Monday, January 21, 2008

Brigham Young’s Deseret Alphabet

Brigham Young's Deseret Alphabet

One of the curious items of early Utah history was Brigham Young's effort to introduce a new alphabet, known as the Deseret Alphabet, into Mormon use. Western historian David Bigler observed:

"Old Testament ideas on land ownership and marked ballots were not the only indications that Utah's earliest settlers were bent on creating a society altogether unlike the rest of the country. Soon after arriving in the Great Basin they even undertook to create a new method to write the English language.

"In 1854 the University of Deseret, predecessor of the University of Utah, introduced the Deseret Alphabet, consisting of thirty-eight characters to conform with the basic number of sounds in the English language. The curious set of symbols was created by 39-year-old George D. Watt, an expert in Pitman shorthand and the faith's first English convert.

"Aimed to reform the representation of the English language, not the language itself, the new phonetic system offered a number of advantages. First, it demonstrated cultural exclusivism, an important consideration. It also kept secrets from curious non-Mormons, controlled what children would be allowed to read, and in a largely unlettered society that included non-English speaking converts, eliminated the awkward problem of phonetic spelling. For such reasons, for nearly two decades Brigham Young pushed the new alphabet on reluctant followers. The church-owned Deseret News at Great Salt Lake City, Utah's first newspaper, published portions of its 1859 editions in the distinctive system. And the University of Deseret's board of regents at one time voted $10,000 to print text books in the alphabet for students in classrooms across the territory.

"Like the law of consecration, however, the Deseret Alphabet never achieved widespread acceptance, despite repeated attempts by Young to promote the system. On some things, the people of Utah quietly overruled their strong-minded leader." ( Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896, by David L. Bigler, Arthur H. Clark Co., 1998, p.56)

1 comment:

Editor said...

"It also kept secrets from curious non-Mormons..."

Although not a very good idea, and very very very expesive, the purpose had nothing to do with keeping secrets. The purpose of the Alphabet was to facilitate the reading and writing of English of foreign converts. In fact, only four books were ever published in the script and every single one of them were printed with a key. Instead of trying to exclude people he was hopeful that everyone in the world would eventually accept it.