Monday, November 22, 2010

Church History Q&A: Did Brigham Young Really Try to Implement a Secret Deseret Language?

(Parley P. Pratt, Brigham Young, George D. Watt)           . 

Widely unknown - even for life long members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - is a remarkable endeavor in the mid to late 1800’s in which Brigham Young, then the president of the Church, commissioned and advanced a movement for the creation and implementation of a new written system of the English language. Important to note is that it was not a creation of a new language but rather a new alphabet for the existing spoken English language. This new alphabet was called the Deseret Alphabet. The alphabet was commissioned in 1862, created and material published in 1869, and finally abandoned prior to the death of President Bingham Young in 1877. There are several questions which can be asked of this - Why would Brigham Young have such an interest in creating a new alphabet? Was it an effort to keep further separate the Mormons from the rest of Society? Was it to keep secrets? Why did it fail? Was the failure a reflection of the Prophet Brigham Young and the Church?
The History and Reasons
From the beginning of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missionary work has been a forefront of the doctrine and culture of the church. It is an attempt to do as Jesus instructed to his apostles of old: “Go… and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt 18:19)

          One prophetic missionary effort by the church was the missions to England. Joseph Smith advocated and emphasized that missionary work must be taken to England, that it was the will of God. The validity and prophetic nature of this direction can be seen immediately prior and shortly after the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1844.  During this time of turmoil many American Latter-day Saints had their testimonies and beliefs tried to the core through persecution, confusion, doctrinal objections and attacks on their beliefs. Many Latter-day saints were in one way or another separated from the church. The British immigrants started arriving by the thousands pumping new life blood into the church this crucial time in church history. Famously thousands of immigrants crossed the plains in handcarts after the Saints had established themselves in Salt Lake. Richard L. Evans of the Council of the Twelve reported of the importance of the English extradition:
"80 percent of the members of the Church today are of British extraction. All of the presidents of the Church except the Prophet Joseph Smith have, at one time or another, accepted the call and performed full-time missionary labors in Great Britain."
(Richard L. Evans, “History of the Church in Great Britain,” Ensign, Sep 1971, 25)(Link)
There is a cherished and well known story in the church of the very first English baptism. In 1837, seven years after the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, missionaries for the church came to England. Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Willard Richards, and Joseph Fielding traveled to Preston England to meet with Joseph Fielding’s brother Reverend James Fielding. Joseph Fielding had previously traveled from England to Canada in 1832 where he and his wife were baptized in 1836 by the Apostle Parley P. Pratt. Joseph having talked to his brother received permission to preach in his chapel in Preston.
The preaching had much effect and on July 30, 1837 there several who desired to be baptized, of these there were nine who participated in a footrace to become England’s first official convert. A man named George D. Watt won the race and was the first convert in England. George was a skilled student in Pitman shorthand and he along with Parley P. Pratt would eventually be approached by Brigham Young in 1852 to create a phonetic writing system.
From 1850 to 1860 the territory of Utah grew as a population from 11,380 to 40,273 an increase of 253.9%. By 1870 more than 35 percent of all Utah residents had been born outside of the United States. By 1890 two thirds of Utah’s population of 210,779 was Immigrants. Of these many did not speak English and most English speakers were themselves illiterate. Even among literate or partially English literate or partially literate there was large variations in spelling and grammar particularly the 80,000 immigrant from the British Isles by 1890.
Due to the difficulty of the English language to master and with the vast majority of the people in Utah illiterate Brigham Young and his advisors decided to create and implement a new English phonetic alphabet. A phonetic alphabet means that words are spells as they sound and not through vast converse and convoluted rules and history. Following are some example of phonetic spelling using the English language.

Current English Spelling
Possible Phonetic Spelling

The Birth of the Deseret Alphabet
Brigham Young commissioned a committee headed by George D. Watt to create a new Alphabet to put phonetically with the existing English spoken language. We know that partial funding of the effort, $10,000 (approximately $266,000 in today’s currency (2009)), was given by the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah) which also published the material printed in the Deseret Alphabet. Legislature allocated $2,500 (approximately $66,500 in today’s currency) dollars for the font type of the Deseret Alphabet.  Altogether the printing and publication of the Deseret Alphabet and material costs around $18,500 (approximately $492,000 in today’s currency). This was a huge price for the small church of under 100,000 impoverished members.
Brigham Young heavily encouraged the people to lean and use the Deseret Alphabet.  In the fall session of General Conference in 1868, one year before most of the publications took place Brigham Young instructed and advised the saints concerning the alphabet
"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."
 (Journalof Discourses, Vol. 12, p. 298, Brigham Young, delivered in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Oct. 8th, 1868.)

