This post was written by Catherine Falzone, cataloger.
While working in the stacks one day, I happened upon a mysterious book.
I had never seen these characters before, but luckily the book came with a key:
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.
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.
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.
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.