Brigham Young’s Short-Lived, Experimental Mormon Alphabet

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
July 21 2014 12:55 PM

Brigham Young’s Short-Lived, Experimental Mormon Alphabet

The Vault is Slate's history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

Catherine Falzone, cataloger at the New-York Historical Society, recently blogged about three books printed in the Deseret Alphabet, a 19th-century experiment sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The idea for the alphabet came from George D. Watt, one of the first Latter-Day Saints to be baptized in Britain in 1837. Watt, who was schooled in Sir Isaac Pitman’s phonetic shorthand, had also become a proponent of spelling reforms (a cause that Pitman and Watt had in common with Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, and contemporary Noah Webster).


In 1853, after Watt taught shorthand to Brigham Young, the Mormon leader commissioned the British clerk to create a 38-character “Deseret alphabet.” The phonetic alphabet was meant to simplify the spelling of English words. Watt said, echoing Pitman’s beliefs: “An alphabet should contain just as many letters as there are simple-pure atoms of sound.”

For Young’s purposes, the alphabet would enhance the unity of the church, mark its difference from the rest of the United States, and help the many non-English-speaking converts entering Utah to learn English. Historian David Bigler—a sometimes-critical observer of the LDS Church—adds his argument that the language “kept secrets from curious non-Mormons [and] controlled what children would be allowed to read.”

The pages below are from the Deseret First Book and the Deseret Second Book—two primers for schoolchildren—and the Book of Mormon. (You can browse the whole Deseret Alphabet Book of Mormon, 1869 edition, on the Internet Archive.

The alphabet was in use only between the 1850s and 1870s, fading away after Young’s death in 1877. It now has an online afterlife: Blogger John H. Jenkins, a software engineer and aficionado of the Alphabet, has translated almost all of the comic XKCD using Deseret characters. 

Pronunciation key from the Deseret Second Book, 1868.

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Cover of the Deseret First Book, 1868.

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Page of the Deseret Second Book, 1868.

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Cover of the Book of Mormon, 1869.

Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.


War Stories

The Right Target

Why Obama’s airstrikes against ISIS may be more effective than people expect.

The One National Holiday Republicans Hope You Forget

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

Should You Recline Your Seat? Two Economists Weigh In.


It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?

It’s Fine to Use Facebook to Serve People With Legal Papers, Court Rules

  News & Politics
Sept. 23 2014 6:40 PM Coalition of the Presentable Don’t believe the official version. Meet America’s real allies in the fight against ISIS.
Sept. 23 2014 2:08 PM Home Depot’s Former Lead Security Engineer Had a Legacy of Sabotage
Sept. 23 2014 1:57 PM Would a Second Sarkozy Presidency End Marriage Equality in France?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 2:32 PM Politico Asks: Why Is Gabby Giffords So “Ruthless” on Gun Control?
  Slate Plus
Political Gabfest
Sept. 23 2014 3:04 PM Chicago Gabfest How to get your tickets before anyone else.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 8:38 PM “No One in This World” Is One of Kutiman’s Best, Most Impressive Songs
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 5:36 PM This Climate Change Poem Moved World Leaders to Tears Today
  Health & Science
Sept. 23 2014 4:33 PM Who Deserves Those 4 Inches of Airplane Seat Space? An investigation into the economics of reclining.
Sports Nut
Sept. 23 2014 7:27 PM You’re Fired, Roger Goodell If the commissioner gets the ax, the NFL would still need a better justice system. What would that look like?