The Deseret alphabet is a phonemic (or sound-based) alphabet of thirty-eight distinctive characters. Each character represents a particular sound in the English (or other) language. These characters correspond in meaning to the symbols of the international Phonetic Alphabet (with slight variations), although their appearance is unique. The alphabet was used only by Mormons living in the state of Deseret in the 1800's and is a distinct Mormon cultural artifact.
George Watt (the first Mormon convert in England) was the principal designer of the alphabet. He invented some of the characters and selected others from ancient alphabets discussed in Webster's unabridged dictionary.
The Deseret alphabet was not commonly used--even while Brigham Young was alive and promoting it. This was due to many factors (see "Why was the alphabet abandoned?," below). Over the past 100 years, the alphabet has fallen into almost complete disuse and has been almost entirely forgotten. Although it is mentioned in "The Restored Church," the standard Church History book used in Church seminaries, it is given little discussion and less thought.
Could you imagine a Jew knowing nothing of the Hebrew language? It should be just as unlikely that a Mormon would know nothing of the Deseret alphabet.
A few characters (like the letters c, o and w) look like roman letters. Others (like the letters b and d) look like reversed roman letters. Other characters resemble Greek or other ancient alphabets. Many are completely unique.
Just CLICK HERE, and you will jump to another section where you can view each letter of the Deseret alphabet. Be patient while the page loads--there are 38 characters!
No. Cursive script is not used for handwriting the characters. When hand written, the characters are not joined.
Capital and lower case are exactly the same--except for size. Capitals are larger than lower case characters.
This alphabet was used in the area of western North America settled by Brigham Young and the Mormons. They called their lands the State of Deseret. This area encompassed all or part of current Utah, Idaho, Nevada, California, Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico and Wyoming. According to the Book of Mormon, the word Deseret means Honeybee.
The alphabet was first proposed in 1852 and was used until the death of Brigham Young in 1877.
The main reason for the Deseret alphabet was to teach English to foreigners and illiterate Americans. Mormon missionaries in Europe and elsewhere encouraged their converts to join with the Saints in Deseret. Many were uneducated. Church members believed that "the glory of God is intelligence," and anything that would make it easier for members to acquire intelligence would be useful. Because spelling is directly related to pronunciation with the Deseret alphabet but not with the roman alphabet, it was thought that the Deseret would be a superior system for teaching and learning.
Another reason may have been to promote a common culture within Deseret by making certain literature more accessible to the Mormons. A Deseret News editorial stated that if the people were taught only in Deseret alphabet, they would be protected from contamination by the purient and yellow literature of the day.
It has been suggested that the Deseret alphabet is the "pure Adamic language" that was suppose to be restored to the earth. This language was spoken prior to the Tower of Babel incident. However, the Deseret alphabet is just that: an alphabet--not a language. The Deseret alphabet can be used to spell words in any language--including the pure Adamic language, I suppose!
The first text published in Deseret alphabet was the Sermon on the Mount. This appeared in the Deseret News February 16, 1859.
Two "readers" were published in New York by Russell Brothers. The Deseret First Book and The Deseret Second Book were distributed in Utah Territory August 13, 1868.
Finally, in 1869 the Book of Mormon was published in Deseret alphabet.
Ten thousand copies of The Deseret First Book were printed; it sold for 15 cents. Ten thousand copies of The Deseret Second Book were also printed; it sold for 20 cents. Only 500 copies of the complete Book of Mormon were printed; it sold for 2 dollars. Another 8,000 copies of the first part of the Book of Mormon were printed; it sold for 75 cents.
Probably the biggest factor was the huge cost of printing books. In order for the Deseret alphabet to replace the Roman alphabet, all books would have to be reprinted in Deseret. Orson Pratt estimated that it would cost $5 million dollars to produce 1,000 technical books in the new alphabet--and that was in 1873!
Another factor was apathy. Brigham Young encouraged the use of Deseret alphabet books in Sunday schools and public schools, but most people were unimpressed with the new alphabet. Perhaps proper and uniform spelling was not a priority at the time.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 removed Utah from some of its isolation and linked it more closely with the rest of the United States. Commerce with non-Mormons was profitable, and the non-Mormons used the roman alphabet--not Deseret. Again, money was a big factor controlling people's behavior.
A final factor was the initial difficulty of reading material printed in Deseret. The characters are uniform in height and quite plain at first glance. To people accustomed to the roman system, it's all pretty strange and confusing at first.
As far as I know, nothing has been published in Deseret alphabet in more than 100 years!
The official alphabet used throughout the former State of Deseret is Roman. The unofficial alphabet is Deseret, although it is almost unheard of. Occasionally, you may see a tombstone or old pioneer building with Deseret alphabet characters on it, but those are historical artifacts--not current enterprises. You can purchase coin replicas with Deseret alphabet characters on them, but these are replicas--not circulating coins.
There are probably only two items available today that actively promote the Deseret alphabet. One item is a childrens activity book published for the Pioneer Sesquicentennial. The book contains the complete alphabet and some fun activities that use the alphabet. Another item is a Windows TrueType Deseret alphabet font also produced for the Pioneer Sesquicentennial. With this font, anyone can learn the Deseret alphabet and publish materials containing the Deseret characters.
In 1855, an illiterate missionary took just six lessons and was able to write to his family using the Deseret alphabet. If you take the time to enroll in the Deseret alphabet course offered here, you can probably do the same. If you buy the Deseret alphabet font mention above, you will almost immediately be able to write to people in Deseret (even if you can't type very well). Reading will take more time.
You can get a free full verson of the font right here! Just get the font and follow the instructions. If you like the font and want to support what we are doing here, you can get the Deluxe version with Brigham Young's signature and some other symbols of the State of Deseret. The Deluxe version comes with a free Collector's edition book.
Check back at this page every once in a while for updates. You can also check out our bibliography of books about the Deseret alphabet and books written in Deseret alphabet.