During the publication period at least four books were printed. Ten thousand copies of The First Deseret Alphabet Reader,and ten thousand copies The Second Deseret Alphabet Reader were published and started distribution on August 13, 1868; the former for 15 cents while the latter for 20 cents. 8,000 copies of a book of Mormon section "First Nephi-Omni" was published and sold for 75 cents a piece. 100 copies of The Book of Mormon in its entirety was published and distributed 1869 selling for 2 dollars each.

          Aside from official publication the Deseret News published a weekly section of their paper in the Deseret Alphabet to encourage the saints to learnt the alphabet. In fact the very first printing of the Deseret Alphabet was Sermon on the Mount which in the Deseret News February 16, 1859. During the period of 1859-1860 Brigham Young’s Journals were written in the Deseret Alphabet. Coins were also made using the Deseret, there were even tombstones made using the Deseret Alphabet. Although never publish Parley P. Pratt saw the transcription of the complete Bible and Doctrine and Covenants. It was estimated that to create a publication of 1,000 in the Deseret Alphabet would cost a staggering $5,000,000 dollars (approximately $133,000,000 in today’s currency) a logistically impossible task for the Saints.
This attracted attention from the East – In the New York Herald there was an article published about the Alphabet:
"One prominent and striking feature connected with the News just received is the introduction into its columns of the new Mormon alphabet. It is clearly the intention of brother Brigham to have his people go to school again. Every number of the paper is to contain familiar portions of the Bible, so that the people may the more easily acquire a knowledge of the new language. As the apostle Hyde says in his epistle, that the Mormons are 'a very peculiar people,' with many peculiarities--and none doubt him--the language now introduced is calculated to make the faithful still more peculiar than anything that distinguishes them from other mortals. Gentiles are not likely to take much trouble to acquire a knowledge of the new characters, so that in course of time we may expect to be cut off from much that we have been accustomed to receive from the Rocky Mountains.
"The characters seem a conglomeration of the Celtic and the phonotypic, and are intended, like the latter, to represent distinct sounds. No classification is made into vowels and consonants, as that is by them considered of little consequence. 'The student is, therefore at liberty to deem all the characters vowels, or consonants, or starters, or stoppers, or whatever else he pleases.' There is no perfection claimed for the system, but the projectors 'are sanguine that the more it is practised and the more intimately the people become acquainted with it, the more useful and beneficial it will appear.'"
(The New York Harold, Wednesday, April 6, 1859)

Despite the efforts made in forms of admonition, monetary funding, and apparent benefits the effort failed within the decade and is now a virtually unknown to even Mormons being only a small footnote in most texts. 

            The Deseret Alphabet has attracted linguistic critics both in and out of the church due to some rahter unintuitive aspects of the alphabet – it has no extenders such as ascenders and descenders (letters rising or descending outside of the mean line length lines. e.g. ascenders: capital letters, d, or l; descenders: p, q, or y). Ascenders and descenders aid in the recognizability of words which aid in reading and understanding quickly. For this purpose of British road signs no longer print in all capital letters.
Some historians see the Deseret Alphabet as an attempt for the already isolated Latter-day Saints to further distance themselves from the rest of society. They claim that it was created as an exclusive writing system to keep their secrets from "gentiles" while at the same time prohibiting the Mormon population from learning or exploring the world outside of the Mormon Corridor. American Mormon Historian David L. Bigler writes:
“[The Deseret Alphabet] demonstrated cultural exclusivism, an important consideration. It also kept secrets from curious non-Mormons, controlled what children would be allowed to read…”
(Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896, by David L. Bigler, Arthur H. Clark Co., 1998, p.56)

Neil Alexander Walker, a current Doctoral candidate in Linguistics (UCSB) said on the subject:
“Contrary to the assumptions of outside critics, who have claimed that this alphabet was intended to cloak LDS writings from Gentile view and further isolate the Mormons in their mountain retreats, the Deseret Alphabet was intended solely to ease the burden imposed upon students learning to read and write English.”
 (A Complete Guide to Reading and Writing the Deseret Alphabet, by Neil Alexander Walker,2005, p.13)(Link to E-book)

Furthermore in every book published was a key for the alphabet; any book, any page, any phrase, could be translated given the time and effort.

