The Deseret Alphabet remembered

I have written about the Deseret Alphabet before, in a somewhat unusual context – today I came across a nostalgic article at the Deseret News commemorating this bit of linguistic whimsy. It appears to have begun development as early as 1847, which would make it closer to 170 years old.

lark is up

The poem above, from the Deseret Second Book (page 31), reads as follows:

The lark is up to meet the sun,
The bee is on the wing;
The ant its labor has begun,
The woods with music ring.

And shall I sleep while beams of morn
Their light and glory shed?
For thinking beings were not born
To waste their time in bed.

Clearly the authors of these primers were not above a bit of plagiarism; the first stanza of this poem is by William Holmes McGuffey (1800–73)

The original second stanza reads,

Shall birds, and bees, and ants, be wise,
While I my moments waste?
O let me with the morning rise,
And to my duty haste.

McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer, newly rev., lesson 81, p. 54 (1849).

The transliteration of the Deseret Alphabet:

Deseret Alphabet

In the course of a study of Deseret as part of my MA in linguistics, I discovered that it had an added and unplanned benefit; reading the journals of Brigham Young, some of which had been transcribed into Deseret Alphabet during the days of enthusiasm for the project, I discovered that these manuscripts served as a window into the dialect and pronunciation of the scribes of the day. Since people transcribed the English they way they pronounced it, one could not only determine that various volumes were transcribed by different people, but also have a fair idea of what they sounded like when they spoke.

𐐜 𐐄𐐒𐐔 πšπƒπ’π™ 𐐐𐐈𐐞 𐐝𐐑𐐄𐐗𐐀.

Rule 101: You haven’t seen the scariest thing on the internet

GoatsOnFire

See, that’s the way the Internet is. But even knowing that, it will often surprise you.

In the mid 19th century, Brigham Young came up with a new alphabet designed to help foreign-speaking immigrants to the State of Deseret (otherwise known as the Utah territory) learn to read English. Developed by the board of regents of the University of Deseret (later the University of Utah,) it was known as the Deseret Alphabet. Four volumes were published in the alphabet in 1868 – two primers (the Deseret First Book and the Deseret Second Book), extracts from the Book of Mormon and a complete volume of the latter. The Deseret News published a column printed in the new alphabet, and there are still diaries, letters, meeting minutes, coinage and one headstone in Cedar City, Utah, to attest to its brief existence.

coin

Mormon five-dollar gold piece, inscribed with “Holiness to the Lord” in Deseret Alphabet.

iron-gravestone

The gravestone in Cedar City. The inscription reads,

“In memory of John T. Morris Born Feb
14 1828 Lanfair Tahaira
Danbyshire North Wales.
Died Feb 20, 1855 Aged 27”

Deseret Alphabet Reader 1868

The Deseret Second Book.

Deseret Second Book Sample

Sample from the Deseret Second Book. Lesson 3 is entitled “The Spring,” Lesson 4 is “The Hare.”

As with other spelling reforms initiated during the same period of history, it never caught on. Immigrants preferred to learn English with all its horrid spelling [1] in a script that most of them already knew than try to struggle with an entirely new alphabet, and the Deseret Alphabet quietly died.

Or so it seemed.

Searching this morning, just out of curiosity as to what the printed volumes are selling for these days (I own copies, you see,) I happened across this:

Deseret_guest_week_bill_amend_foxtrot

It seems that an afficionado of the Deseret Alphabet (as intimated above, there are afficionadi for everything, no matter how obscure) has taken the trouble to transliterate every XKCD into Deseret Alphabet. I, too, am an afficionado of the Deseret Alphabet; this dude is the linguistic equivalent of Techno Bill. The irony here is delicious – I couldn’t think of a more appropriate, edgy strip to retrogress back into a failed religious experiment. For the curious, the original page where this strip is found includes links to the English version of the comic so you can see what it says. It is of note that the Unicode Consortium took note of the Deseret Alphabet, so regardless of whether or not interest in the artifact continues, it will always have a place in history.

As obscure as it is, this delights me no end, as I made a study of the Deseret Alphabet during my days as a master’s candidate in applied linguistics. And, just in case you think that you’ve reached the bottom of strangeness with this little bit of whimsy, you may want to have a peep here, if you dare. Rule 101 has no bottom. [2]

𐐜 𐐄𐐒𐐔 πšπƒπ’π™ 𐐐𐐈𐐞 𐐝𐐑𐐄𐐗𐐀.


[1] You’re not certain English spelling is all that bad? Try reading “The Chaos”, found at this page. I triple-dog dare you to read it through without any mistakes. Any non-native speakers who can do so win the Internet. I’m looking atΒ you, Bjornar.

[2] I’m not even talking about the dark underbelly of the internet. Trust me, you don’t want to go there. That way lies madness.