Deseret Alphabet

Brief Overview of the Deseret Alphabet

In 1837, England native, George D Watt was the first to be baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When Watt came to the United States in 1845, he served as one of many scribes for Joseph Smith and also taught some Pitman Shorthand classes. At the time, Elder Brigham Young was one of his students and he was intrigued by the idea of a phonetic language. Nothing came about from his curiosity until the Saints were in the Salt Lake Valley. Watt taught more of his shorthand classes at the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah) and in 1852, President Brigham Young appointed Watt and others to formulate the Deseret Alphabet.

1860 Deseret Gold PieceThe Deseret Alphabet was a phonetic alphabet accompanied by symbols. In the early days of the Latter-day Saints, many were coming from various parts of Europe and to learn English was a very difficult task to take on. President Brigham Young believed that using this new, phonetic alphabet would help to establish unity throughout not just the language, but the Saints as well. With the establishment of this new alphabet, the Deseret Alphabet was being incorporated in as many places as possible. In 1860, the phrase, "Holiness to the Lord" was placed in the Deseret Alphabet on gold pieces. The coins were quickly followed by handbills, shop signs, journals, articles in The Deseret News, and even tombstone inscriptions.

In 1869, Deseret University published ten-thousand copies of each of two textbooks, Deseret First Book and Deseret Second Book. These readers were designed to help the Saints transition into this new alphabet with simple sentence structures and plots. Today, they would be comparable with the children's books, Dick & Jane. Ultimately, other books were printed such as Selections from The Book of Mormon, A Christmas Carol and a few other popular books. Eventually, the Transcontinental Railroad brought many people into Utah. With the influx of people, the lack of interest bundled with very little support of the Utah Governor, Governor Cummings, resulted in the stop of coin circulation and book printing and interest in the alphabet "project" died and was never restarted.  

Two Lessons from the Deseret Readers

What is Pitman Shorthand?

Two brothers, Isaac and Ben Pitman first published their shorthand in 1837, which caused such a stir that it was spreading through-out most of the English-speaking world, along with it being adapted into fifteen other languages. Modern versions of the Pitman shorthand are still used in Great Britain and Canada. In the United States, it was used until the 1930s, but then was over taken by the Gregg system. This was the shorthand taught by George Watt that intrigued Brigham Young into formulating the Deseret Alphabet.

Multiple popular books were printed in Pitman shorthand, such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This is an interesting addition into the books that were printed in Deseret Alphabet as it may have made it easier to 'translate', in a sense that it was already in one shorthand, why not put it in the other? This and other similarities are found through multiple studies of both the Pitman Shorthand and Deseret Alphabet.