New-York Historical Society

The Mormon Alphabet Experiment

This post was written by Catherine Falzone, cataloger.

While working in the stacks one day, I happened upon a mysterious book.

cover of Deseret First Book

YC1868.Deser First.

I had never seen these characters before, but luckily the book came with a key:

Pronunciation key of Deseret Second Book

Pronunciation key. YC1868.Deser Second.

Using it to translate the title, I discovered that this was the Deseret First Book. With that information, and the picture of the Salt Lake Temple on the cover, I deduced that it was a Mormon publication. A bit of research led me to a strange footnote to Mormon history: the creation of the Deseret alphabet.

Like the Cherokee before them, the Mormons were eager to invent new symbols for written language. But unlike Sequoyah, who was creating a syllabary for a language that had no written expression, the Mormons wanted to abandon the Latin alphabet in favor of a completely new alphabet and orthography for the English language. Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1847 to 1877, became interested in spelling reform after taking shorthand classes with British convert George D. Watt. He enlisted Watt to create symbols that they hoped would streamline English spelling.

portrait of Brigham Young

Portrait of Brigham Young. Portrait File, PR 52, Box 156.

In an article in the Deseret News from December 26, 1855, Watt praised the sensible nature of the Cherokee written language, saying,

all the credit is due to [Sequoyah] for first discovering in modern times that language is based upon but a few elementary sounds, and that marks appropriated to such would supply the means of writing them in all their combinations to make words. …What a pity that people are so wedded to their traditions, as to cling to them with eager tenacity, even when it is self evident that they are not founded in the common sense of truth! This is a mournful fact alike with the Hindoo and his avatars, and the scholar and his English orthography…The incarnations of the Hindoo gods are very numerous, but the inconsistencies of English orthography are infinite.

Young wholeheartedly agreed. In 1853, he directed Watt and the Board of Regents of the University of Deseret (which was founded by the Mormon settlers in 1850 and later became the University of Utah) to create a new alphabet that would make learning English easier. At the time, many non- English-speaking immigrants, particularly those from Scandinavian countries, were settling in the UtahTerritory. Young wanted them to be able to learn English quickly so they could more easily become part of the  Mormon community. He also wanted to decrease the amount of time  children would have to spend in school learning how to spell.

article from Deseret News

Deseret News, the Utah Territory’s Mormon newspaper, reported a meeting to discuss printing elementary school books in the Deseret alphabet (right-hand column). Newspaper Collection.

Page 11 of Deseret Second Book

Page 11 of Deseret Second Book. YC1868.Deser Second.

 Watt and the Regents settled on a  system of 38 characters, one for  each  sound in the English  language. It became known as  the Deseret alphabet,  after the  proposed Mormon state of  Deseret. (According to the Book  of  Mormon, Deseret means  “beehive,” a symbol of industry  that is associated  with Utah to  this day.) The characters have  something in common with  shorthand, but they seem to have  mostly been invented by Watt.

Interest in the alphabet petered out in the late 1850s, but was revived in the mid-1860s, when Young ordered the new font to be typeset back east. Ten thousand copies each of two primers, The Deseret First Book and The Deseret Second Book, were printed by Russell Brothers in New York and shipped to Utah. These were followed by 8,000 copies of part one of the full Book of Mormon and 500 copies of a family version.

cover of Book of Mormon

Cover of Book of Mormon. BX8624 1869.

Despite all this activity, the  Deseret alphabet never caught  on with the  public. In addition to  being too hard to learn, the expenses associated  with translating and  printing works in a completely new alphabet were  just too great. The  alphabet also lost its most powerful advocate when  Brigham Young died  in 1877. While merely a curiosity today, the  Deseret  alphabet was  indicative of the lengths to which the LDS Church  would go in order to reshape the world in accordance with its beliefs.

 

 

2 Comments to The Mormon Alphabet Experiment

  1. June 2, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Walhnutu: It (Deseret) still suffers from the same issues basically every other reform proposal/system does: it doesn’t account for how everything can fall to
    schwa (photo, photograph), or the random ablauts (nation, national),
    etc.

    SB: There are reform proposals that can deal with photo photograph photographer
    WLO: fóto, fótògraf, fòtogràfèr
    Webster: ‘fótó fótəgraf, fòtogrəfər \ˈfō-(ˌ)tō\

    W: It’s interesting looking, and that’s about all it has going for it.
    I’m honestly surprised, though, that more Mormons didn’t pick it up,
    even though Watt was excommunicated, it does seem like a way to unify
    the church (more so) and separate outsiders.

    SB: Most reforms fail when the main advocate is no longer involved.
    The St. Louis schools, for instance, dropped Leigh (phonemic) print
    when the superintendent who supported it retired and was replaced.

    The Chicago Trib dropped phonemic spelling of a few words when the editor was replaced and Medil and McCormick were no longer around.

    I don’t think that Deseret was that successful in achieving its goal,
    to accelerate the understanding of English. It worked but as time went
    on their were fewer and fewer people that needed this help.

    Something closer to Leigh print would have worked just as well and
    could also be easily read by TS adepts.

    Deseret was supposed to be based on Pitman’s Phonotypy which
    kept many Latin letter shapes and much easier for a TS adept to read.
    (traditional spelling adept)

    –Steve

    The New York Historical Society Museum and Library
    The Mormon Alphabet Experiment

    I discovered that this was the Deseret First Book. With that information, and the picture of the Salt Lake Temple on the cover, I deduced that it was a Mormon publication. A bit of research led me to a strange footnote to Mormon history: the creation of the Deseret alphabet.

    http://blog.nyhistory.org/mormon-alphabet-experiment/

    Here is yet another phonemic alphabet for English.
    It only uses new letter assignments for phonemes that are not uniquely represented This makes it a little more readable.

    Default Semiphonetic English Spelling Reform
    http://www.city-data.com/forum/education/2126276-semiphonetic-english-spelling-reform.html

  2. Allan West's Gravatar Allan West
    July 22, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    I have the Book of Mormon in the Deseret alphabet… my ancestors are mormon.
    I thought it would be interesting to learn, read, and write in Deseret… and did for almost a year. My biggest insight into the alphabet is that, even when one becomes accustomed to being able to read quickly, there is very little variety from letter to letter… and that since there are no capital letters… surprisingly enough, there is more than your usual eyestrain. One of the other disadvantages of the alphabet as printed in type, is, as one can see in the above pronunciation key, of the letters that look similar, the only differences can be found in the thinnest elements of the type. (I found that I could read what I had written much easier because the pencil/pen lines were all of the same thickness.)
    You will also notice that with quickly written hand written words, elements such as (p) and (t) could easily appear the same to readers.

  1. By on July 22, 2014 at 7:53 am

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