The Deseret Alphabet

The Deseret Alphabet is one of the really interesting innovations to come out of the early years of the Utah settlement. Brigham Young was confronted with the problem of a multitude of immigrants flowing in to Utah without being able to speak English. Young was very familiar with the difficulties presented by English grammar and orthography, having achieved fluency in speaking only after much work: “when I began to speak in public, I was about as destitute of language as a man could well be….How I have had the headache, when I had ideas to lay before the people, and not words to express them; but I was so gritty that I always tried my best.” He never did master spelling however, and the following statement in a letter to Mary Ann expresses his enduring embarrassment about it. “Please read this and keep it to yourself [and] not expose my poore righting and speling.” Because of these difficulties he had a lot of sympathy for those immigrants that had to learn all of this without the benefits of schooling. This was the reason for the development of the Deseret Alphabet.

It is important to note that the Deseret Alphabet is a script and not a language. It has more characters than the standard alphabet (38) so that each symbol can represent a single sound. Often thought to be based on Pitman Shorthand, recent research has shown that in the main it is an original creation.

The first book to be printed was a primer of 36 pages followed by another of 72 pages. The Book of Mormon was originally planned to be printed in three parts; only one of which was printed. The complete Book of Mormon was eventually printed in a very small run of 500 copies. The primers and the first section of the Book of Mormon are not scarce and can be picked up for a reasonable amount; however, the complete Book of Mormon will run into thousands of dollars.

Considerable non-printed material in the Deseret alphabet still exists, including one replica headstone in Cedar City, some coinage, letters, diaries, and meeting minutes. Pratt supervised the transcription of the complete Bible and the Doctrine and Covenants. One of the more curious items found in the Deseret alphabet is an English-Hopi dictionary.

Some observers thought that the purpose of the new script was to keep Mormon books secret from outsiders, but it was actually the inverse: Brigham Young hoped that it would keep the world away from the Latter-Day Saints.

Brigham Young fought an uphill battle to get the alphabet accepted, but too many things were against it. First it was very expensive to print books in it; Parley Pratt estimated that the cost of printing a regular library would be over one million dollars. Thus the situation was that educated people did not need it and the uneducated had nothing to read in it. Brigham kept pushing it up to his death bed but it died with him.

When the first reader was printed, the Deseret News reported, “the characters, to a person unaccustomed to them, may look strange . . .[but] to the eye to which they are familiar they are beautiful.”