5.21.14_feat

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.

 

 

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Comments

  1. says

    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 says

    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.

  3. Loren Spendlove says

    Catherine

    Just a small correction. You say in the article that the word deseret means beehive, but that is not accurate. The word deseret comes from a verse in the Book of Mormon which reads: “And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee.” It is the only place that this word ever appears in LDS scriptures. This verse is found in the book of Ether (toward the end of the Book of Mormon), chapter 2, verse 3. So, not the whole hive, just a bee. The beehive is the Utah state symbol, and it has come to represent industry, but that is not the original meaning of the word deseret.

  4. Kenneth Beesley says

    Just a few comments on the above:

    The Mormons didn’t set out to create a non-Roman alphabet. In 1847 and 1853 they came _very_ close to adopting the Roman-based Pitman/Ellis 1847 Alphabet, which looks weird at first glance but offers no secrecy at all. In 1847 they even ordered some type. In late 1853 they were about to order type again but were persuaded to change to non-Roman glyphs at the very last minute by Willard Richards, a counsellor to Brigham Young. Richards argued that a successful spelling reform would need to start with a clean slate, using pretty much the same arguments that George Bernard Shaw employed in the 20th century to argue for spelling reform (Shaw left money in his 1950 will that funded a competition for a new non-Roman alphabet, now known as the Shaw or Shavian alphabet). After the Deseret Alphabet was finally abandoned, circa 1875, the regents of the Deseret University turned their attention back to Roman-based Pitman alphabets. In 1877 Orson Pratt was in England, arranging to reprint the Book of Mormon and “Book of Covenants” (now known as the Doctrine and Covenants) in some form of Pitman phonotypy. He had ordered type from a foundry in London, and the project was about to start, when Brigham Young died 29 August, 1877. That was what finally put an end to the Mormon experiments in orthographical reform.

    38 Letters: Like Isaac Pitman, the Mormons tinkered with their alphabet, and several versions were used between 1854 and 1868-69, when the four books were printed. Several of these versions had 40 letters, in a one-to-one correspondence with the 40 letters of the Pitman/Ellis 1847 alphabet. Like the Pitman/Ellis 1847 alphabet, most versions of the Deseret Alphabet lacked a letter to represent the schwa (Pitman knew about the schwa but believed that including it his alphabet would promote “slovenly” pronunciation). In the Deseret Alphabet history, there were at least two attempts that I know of to introduce a new letter for the schwa vowel. They didn’t catch on.

    As for the allegations of secrecy (an alleged desire by the Mormons to “separate foreigners” from Mormon secrets), there is almost no evidence that might be cited/interpreted to support it. And there is an abundance of clear evidence against it. As already pointed out, the Mormons almost adopted Roman-based Pitman alphabets at least three times, including once after the demise of the DA. The Deseret Alphabet was advertised openly in the Deseret News, which was targeted at Mormons but available to anyone. The DA articles in the Deseret News (1859-60 and again in 1864, provided for teaching and reading practice) always included a chart of the alphabet, except at the very end when they tried to wean the learners from the charts. The four published books all included a chart of the Deseret Alphabet printed right at the front. It’s not that hard to learn to read the DA, although people who have already learned traditional orthography often find it extremely irritating to learn a completely new alphabet—it temporarily reduces you back to an illiterate school child. Compare the modern difficulty of changing text editors, e.g. from emacs to vim. In any case, the only people who couldn’t read the DA were those who refused to learn it.

    Then one can look at the _content_ of the DA books: a couple of completely harmless little readers, intended for children, and the Book of Mormon. I’ve also seen DA manuscripts of significant parts of the Doctrine and Covenants, another book of Mormon scripture. A complete DA manuscript of the Bible was also prepared (I’ve examined it), but it was never printed. The articles in the Deseret News were again just Bible quotes and other Mormon scripture. The VAST majority of the DA materials are just Mormon scripture—easily over 99%. No secrets there. As I wrote in one paper, anyone who believes that the Mormons were trying to hide the Bible and the Book of Mormon behind a sinister veil of Deseret Alphabet have a vivid imagination (to put it kindly). They transcribed and published the Book of Mormon in the DA in the same spirit that they translated and published it in Welsh, Danish, German, French, etc. That is, they were trying to get the message OUT, in any many forms as possible.

    The non-scriptural DA manuscripts are tiny in comparison, sometimes extremely interesting, but all completely harmless. There are some meeting minutes, a financial ledger, part of a history of Brigham Young, maybe a couple of dozen letters, a few journal entries (several people tried out the DA for a day or two in their journals before giving up and going back to traditional orthography), one tombstone in Cedar City, a gold coin, one fascinating three-month journal of an 1859 missionary to the Hopi (later transcribed into traditional orthography), an English-Hopi vocabulary of almost 500 words, and a few miscellaneous bits and pieces. LDS Church archivists and other researchers on several occasions have given me DA letters or journal entries to transcribe, without fear that there were any secrets hidden therein. I like a sensational story as much as the next guy, but I think I’ve seen just about everything written in the DA, and I haven’t found a juicy secret yet.

    Kenneth R. Beesley

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