“Deseret Alphabet,” Church History Topics
In 1850 Brigham Young asked the board of regents of the University of Deseret in Salt Lake City to consider ways to reform the English alphabet. Other language reformers such as Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and Isaac Pitman had long sought ways to simplify and standardize English spelling.1 Brigham Young likewise hoped to introduce an alphabet that could make English simpler, more consistent, and easier for both children and non-English-speaking immigrant converts to learn.2 This proposed alphabet was a part of Brigham Young’s efforts to unite the Saints and create a Zion society by making it easier for them to overcome differences in language.
After numerous proposals were considered, President Young and the regents approved a phonetic alphabet to be taught in schools. This alphabet was based on the 38 sounds of a phonetic alphabet created by Isaac Pitman. The Deseret Alphabet, as it was called, consisted of characters corresponding to each of these sounds. George D. Watt, a Latter-day Saint stenographer who had emigrated from Great Britain, had studied Pitman’s shorthand system and was largely responsible for the design of the new alphabet. He appears to have based it on Pitman’s characters, the Latin alphabet, and perhaps other alphabets or phonetic systems.
Brigham Young was intent on seeing the Deseret Alphabet widely adopted. Church leaders invested in creating new printing type so they could publish materials in the new alphabet. They also oversaw the publication of a handful of articles in the new alphabet in the Deseret News between 1859 and 1864. In 1868 the Church printed primers for students. The following year, the Book of Mormon was published in the Deseret Alphabet.3
The primers were used in some schools in Utah, but the alphabet was never widely adopted.4 Those who were already literate in English had little need for the alphabet. Those learning English could find few reading materials in the Deseret Alphabet compared to the massive amount of reading material already available in the Latin alphabet, especially after the arrival of the railroad in Utah in 1869.5 According to George Q. Cannon, Brigham Young acknowledged that the alphabet was “not so well adapted for the purpose designed as it was hoped,” noting that the characters were not only unfamiliar but difficult to read.6 After Brigham Young’s death in 1877, the alphabet largely fell out of use.