other church leaders left records of how they pronounced Book of Mormon names.
2. In 1903 the first attempt to standardize pronunciation took place when uniform rules were developed.
3. These rules were used as the basis for the first pronunciation guide included in the 1920 edition.
4. For the next sixty years this same guide was used in all editions of the Book of Mormon without variation.
5. A revised guide was developed in 1981 and is still used today.
6. Meanwhile the global spread of the church has obviously increased the de facto variability in pronunciation.
In studying the pronunciation guide’s evolution for English-speaking church members one thing becomes clear. We can concur with Daniel Ludlow, who served as the secretary to the Scripture Publication Committee, that we are “ninety-nine percent sure that we do not pronounce such names as Lehi and Nephi correctly” (that is, as they themselves did).37 At the same time Ludlow admonishes Latter-day Saints to not “let the differences in suggested pronunciation of the names of the Book of Mormon bother [them] unduly.”38 Church members will probably never pronounce Nephite, Jaredite, or Mulekite names correctly until either the ancients themselves tell us how they said their names or the Lord reveals the proper pronunciations. Until then the Book of Mormon pronunciation guide provides a useful standard. In following the guide we can be assured that if we are wrong in pronouncing Book of Mormon names, we will at least all be wrong together.
12. Robert G. Patch, “Does the ‘Pronouncing Vocabulary’ in the Book of Mormon Represent the Way the Nephites and Lamanites Actually Pronounced Their Names? Was the ‘Pronouncing Vocabulary’ Part of the Original Book of Mormon?” Ensign, February 1980, 68.
13. John Gee, “A Note on the Name Nephi,” JBMS 1 (1992): 191 n. 15. Note: “the spelling of ‘Lehi’ as ‘Lehigh’ in M. J. Hubble’s interview of David Whitmer, 13 November 1886, in Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Provo, Utah: Grandin, 1992), 210. Hubble was a non-Mormon and apparently had never seen the name spelled and thus spelled what he heard. As David Whitmer had ‘cut loose from [Joseph Smith and the Church] in 1837’ (Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 6) likely his pronunciation of the names had not altered from the initial period and thus the present American pronunciations of the names Nephi and Lehi were set within the first decade of the Church” (Gee, “A Note,” 191 n. 15).
28. Harper, “The Church Publishes a New Triple Combination,” 10; Parry, “How Was the Book of Mormon Pronouncing Guide Developed?” 61. There is no evidence that any research on pronunciation by church members was undertaken.