The Deseret Alphabet: Brigham Young’s Linguistic Experiment

Brigham Young ruled, in pretty much every sense of the world. The spiritual and secular leader of the Utah Territory commanded the LDS settlers from top to bottom. He devised the grid system and our abnormally wide sheets, decreed the cut of women’s dresses, sent one part of the faithful to St. George to grow cotton and another with a herd of caterpillars to start a silk industry. He was, you might say, the ultimate 19th-century “idea man.” No project was too large, no task too small, for Brigham to believe he was destined to take it on and make it better. Including the alphabet.

The story of the resulting Deseret Alphabet starts in 1852 and continues to this day–a historical curiosity that has tantalized artists, linguists, typographers and (seriously) computer scientists. It is easily argued that the Deseret Alphabet is more widely used today than it was during Brigham’s time. It appears in Utah artists’ works, has been credited with preserving the sounds of a dead Native American language as well as the cadence of speech from the nineteenth century and is buried within the code of every Apple computer.

Five years after the Saints set foot in the Salt Lake Valley, their leader decided that the Mormon melting pot needed a unified means of communication. the man who leads his people across the Great Plains, this American Moses, founder of the Territory of Deseret and subsequent territorial Governor of Utah, liked things orderly and needed logic and efficiency in all things, it seemed, even in his alphabet.

“As it now is,” Young told the gathered faithful at the LDS Conference in April of 1852, “the child is perplexed that the sign ‘A’ should have one sound in mate, a second sound in father, a third sound in fall, a fourth sound in man, and fifth sound in many, and in other combinations, sounding different from these, while in other, ‘A’ is not sounded at all. I say let it have one sound all the time.”

Brigham envisioned a phonetic alphabet designed to aid children and immigrants in learning English by cutting out the clutter. He asked Geroge Watt to create an alphabet where each letter sounded like what it should sound like and there would be no need for multiple ‘Ps” fouling up words like apple. Watt had studied Pittman Shorthand (a phonetic speed-writing technique) and its descendant “The 1847 Alphabet,” another attempt to make the English alphabet easier to learn and teach. The Deseret Alphabet was based on the Pittman principles.

Unfortunately, like Brigham’s dress design and the silkworm project, “Deseret went over like the proverbial lead balloon,” says Salt Lake rare books dealer Ken Sanders. “It wasn’t one of Brother Brigham’s better ideas, and it pretty much died with him. Usually, when Brigham Young asked the Mormon people to jump, the response was, ‘How high?’ But not on this one.”

The Deseret First Reader, published in 1868, was one of two books designed to help teach the Deseret Alphabet.

Sanders, a well-known local collector of Mormon ephemera and artifacts, discovered the Deseret Alphabet in the 1960s when he ran the book-and-bong shop Cosmic Aeroplane. About that time, the 100-year-old, church-produced readers created to teach the alphabet started showing up on bargain tables at Deseret Book for 50 cents apiece.

“Brigham ordered the alphabet in the 1850s, but the readers, the books people would learn the language from, didn’t come into existence until 1868, and a Book of Mormon in the alphabet appeared in 1869,” Sanders says. “The books went unused and moldered in church basements. By the time Brigham Young’s death in 1877, it was a dead project.”

Because most of the readers sat unopened and unread, they tended to be in excellent condition. Sanders snatched many of them up and was selling them at the Aeroplane back in the day for $25 a pop. Now they’re worth about $300 a copy and the even rarer Deseret Alphabet Book of Mormon (500 to 1,000 copies are thought to have been printed) is worth much more.

There is some scholarly disagreement as to the real motivation behind the Deseret Alphabet. The official LDS Church line is that the alphabet was to aid the teaching of English to assist the numerous Scandinavian and other immigrant converts to the church.

But others think the alphabet was a way for Brigham to keep the Mormon people isolated from the rest of the country. “From an outsider’s viewpoint, this is another example of the Mormons stepping away from the larger culture and American society,” says Utah historian David Lewis.

Art professor Ed Bateman created a series of prints featuring recognizable consumer items and the Deseret Alphabet. Photo by Adam Finkle

But the University of Utah art professor Ed Bateman believes the alphabet was a product of idealistic times. “People were talking about Utopias,” Bateman says. “And here’s this group of people with a chance to build a new community in this new world, and I think they were, like, ‘Let’s build everything right.'”

Bateman points out that others attempted to reform the English alphabet before Young and since, like writer George Bernard Shaw. “Probably the Deseret Alphabet was the one big shot that this kind of reform had of succeeding,” Bateman says. “You had high-level support along with a focused and motivated community. If it was going to happen ever, it was going to happen with this group.”

The Deseret Alphabet continues to crop up and its oddest modern appearance is right at your fingertips. In the late 1980s, computer scientists at Xerox were developing a way to use computer code for all the world’s written languages. In late 1996, John H. Jenkins of Apple proposed that the Deseret Alphabet be included in the Unicode standard, which is part of all Apple operating systems. And thus, lurking within your operating system is a script that you can use to type the Deseret Alphabet ensuring the alphabet that Brigham built will never die.

How to find the Deseret Alphabet in your Mac

The alphabet was included in the Unicode project and now exists as freeware fronts deep within most computer operating systems.

  1. Go to your applications folder
  2. Find and open the Text Edit app, the basic word processor
  3. Pull down the “Edit” tab and select Emojiis and Symbols
  4. A new dialogue box will open. Click on the icon in the upper right-hand corner that looks like a small calendar.
  5. In the new Character Viewer dialogue box, click on the dropdown menu above the left-hand panel and select “Customize List”
  6. Scroll down to “Additional Modern Scripts,” select “Deseret” (the Shavian alphabet is there as well) and voila! You can now compose your secret plot for global domination.

Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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