Recently there has been an interest in the Deseret Alphabet, in fact it has been incorporated into Unicode. Meaning that it has been accepted and standardized as a alphabet, Unicode is intended to be a Universal character set supporting every written script used on Earth. The Deseret Alphabet has recently been added to the UK Mac OS fonts.

The Deseret Alphabet was a very logical and methodical endeavor which ultimately failed as a result of lack of commitment or dedication to the principle.  Although it can be seen as a failed project sponsored by the church and the government at the time it does not reflect on Brigham Young as a prophet as he never claimed it was from a divine source, furthermore regardless of the source the failure was primarily in the reception of the instruction and message. Whether the implementation of such an alphabet would have been a beneficial effort or an error is unknown and only open to speculation. If indeed the alphabet were to be used as Mr. Bigler postulated – that it would be the exclusive alpha of Utah – than there could be severe consequences with the expansion of the west, with integration and segregation. However if the alphabet was to be used in tandem with the English, or if all of the English speaking world were to adopt the alphabet, than it would be an asset. Whatever the influence could have been it has now become an interesting unique part of the Mormon Culture that by and large has been forgotten.

Bateman, Edward. "The Deseret Alphabet." Web log post. XMission Internet. 2003. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. .
Bancroft, Hubert Howe. Reproduction of Hubert Howe Bancroft's History of Utah, 1540-1886. Las Vegas (Box 15444, Las Vegas, NV 89114): Nevada Publications, 1982. Print.
Bigler, David L. Forgotten Kingdom: the Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1998. Print.
Evans, Richard L. “History of the Church in Great Britain.” Ensign. Salt Lake City, Utah 1971. Print 
Jensen, Richard L. "Utah History Encyclopedia." Media Solutions - Information Technology - The University of Utah. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. .
"Measureing Worth." Measuring Worth - Measures of Worth, Inflation Rates, Saving Calculator, Relative Value, worth of a Dollar, worth of a Pound, Purchasing Power, Gold Prices, GDP, History of Wages, Average Wage. Web. 22 Nov. 2010. .
Walker, Neil A. A Complete Guide to Reading and Writing the Deseret Alphabet. 2005. E-book.


  1. I have copies in my personal library of books originally printed using the Deseret Alphabet. There were only two primers and a partial of the Book of Mormon that ever found their way into print. My grandmother remembered learning it when she began to read. It is an alphabet only, not a language, as you put it. It's easy to master with a little effort. While it does have some flaws and inconsistencies, it would have been a distict improvement over our present system, in my opinion. It's a curious academic artifact of Brigham Young's larger effort to create a whole new culture for the Mormons as he attempted to secure a large chunk of the American Southwest and mold it into the State of Deseret.

  2. "There were only two primers and a partial of the Book of Mormon that ever found their way into print."
    Just an addition - there were also 500 copies of the entirety of the Book of Mormon in print.
    (History of Utah:1540-1886, Hubert H Bancroft, ch.26, 1889, pp. 712-714)
    ("The Deseret Alphabet Died With Brigham Young," by Vania Grandi, Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 2, 2000, p. D8)

    I agree with you that the alphabet would have been a significant improvement to our current but I think that if it was accepted, by and large, as the only writing system in Mormonism it would be a depriment to the people. It would make them an literary isolated people encouraging ignorance and isolation.

  3. Muy completo tu artículo e interesante. También pienso que fue el propósito un alfabeto y no un lenguaje. Creo que puede haber algo de influencia masonica en este proyecto.

  4. 𐐏𐐭 𐑅𐐵𐑌𐐼 𐐹𐐰𐑉𐐲𐑌𐐬𐐩𐐼


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