Utah History Encyclopedia


By Ronald G. Watt
The Deseret Alphabet was conceived by Brigham Young, who thought of the reform of the English language as just one more part of reforming the world. The idea probably came to him as early as 1845 when he attended some phonographic classes given by George D. Watt, an early Mormon convert in Great Britain. Watt had learned a method of shorthand called phonography, which was originated by Isaac Pitman. Phonography had forty different sounds, but was able to take less time and space to write than the conventional system.

Nothing much was done on a new alphabet for several years. Watt went to England on a mission, and Young guided the Mormons to the Great Basin. Finally, in 1850 Young took the issue to the Board of Regents of the University of Deseret. With the influx of converts from many different lands, he wanted a written language that everyone, no matter what language they spoke, could understand. In 1852 he spoke on reform of the English language at a large conference. He told the congregation that he believed that one letter should not have many pronunciations. He also mentioned that he had instructed the Board of Regents that they should reform the language. Nothing was done until the following year when the Board of Regents debated the issue with the urging of Young. Watt, who was back from his mission, was elected the secretary of the Board. The Board finally approved thirty-eight of the sounds used by Pitman in his shorthand system. A committee was appointed to devise the symbols for the letters; Watt was its only functioning member. The committee at first suggested to the Board that they use Pitman's longhand system of writing called phonotype. Through the influence of Willard Richards, a counselor to Young, this system was vetoed. Watt then suggested the Deseret Alphabet which was approved. The symbols were modified from the English alphabet, from Pitman shorthand and longhand signs, and from Watt's imagination.

After approval, the Board began to prepare topics for readers to be printed in the new alphabet. Watt also began giving lectures about the alphabet. In 1859 and 1860 the Board began to prepare a dictionary, and Brigham Young had the manuscript history of the church written in the Deseret Alphabet. Interruptions prevented more progress being made, and nothing was published in the alphabet until almost a decade later. In 1868 two small primers were published; then in 1869 part of the Book of Mormon was first published, followed by all of the Book of Mormon later in that year. The publications were never widely distributed. Young realized that the Deseret Alphabet had never been popular, perhaps because it involved extensive relearning when there were so many other pressing needs. Just before his death, he raised the question again concerning the possibility of using phonotype, Pitman's longhand system of writing. The death of Brigham Young in 1877 ended thoughts in Utah of revising the English system of writing.