Hey guys — we talk about a lot of controversial and heavy stuff in this segment of the show, but I wanted to lighten the mood a bit today and just talk about a piece of Latter-day Saint history that I find downright fascinating. We’re going to talk about something called the Deseret Alphabet. Roll the intro.
Wait, wait, wait — Stooop! [David appears via greenscreen] Go back a little bit. That’s it—right there. This is an example of the Deseret Alphabet. We’ve got even more a few frames back. This was really a thing for a while, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Keep rolling.
Alright, so if you haven’t noticed, English spelling isn’t always the most consistent. For example, “tear” and “tear” have the same exact spelling but different pronunciations. The word “debt” has a silent “b” in it. The “s” in debris is silent, but the “s” in hubris is not. And don’t even get me started on the “I before E except after C” rule.
Well, as the Saints were settling in Utah in the early 1850s, Brigham Young took notice of some of the oddities of written English and had an idea — As the pioneers set out to rebuild their civilization, what if they also reformed and simplified the English alphabet? On April 8th, 1852, Brigham announced at general conference, “I have asked the Board of Regents [of the University of Deseret] to cast out from their system of education, the present orthography and written form of our language, that when my children are taught the graphic sign for A, it may always represent that individual sound only … And when P is introduced into a word, let it not be silent as in Phthisic, or sound like F in Physic, and let two not be placed instead of one in apple.”
The result of this effort was an entirely new alphabet, which the Deseret News reported had been completed by January 1854. The idea was that this new alphabet would make it easier for children and foreign immigrants to learn English. Brigham Young later said,
“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 … 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.”
The simplified alphabet would also make it easier to transcribe speeches in real-time because you could write what was being said using fewer letters than our traditional alphabet.
“The alphabet, formed by a committee of educators and churchmen, is believed to have been largely the work of George D. Watts. … ” George was the first Latter-day Saint convert in Great Britain. He helped out a lot with the creation of the Journal of Discourses. He knew how to write in Pitman shorthand — which very few people have the ability to translate today. Long story short, he was a good choice for this project.
The creation of this new alphabet was not commanded by God. This was just a practical idea people thought would be helpful. But, for better or worse, it completely flopped. There were a few pushes to use the new alphabet, but it never really caught on. It was difficult and expensive to acquire materials to teach it in schools. The people who were already literate in English didn’t see the need to learn a new alphabet. And there were simply other things going on in pioneer Utah that were just bigger priorities. The Deseret Alphabet pretty much died with Brigham Young in 1877.
But before it went the way of all the earth, it did leave behind some artifacts for us to enjoy. Two elementary readers were published to help people learn the new alphabet. They published both a portion of the Book of Mormon (intended to be a third “reader”) as well as the Book of Mormon as a whole. People wrote letters using the Deseret Alphabet. This guy’s tombstone in Cedar City had some on it. It showed up in issues of the Deseret News. Some coins had it. It was even apparently used on some street signs for a while. If you happen to stumble across any of this stuff, hang onto it because items featuring the original Deseret Alphabet are worth a lot of money nowadays.
Now, to be clear, the Deseret Alphabet did not change the way English was spoken. This was just a new way of writing in English. And because each symbol represents one single sound, it’s really not very difficult to pick up. For example, let’s translate a few words together. All we have to do is match up the characters with the sounds they make in the key, and we’re on our way.
Here’s the first word (𐐒𐐨). This symbol (𐐒) makes the same sound as a regular “b.” This symbol (𐐨) makes an “e” sound, as in “eat.” Thus, the first word is “Be.”
Here are the characters for the next two words (𐑇𐐳𐑉 𐐻𐐭). When we match them up with their sounds, we get something like sh oo ur t oo. “Be sure to.” Next two words (𐐼𐑉𐐮𐑍𐐿 𐐷𐐳𐑉): d ur i eng k ye oo ur. “Be sure to drink your.” Last word (𐐬𐑂𐐲𐑊𐐻𐐨𐑌): O v u l t ea n.
And now you’ve done it! It takes some practice, but it’s really quite doable. If you want to practice some more, I’ll leave you some links in the YouTube description that will take you to the original Deseret Alphabet Readers that the Saints used. I’ll also leave you some messages of my own there. If you want to make things easy for yourself, I also found a Deseret Alphabet translator online that has been useful for me. I hope you find this as interesting as I do. It’s something fun and unique you can bring up next time there’s a lull in the dinner party conversation. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- Deseret Alphabet Key (found in the original DA Book of Mormon): https://bit.ly/3ReI4k1
- Brigham Young announces the project on April 8th, 1852 (gen. conf.): https://bit.ly/3RaXvd7
- January 1854 Deseret News reports completion of DA: https://bit.ly/3Psr0FJ
- Nov. 6, 1868, Deseret News (Brigham Young reports acquisition of Deseret alphabet materials): https://bit.ly/3IgRiZ2
- “The Deseret Alphabet Experiment,” via BYU RSC: https://bit.ly/3P9hOWp
- “Deseret Alphabet,” via the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: https://bit.ly/3uweSLD
- “Deseret Alphabet,” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3P7FgDn
- “A Descriptive Bibliography of the Mormon Church, Volume 3,” see item 881: https://bit.ly/3OPe8cJ
- “Utah’s Strange Alphabet,” in True Frontier magazine, Nov. 1968, pg. 28: https://bit.ly/3InDgET
- “Say Now Shibboleth, or Maybe Cumorah” via Interpreter Journal: https://bit.ly/3uvWen3
- “The Deseret Alphabet,” via the Friend magazine (August 1985): https://bit.ly/3nHKcTY
- 1855 Deseret Almanac (pg. 26 contains a precursory version of the DA): https://bit.ly/3uvxNpM
- An example of a Deseret News article written in DA (Feb. 16, 1859): https://bit.ly/3nM62pu
- April 14, 1869, Deseret News ad for “Deseret Readers”: https://bit.ly/3P9kjYU
- Some additional helpful resources can be found here: http://www.deseretalphabet.org/
- Here is the Deseret Alphabet Translator website if you want to have some fun: https://bit.ly/3bUQU6p
- Some practice phrases for you:
𐐤𐐯𐑂𐐲𐑉 𐑀𐐬𐐮𐑍 𐐻𐐭 𐑀𐐮𐑂 𐐷𐐭 𐐷𐐭𐐹𐐨. 𐐤𐐯𐑂𐐲𐑉 𐑀𐐬𐐮𐑍 𐐻𐐭 𐑊𐐯𐐻 𐐷𐐭 𐐼𐐵𐑌.
𐐗𐐨𐐹 𐑄 𐐽𐐩𐑌𐐾, 𐐷𐐭 𐑁𐐮𐑊𐑃𐐨 𐐰𐑌𐐲𐑋𐐲𐑊!