It is amusing I suppose for those familiar with Mormon names to hear the variety of mispronunciations people come up with. The classic one is Nephi, the name of the main Book of Mormon writer, and of no fewer than four characters in the book. Usually pronounced Knee feye, it can often come out as Neffee. Moroni, pronounced Mor own eye, often comes out as Mor on knee.
So how do you pronounce the unfamiliar names in the Book of Mormon? In the back of every copy there is a pronouncing guide. Where did it come from and how do we know it is correct?
Of course biblical names, like Abraham or Jeremiah, are easy enough. For these we can turn to the unbroken history of the Jews, represented today in a living culture and language, and in a rich heritage of literature and tradition.
But how do we use names peculiar to the Book of Mormon which, it is claimed, was written in ”Reformed Egyptian”, a language unheard of by scholars of any age? This question was answered in the July 1996 Ensign magazine. The answer highlighted more problems than it's author set out to solve.
The first pronouncing guide was published in the 1921 edition of the Book of Mormon. A committee of scholars was appointed in 1903 by Joseph F Smith, sixth President of the Church, to decide upon a standardised pronunciation of Book of Mormon names. It was reported at the time that changes were "constantly being made in spelling and pronunciation" and "fads...existed in the Church".
Diversity was the order of the day. A strange state of affairs for a church lead by a living Prophet who, surely, would find such issues comparatively easy to resolve. Not so, for it took a committee eighteen years to come up with a standardised guide.
And sixty years, and six living Prophets, later the guide was revised for the 1981 edition to reflect current usage. Surely a case of the tail wagging the dog!?
But how did Joseph Smith pronounce Nephi? Donald W Parry, assistant professor of Hebrew at Brigham Young University, and author of the Ensign article, points out that "the Prophet was visited by a number of Book Of Mormon prophets who probably introduced themselves by name as did Moroni".
He goes on to say that "the Saints in the Prophet's day [probably] heard him pronounce some Book of Mormon names during gospel discussions and discourses". Joseph, then, would have pronounced Nephi the way Nephi pronounced Nephi.
Parry further points out that the Prophet's familiarity with name pronunciation is supported by his mother's testimony who said, "During our evening conversations, Joseph would...describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent ...with as much ease as if he had spent his whole life with them". (Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches, p.85. Quoted in No Man Knows My History, p.35. Fawn Brodie)
However, these tale-telling episodes related by Joseph's mother occurred in their earliest form before the death of Joseph's brother Alvin in November 1823 who was among those who heard these tales.
Chronologically this puts most, if not all of them before the first visit of Moroni in September of 1823, and certainly years before Moroni gave Joseph the Book of Mormon in 1827.
The Church's own official history tells us that, between the First Vision in 1820 and the visit of Moroni, "little of importance took place". In other words Moroni was the first Book of Mormon character to visit Joseph.
How could Joseph have been speaking of Moroni and other Book of Mormon characters before September 1823 and before he had met them? How could he have known how to pronounce their names before he had ever heard their names pronounced? Is this proto-Mormonism a clue to Mormon origins?
His familiarity with Book of Mormon history, as related by his mother, was extensive and intimate long before the Book of Mormon was "revealed" to him. Long before the hill Cumorah gave up it's ancient treasure. How do you pronounce Nephi? Ask his creator, Joseph.