In 1869, youngsters in the Utah public school system were being taught a second written language. It wasn't Spanish, and it wasn't Latin. It was Deseret. The new language had an alphabet of 38 characters and was an outgrowth of a frustrating effort by the Board of Regents of the University of Deseret (today's University of Utah) to simplify English. Failing that, the Regents decided instead to "invent an entirely new and original set of characters." The Deseret Alphabet was the result.
Just why the project was undertaken at all is still a matter of some dispute, but at least one Western historian has theorized that greatly expanded missionary activity on the part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1850s may have precipitated for Brigham Young, governor of Utah and president of the church, a pressing need for revision of the language.
Alone in the Great Basin save for the occasional trapper and trading post, the Mormon settlements were swelling with converts from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and France, as well as from that "greatest mission field of all, the British Isles," wrote the late scholar and historian Dale L. Morgan. "These converts presented difficult problems of assimilation. If they were to be knit into the Kingdom of God, they should have to learn to speak and write a common language," Morgan said. And that's what Young set out to do.
In October 1853, the Board of Regents appointed a committee of three--Parley P. Pratt, Heber C. Kimball and George D. Watt (an accomplished Pitman Shorthand reporter or "phonologist")--to "prepare a small school-book in characters founded on some new system of orthography whereby the spelling and pronunciation of the English language might be made uniform and easily acquired." In the simplest of terms, the committee was to streamline English.
Three months later, the committee reported a setback; it had despaired of reworking English and instead had opted to "invent an entirely new and original set of characters." An impossible task? Not so. By January 19, 1854, the Deseret News was able to report the University Regents, in company with the governor (Young) and heads of departments, were adopting a new alphabet of 38 characters. With minor variants, the final version was the alphabet determined for use in the schools.
But "language" was little more than a code. For an individual to be proficient in Deseret, he would require a measure of proficiency in English, since it was based on the sounds found in English grammar. And it was crude, this "shorthand language." For instance, the Deseret characters (which cannot be reproduced by a conventional typewriter) for the First Reader's initial lesson, are translated: "Lesn I" and the heading, "L u urn [Learn] to [to] ur e d [read] woo el [well]."
By April 1868, Orson Pratt was engaged in preparing the first and second readers to be printed in "Deseret." The slim volumes--the First Reader ran to 36 pages and the second to 72--were illustrated with engravings from Willson's Readers (with permission from the publisher). Willson's was gaining popularity across America, though the books had not yet outperformed McGuffey's Readers in 1868. In total, 20,000 copies of each reader were printed.
Brigham Young told church members at the LDS General Conference in October that thousands of the primers were on their way to public schools. They were offered for sale in Utah at 15 cents and 20 cents each. (In the 1960s, the LDS Church Office sold remaining copies of the primers for 25 cents each, and today the two little books in good condition will cost at least $130 a set from rare-book dealers.)
But the books did not take hold. For nearly twenty years Brigham Young strove to persuade his followers that the alphabet would restore purity to the language, yet there was the inherent flaw in its inception, having developed as it did to a degree from Pitman Shorthand, and individuals unfamiliar with the nuances of orthography and unprepared for the complexities of language. As Morgan, the historian, explained this "genuine difficulty," he pointed out that the alphabet could be learned, "but except in communication it was functionless. It provided no access to the literature of the world, and provided no substitute for that literature."
More cynical was the editorial comment some ten years earlier in a San Francisco Globe issue of December 15, 1857, after a sample of Deseret had crossed its desk: "The Mormons--are a progressive people. They not only want more wives than is wholesome, but more letters to their Alphabet. Letters written with this Alphabet are as incomprehensible as the movements of woman or the hieroglyphics of the Chinese and the Egyptians.
The Mormon alphabet consists of about forty letters, which have been so arranged and named to cause the greatest possible annoyance to outsiders. The Saints not only wish to convert Utah into an oyster, but to close the shell against all knives except those found in the vicinity of Great Salt Lake. The Mormons wish to isolate the 'generation of vipers' which are to succeed them. For this reason they wish to get up a new alphabet, a new spelling book, and a new language. The idea is ingenious, but it will not succeed. To get a new language in this country is as difficult as to bore a hole through the Rocky Mountains with a leather auger."
In the long run, for all the effort and money that had gone into creating the new language, it was as troublesome to meld into the mainstream as the metric system in the 1990s. For schools, the alphabet was impractical and the general public was entirely disinterested. And as the years passed, the characters of Deseret disappeared even from the occasional lesson in the Deseret News.
In all, the project resulted in two school primers, The Deseret First Book and The Deseret Second Book; a 116-page volume of The Book of Nephi (published in 1869) and a 443-page edition of The Book of Mormon (also printed in New York in 1869); and some 72 articles in the Deseret News from February 1859 through August 1864.
In July 1877, Orson Pratt was sent to England to investigate the possibility of printing LDS scriptures in Pitman. With Brigham Young's death that August, Pratt was called home. As Dale Morgan put it, "Mormon experimentation in alphabetic and orthographic reform never again lifted its head."