The Deseret Alphabet as an Aid in Pronouncing Book of Mormon Names
Study of the proper names in the Book of Mormon does not entirely depend upon how Joseph Smith pronounced them, yet knowing that is of interest. One approach to reconstructing the Prophet’s pronunciation is to determine how his close associates in the early days of the church later pronounced the names. In the Deseret Alphabet we have a record of the pronunciation in vogue in 1869. It is plausible that pronunciation of the names did not change much between 1830, when the scripture first appeared in English, and the publication of the Deseret Alphabet Book of Mormon in 1869.
Preparation of this “alphabet” was begun in 1852 by a committee called by Brigham Young under the auspices of the “University of Deseret” in Salt Lake City. President Young hoped to simplify English spelling in order to speed literacy learning by immigrants and children. The committee consisted of Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, George D. Watt, and others. (Watt had learned shorthand in England, which proved influential.) After two years, the group came up with a set of thirty-eight characters. Every character had “a fixed and unalterable sound and every word is spelled with reference to given sounds.”1 A type font was manufactured in St. Louis and used in Salt Lake to publish a few items during the 1850s and 1860s. Despite lack of enthusiastic response from the public, the project crept along, culminating in 1869 in the printing of the entire Book of Mormon.
I have examined a sample of the names in the Book of Mormon to discover whether the phonetic transcription of them printed in the 1869 Deseret Alphabet Book of Mormon is different from today’s sounds. Of the sample of eighteen names, only six reveal changes.
It must be noted that the Deseret Alphabet text fails to mark which sounds were accented, neither does it show us syllable divisions. Nevertheless, I have separated syllables by reference to present-day usage.
The accompanying table gives the pronunciation of the eighteen names according to the phonetic Deseret Alphabet characters compared with the sounds recommended in the 1981 “Pronouncing Vocabulary” which appears in all English-language editions today (for a key to the letters and marks used, look on page 532 in any recent copy of the Book of Mormon).
A handful show startling differences. In Utah the word Deseret is so universally used that we wonder how that term could possibly have been pronounced differently more than a century ago, yet the phonetic rendering gives us “dess-ee-ret” not “dez-uh-ret.”
Another startler is Chemish. The Deseret Alphabet version made it sound like “shem-ish” rather than the “kem-ish” we use nowadays for one of the early Nephite writers (see Omni 1:8). Incidentally, it seems worth considering that this name might be connected to Shamash, the Assyro-Babylonian sun god.
Other differences are slight (for Isabel, Jarom, Luram, and Muloki, see the table). One wonders to what extent they might only represent the privately variant pronunciations of the individual who happened to “translate” a particular verse into the phonetic characters, or whether they would have turned out differently had proofreading been more meticulous.