Brigham Young’s Promotion of the Deseret Alphabet

Brigham Young is best known as a religious leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of LatterDay Saints. In his capacity as president of the church, he was also the force behind an intriguing educational reform. In the early 1850s, in his second term as Utah Territorial Governor, he announced that he would like a new phonetic alphabet, called Deseret, taught in the schools.

Regents of the university in Salt Lake City, including George D. Watt, W.W. Phelps, Parley P. Pratt, and Heber C. Kimball, developed the new system of orthography. It was still English, but just a different written form of it that President Young believed would make more sense, as well as take up less space and, therefore, save paper. Also, the early days of the Church, pioneers came to Utah Territory from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, Scotland, and other countries. Once in Utah, they found it hard to understand each other. And English, with its many inconsistencies, was difficult to learn, especially in its written form.

The original Deseret alphabet had 40 letters; a copy of it was reproduced in an 1861 book in the AHC’s Toppan Rare Books Library by Jules Remy called Journey to Great Salt Lake City. After slight revision to some of the letters, a 38-letter alphabet was used in three primers. The Toppan Library has copies of all three of these. The first and second primers were published in 1868; the third, published in 1869, was the first book of Nephi (usually referred to as First Nephi or 1 Nephi) from the Book of Mormon.

The new system was slow to catch on, however. This was partly due to cost. Early on, in 1859, it had already been estimated that the cost of supplying all Utah Territory schoolchildren with suitable textbooks would be more than $5,000,000. By 1870, the effort was largely abandoned.  

In July 1877, Young tried one more time at a spelling reform, ordering lead type designed for the orthography of Benn Pitman with the intention of printing an edition of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants using it. Most of the type had arrived by August, but with Young’s death on the 29th of that month, the translation was never undertaken and the type never used. His death marked the end of Mormon experimentation with English spelling reforms.

For more detailed information on this subject, see the article by Stanley S. Ivins “The Deseret Alphabet,” in the Utah Humanities Review (1, 1947: pp.223-239), the entry with that title in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Vol.1, 1992: pp.373-374), and another one with the same title by Sam Weller and Ken Reid in True West (Sept./Oct., 1958: pp.14- 16). The latter article has an illustration of the front page of the Salt Lake City newspaper, Deseret News, in 1859, showing use of this alphabet.

This post is based on an article originally published in the American Heritage Center’s Heritage Highlights, Summer 2001.


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