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Deseret Alphabet

This reader was published in 1868 in the Deseret alphabet. Its title reads "The Deseret Second Book by the Regents of the Deseret University." Development of the Deseret Alphabet was begun in October 1853, and a few books, including the Book of Mormon, were published in this phonetic script before 1870. Courtesy Rare Books and Manuscripts, Brigham Young University.

by Samuel C. Monson

On April 8, 1852, Brigham Young announced that the Board of Regents of the university of Deseret was preparing a new method of writing English. The idea was to develop a sort of universal system, especially so that foreign-language-speaking converts could learn to read English more easily.

The final version of the Deseret Alphabet utilized thirty-eight characters corresponding to sounds of English. Like Noah Webster and other early Americans who studied language, Brigham Young objected to sounding the letter a differently in the spellings of mate, father, fall, man, and many. In this, he was apparently influenced by studying shorthand with his secretary George D. Watt, who had studied systems of shorthand and spelling reform based on phonemes, the significant sounds of English, under Isaac Pitman.

The Regents discussed letter forms and sounds to be represented. The forms finally adopted were unfamiliar and unadaptable to cursive writing. The range of basic English sounds was close to present-day analyses, but the schwa (the unaccented, reduced vowel in ideA, tradEd, ratIfy, biolOgy, Upon) was omitted, leading to respellings based upon traditional spelling.

Learning the Deseret phonetic system was easy. A previously illiterate missionary wrote letters home after only six lessons. Hosea Stout, Thales Haskell, and others kept diaries in Deseret. However, since pronunciation, which varies, determined spelling, many words might appear more than one way in the same individual's usage, resulting in some confusion.

Scriptural passages written in the Deseret Alphabet appeared in the Deseret News in 1859. Orson Pratt transcribed further materials that were published in New York City, printed with type designed and cast there, at a total cost of $18,500. These included first and second school readers in 1868 and the Book of Mormon and a third reader of excerpts from it in 1869. Although few of these books were sold, some Sunday schools as well as territorial schools used them.

In 1873 Pratt estimated the cost of printing a meager library of 1,000 titles at $5 million—prohibitively expensive for a sparse population in a subsistence economy. Those already literate had little incentive to learn the Deseret Alphabet, while illiterates would have had very little to read. The death of President Young in 1877 marked the end of efforts on its behalf.

(See Daily Living home page; Church History home page)

Illustrations

The thirty-eight symbols used in the Deseret Alphabet and their phonetic values. The top line reads "The Deseret Alphabet."

Bibliography

Ivins, Stanley S. "The Deseret Alphabet." Utah Humanities Review 1 (1947):223-39.

Monson, Samuel C. "The Deseret Alphabet." Master's thesis, Columbia University, 1948.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Deseret Alphabet

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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