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Deseret Alphabet created by Mormon Pioneers is over 150 years old

The Deseret Alphabet was a phonetic system created over 150 years ago to help simplify the English language and was used in schools, road signs and even on headstones.
The Deseret Alphabet was a phonetic system created over 150 years ago to help simplify the English language and was used in schools, road signs and even on headstones.
AtlasObscura.com screenshot

A phonetic system created more than 150 years ago to simplify English words, the Deseret Alphabet is alive and well, reported Atlas Obscura. Lovers of the language can find the 38 symbols used in printings of Shakespeare and the U.S. Constitution, and some Instagram accounts are even entirely dedicated to the lettering system.

But the Deseret Alphabet is a relatively new discovery for most people, said Atlas Obscura. When Scott Reynolds came across a copy of the Book of Mormon 32 years ago as a young missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it took over 10 years for him to discover where the characters came from.

"There was very little information about the DA on the internet back then but enough that I finally learned what it was and where it came from," Reynolds told Atlas Obscura. "I found the first three readers [books of excerpts for language learners] on eBay and purchased them."

When the Mormon pioneers settled the Salt Lake Valley during the mid 1800s, the alphabet was much more common.

According to Atlas Obscura, President Brigham Young stated that the “English language, in its written and printed form … one of the most prominent now in use for absurdity,” wasn’t convenient for the Latter-day Saint community that consisted of thousands of immigrants from diverse backgrounds.

“Young further believed reading and writing could be taught more effectively in schools that used the new alphabet, granting ample time to be devoted to other studies,” reported Atlas Obscura. And as Utah became a U.S. territory, the alphabet was also “used for road signs, a few books, coinage, on headstones, and even in the creation of an English-Hopi dictionary,” the article said.

In January 1854, the Deseret News also reported that the Deseret Alphabet had been adopted by the Board of Regents, governor and heads of departments “with the sanguine hope of simplifying the English language, especially its orthography. … These characters are much more simple in their structure than the usual alphabetical characters; every superfluous mark supposable, is wholly excluded from them.”

The price for investing in the Deseret Alphabet was anything but cheap, costing approximately $20,000 at the time, or $544,880 today, said Atlas Obscura. When the alphabet didn’t catch on as hoped and as the railroad brought newcomers unfamiliar with the language to the valley, the use of the symbols ceased, the article stated.

But for those still interested in the old language, plenty of online resources are available to satisfy one’s curiosity. The Deseret Alphabet Translator turns Standard English sentences into the Deseret script, and variations of Deseret fonts can be downloaded from the web, the article said.

While the alphabet isn’t perfect — discrepancies with regional accents and dialects sometimes alter the pronunciation of the phonetic symbols — Atlas Obscura said the attempt to improve the English language isn’t all that unusual.

“Mark Twain and Charles Dickens have all decried the perplexing lack of cohesion in English spelling. Renowned wordsmith George Bernard Shaw willed a portion of his life’s estate to fund the Shavian Alphabet,” the article said.

But for language gurus hoping for quick reform, the article offered a final reminder: “Tools to enact ubiquitous change are more capable ever, but so to has the global standing of English intensified.”