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Brigham Young's Deseret Alphabet

    One of the curious items of early Utah history was Brigham Young's effort to introduce a new alphabet, known as the Deseret Alphabet, into Mormon use. Western historian David Bigler observed:

    "Old Testament ideas on land ownership and marked ballots were not the only indications that Utah's earliest settlers were bent on creating a society altogether unlike the rest of the country. Soon after arriving in the Great Basin they even undertook to create a new method to write the English language.

    "In 1854 the University of Deseret, predecessor of the University of Utah, introduced the Deseret Alphabet, consisting of thirty-eight characters to conform with the basic number of sounds in the English language. The curious set of symbols was created by 39-year-old George D. Watt, an expert in Pitman shorthand and the faith's first English convert.

    "Aimed to reform the representation of the English language, not the language itself, the new phonetic system offered a number of advantages. First, it demonstrated cultural exclusivism, an important consideration. It also kept secrets from curious non-Mormons, controlled what children would be allowed to read, and in a largely unlettered society that included non-English speaking converts, eliminated the awkward problem of phonetic spelling. For such reasons, for nearly two decades Brigham Young pushed the new alphabet on reluctant followers. The church-owned Deseret News at Great Salt Lake City, Utah's first newspaper, published portions of its 1859 editions in the distinctive system. And the University of Deseret's board of regents at one time voted $10,000 to print text books in the alphabet for students in classrooms across the territory.

    "Like the law of consecration, however, the Deseret Alphabet never achieved widespread acceptance, despite repeated attempts by Young to promote the system. On some things, the people of Utah quietly overruled their strong-minded leader." (Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896, by David L. Bigler, Arthur H. Clark Co., 1998, p.56)

    LDS historian Thomas G. Alexander explained:

    "An alphabet of thirty-eight characters was designed to present each sound of the English language. ...The Deseret alphabet proved to be an "expensive failure," but the project indicated the extent to which Utah's community leaders borrowed from outside systems in order to meet a pressing need to introduce phonetic orthography for the English language." (Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet, by Thomas G. Alexander, Signature Books, 1991, p.210)

    LDS scholar Stanley B. Kimball commented:

    "No one knows the origin of its strange characters, but certainly Watt's knowledge of phonography was fundamental. After the thirty-eight-character alphabet (including the Latin letters C, D, L, O, P, S, W) was devised, the committee had a type font cast in St. Louis and some printing was done with it. A First Reader, in an edition of 10,000 copies, was published, as well as 10,000 copies of a Second Reader, and 8,000 copies of part of the Book of Mormon were also printed. The experiment was finally abandoned in 1869, a year after Heber's death. There is no evidence that Heber [Kimball] ever learned the alphabet." (Heber C. Kimball, by Stanley B. Kimball, p. 206)

    Preaching on October 8th, 1868, Brigham Young advised:

    "There are a few items I wish to lay before the Conference before we dismiss, which I think we shall do when we get through our meeting this afternoon. One of these items is to present to the congregation the Deseret Alphabet. ...The advantages of this alphabet will soon be realized, especially by foreigners. Brethren who come here knowing nothing of the English language will find its acquisition greatly facilitated by means of this alphabet, by which all the sounds of the language can be represented and expressed with the greatest ease. As this is the grand difficulty foreigners experience in learning the English language, they will find a knowledge of this alphabet will greatly facilitate their efforts in acquiring at least a partial English education. It will also be very advantageous to our children. It will be the means of introducing uniformity in our orthography, and the years that are now required to learn to read and spell can be devoted to other studies." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 12, p. 298, Brigham Young, delivered in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Oct. 8th, 1868.)

    Western historian Hubert H. Bancroft reported:

    "At a meeting of the board of regents, held in October 1853, Parley P. Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, and George D. Watt were appointed a committee to prepare a small school-book in characters founded on some new system of orthography, whereby the spelling and pronunciation of the English language might be made uniform and easily acquired. A further object was exclusiveness, a separate people wishing to have a separate language, and perhaps in time an independent literature. ...Finally, at a session held in December of this year, characters were adopted, under the style of the Deseret alphabet, the number of letters, or rather sounds, being thirty-two, of which the so-called vocal sounds were eleven, including six long, with short sounds to correspond, four double and one aspirate, and twenty-one articulate sounds. Thus the long sound of the letter e in meter was represented by a character resembling the Greek sigma reversed, the double sound of woo in wood by one resembling omega, the aspirate by phi, and the articulate sound of f by rho. While these characters are apparently borrowed from the Greek, this is also the case in the plates from which the book of Mormon is said to have been translated, where the letters pi, rho, tau, phi, chi, some of them as in manuscript, and others as in printed Greek, can be distinctly traced.

    "Type was ordered, and with a view to durability, made so as to contain neither the top nor tail extensions of the letters. At a meeting of the board of regents, held in March 1854, some of it was presented to the members; and between that date and 1869 were published in the Deseret alphabet a primer, the book of Mormon, and the first book of Nephi. Some attempt was made to introduce into the public schools books thus printed, but without success. The tailless characters, and the monotonous evenness of the lines, made the words difficult to distinguish, and it was found impossible to insure uniform pronunciation and orthography. Within a few years the alphabet fell into disuse, and is now remembered only as a curiosity." (History of Utah:1540-1886, Hubert H Bancroft, ch.26, 1889, pp. 712-714)

    In a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune we read:

    "Convinced residents of his utopian world needed an easier way to write English, Young poured thousands of dollars into developing the Deseret alphabet, despite more pressing needs like growing crops and building homes. ...

    "The new alphabet had 38 characters....But while the idea sounded grand, the alphabet failed entirely.

    " 'It was another of Brigham Young's bold and audacious experiments,' University of Utah History Professor Dean May said. ...

    "It was also extremely expensive to typeset the new characters and only four books were ever published: two elementary school readers, one partial Book of Mormon and one full Book of Mormon." ("The Deseret Alphabet Died With Brigham Young," by Vania Grandi, Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 2, 2000, p. D8)


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