Deseret Alphabet

A childrens reading primer created for the use of 1868 pioneer school children…

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Deseret Alphabet, Childrens Primer Index—

I am sure that this 1868 children’s reader, printed in the then new Deseret Alphabet, caused quite a stir with the local board of school trustees when introduced. Trouble enough was had at the time, in getting and teaching the English Wilson readers to the many school aged children in need of them. The youth of Mendon and of the Cache Valley for that matter, were mostly born and spoke the native language of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, France, Germany, Switzerland and England with its Welch, Scottish and Irish variations. This along with the frontier American children, whom had little schooling, made for a very interesting cultural and intelectual mix. In this way some of the most educated members of the community, could not speak, or were still trying to master American English as written. A lot of home schooling was going on in the community, as an interesting paradox was unfolding. Mendon had youngsters that could read and write, but not English, and English speaking youth, whom could not read or write at all. This lead to some very interesting second generation dymimacs, when the playing field or should I say speaking field, was level for all members of the community for the first time.

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Lucky for everyone music, at least the notes played, were the same for all. This was the only common tie for many years in the early history of Mendon, Utah. It was not until the middle of the 1940's that the sounds of the native tongue of the founders of the city were stilled. The home tongue being spoken in the home, some older members of the community never mastered the spoken nor written language of their adopted home, of Zion. So it was for the children, the promise of the future, that the Deseret Alphabet was created. A creation of Brigham Young's visionary mind, it was to help meld Europe, the old country, frontier America, and proper English into a single phonically written language.

A Primer on the Primer — The Territory of Utah’s’ first university of higher learning, the University of Deseret, which has since become the University of Utah, was charged via its board of regents to form a committee, consisting of Parley P. Pratt, Heber C. Kimball and George D. Watt to prepare a small schoolbook for the children of the Territory. This new text was to use a new system of orthography, the Deseret Alphabet, created in the greater part by George D. Watt, whom had great experience with Pitman shorthand in England. George D. Watt was President Brigham Young's private sectary and also holds the distinction of being the first English convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better perhaps known as the Mormons.

The Deseret alphabet consisted of some thirty-eight characters, which was to conform with what was thought to be the basic number of sounds in the English language. The language as spoken was not to change, English was to be the dialect of Zion, but the alphabet was to be enlarged from 26 to 38 letters, to cover the phonic sounds of the English language. It was deemed with wisdom to do away with silent letters and the different sounds of vowels and such in context. It was wished that each phonic sound, or use of the letters would be constant in all of its uses. This in turn was hoped to make it much easier for the converts from Europe to acquire a working use of the language of Zion.

A couple of failed attempts to create a type set of the Deseret Alphabet in the Territory of Utah met with less than expected success, so a contract was given by the regents of the University of Deseret to have them cast in St. Louis. This typeset then was used to create ten-thousand copies of the first Deseret Primer or Reader and between five and ten-thousand copies of the second primer or reader as provided here. Also some copies of the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Convents, known today as the triple combination, were produced as well. The Deseret News printed a portion of its pages in the Deseret typescript for readers to learn from and as an aid to widen the general appeal of the new Deseret Alphabet. Work started on this project in early 1854 and the second reader was published in 1868, I think this to be the last of the books published for the children of the Territory of Utah schools. After the death of Brigham Young, who was tireless in championing this unique to Utah experiment, the Deseret Alphabet just seemed to faded away, left as a interesting footnote in the history of the Great Basin and the American west. All in all some twenty years was spent on integrating the system of the phonic Deseret Alphabet, from start to finish.

Brigham Young stated — “There are a few items I wish to lay before the Conference before we dismiss, which I think we shall do when we get through our meeting this afternoon. One of these items is to present to the congregation the Deseret Alphabet. ...The advantages of this alphabet will soon be realized, especially by foreigners. Brethren who come here knowing nothing of the English language will find its acquisition greatly facilitated by means of this alphabet, by which all the sounds of the language can be represented and expressed with the greatest ease. As this is the grand difficulty foreigners experience in learning the English language, they will find a knowledge of this alphabet will greatly facilitate their efforts in acquiring at least a partial English education. It will also be very advantageous to our children. It will be the means of introducing uniformity in our orthography, and the years that are now required to learn to read and spell can be devoted to other studies.”

Rodney J. Sorensen