The Deseret Alphabet: A Peculiar People
By David L. Steed
In early Salt Lake City the University of Deseret, later to become the University of Utah, was the site of an unusual Mormon experiment. The new Mormon leader, Brigham Young, was the second president of the newly formed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He was a powerful tyrant that led his people hundreds of miles across the plains to live in the desert of Utah and begin new lives after their first prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., had been murdered in Carthage, Illinios. It was shortly after this event that the new prophet designated a new phonetic Mormon alphabet be devised to instruct the illiterate among the community. This new language would come to be infamously called “The Deseret Alphabet.”
In the early 1850’s it was announced that the university board of regents, under Church guidance, had commissioned a new phonetic alphabet. George D. Watt, an expert in shorthand and the first English convert of the church, had studied “phonemes,” the significant sounds of the english language that were based on the work of Isaac Pitman. Watt studied these phonemes and determined that there were 38 unique sounds within the english language. He developed a set of new characters for each of these individual sounds. The language was standardized and printed in four separate texts.
The first two were reading primers meant to teach english to children and illiterate adults. These books were known as The Deseret First Alphabet Book and The Deseret Second Alphabet Book. Then a full copy of the Book of Mormon was printed in the new exclusive Mormon script, followed by a reading excerpt from the scripture known as First Nephi-Omni. The church-owned Deseret Newspaper printed several articles and Book of Mormon passages as well in the new language at Brigham Young’s instruction in order to promote the new and very expensive project.
In order to print all of these wonderful materials to teach the Deseret Alphabet, the Church needed to order new metal cast type for a printing press. This was prohibitively expensive, the type alone cost $18,500 to create in a community comprised of poor subsistence farmers. In order to print a proper catalogue of reading materials, Church leader Orson Pratt estimated that printing a meager collection of 1,000 titles could run as high as $5 million, far exceeding available funds.
In order to justify such an expensive experiment, Brigham Young often encouraged faithful members to study and use the language in his speeches during sessions of General Conference:
“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.)
This quote emphasizes Brigham Young’s goal of cultural exclusivism. By implementing a new written language, his people would be limited to reading church produced material, further isolating them from the outside world. Their new written language, carefully guarded, would also keep detractors from analyzing and printing disparaging content. Brigham Young’s emphasis on ironfisted control over his people in other areas of his life is just further proof of his intentions with the Deseret Alphabet.
In 1859, the New York Herald printed a short article regarding the Mormons and their strange new language. The author believed it was a way to ostracize the Latter-Day Saints further from their American counterparts back east. The commune of people hidden in the Rocky Mountains was becoming something to gawk at due to the unique nature of their beliefs. Even the Apostle Orson Hyde acknowledged that his brethren were a “peculiar” people.
Shortly after Brigham Young’s death in 1877 the experiment was abandoned. Like many of his other ideas, the reluctant faithful regarded the Deseret Alphabet as a fanciful dream rather than a prophetic vision. The overall experience of the language was destroyed by the exorbitant costs, the lack of available reading material, and the awkward nature of writing the unique symbols. Though the script could have been an excellent teaching tool for the illiterate, it was never standardized throughout the community.
The underlying oppressive nature of the language was extinguished from the Church and the territory. Brigham Young’s goal of isolating his people from the outside world by changing their script (as well as many other practices) was one of many failed experiments within the Church. The Deseret Alphabet, although an interesting idea, is now only used by Mormon historians and language hobbyists. This unique language is truly a peculiar story of a peculiar people.