The Vault

Brigham Young’s Short-Lived, Experimental Mormon Alphabet

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Catherine Falzone, cataloger at the New-York Historical Society, recently blogged about three books printed in the Deseret Alphabet, a 19th-century experiment sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The idea for the alphabet came from George D. Watt, one of the first Latter-Day Saints to be baptized in Britain in 1837. Watt, who was schooled in Sir Isaac Pitman’s phonetic shorthand, had also become a proponent of spelling reforms (a cause that Pitman and Watt had in common with Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, and contemporary Noah Webster).

In 1853, after Watt taught shorthand to Brigham Young, the Mormon leader commissioned the British clerk to create a 38-character “Deseret alphabet.” The phonetic alphabet was meant to simplify the spelling of English words. Watt said, echoing Pitman’s beliefs: “An alphabet should contain just as many letters as there are simple-pure atoms of sound.”

For Young’s purposes, the alphabet would enhance the unity of the church, mark its difference from the rest of the United States, and help the many non-English-speaking converts entering Utah to learn English. Historian David Bigler—a sometimes-critical observer of the LDS Church—adds his argument that the language “kept secrets from curious non-Mormons [and] controlled what children would be allowed to read.”

The pages below are from the Deseret First Book and the Deseret Second Book—two primers for schoolchildren—and the Book of Mormon. (You can browse the whole Deseret Alphabet Book of Mormon, 1869 edition, on the Internet Archive.

The alphabet was in use only between the 1850s and 1870s, fading away after Young’s death in 1877. It now has an online afterlife: Blogger John H. Jenkins, a software engineer and aficionado of the Alphabet, has translated almost all of the comic XKCD using Deseret characters. 

Pronunciation key from the Deseret Second Book, 1868. 

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. 

Cover of the Deseret First Book, 1868. 

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. 

Page of the Deseret Second Book, 1868. 

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. 

Cover of the Book of Mormon, 1869. 

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.