This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Pioneer Magazine

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 noon. One of these items is to present to the congregation the Deseret alphabet. We have now many thousands of small books, called the first and second readers, adapted to school purposes, on the way to this city. As soon as they arrive we shall distribute them throughout the Territory, We wish to introduce this alphabet into our schools, consequently we give this public notice.  We have been contemplating this for years.  The advantages of this alphabet will soon be realized.  —Brigham Young

The books LDS Church President Brigham Young was referring to were the Deseret First Book and the Deseret Second Book two readers that became available in August 1868. And the language he referred to was the , a 20-year endeavor strongly supported by him to teach Latter-day Saints a new way of writing.

Writing in Deseret

The purpose behind the alphabet, according to President Young, was to develop a simple, universal system of writing English so that the numerous foreign-language converts could learn to read English more easily. Other advantages included controlling reading material available to the LDS youth and reinforcing the unique and peculiar culture and lifestyle the Saints wished to develop in their isolated location.

President Young’s concerns about learning to read English were legitimate. The language is infamous for being difficult to learn; one of the most confusing aspects of English is that a single letter can be pronounced several different ways, depending on the word it appears in. This was one of the problems that the prophet proposed to solve with the creation of the Deseret Alphabet.

The idea was first presented to the Board of Regents at the University of Deseret in 1852, and at a meeting of the board in October 1853, Parley P Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, and George D, Walt were assigned to a committee to prepare the new writing system. Only three months later, the committee had put together a proposal, which was approved, although there were some refinements and adaptations even after that*

The final version of the Deseret Alphabet contained 38 characters, one corresponding to each of the different phonetic sounds found in English. While several people worked on the system and it was formally given as a project to the board of regents, Watt is given credit for much of the alphabet’s creation. A convert from England and an expert in the Pittman method of shorthand, Watt reportedly invented some of the characters and selected others from ancient alphabets discussed in Webster’s unabridged dictionary

Learning the system was apparently quite easy; one illiterate missionary took six lessons and was able to start writing letters home to his family However, the symbols themselves were fairly similar and could not be adapted to cursive writing, making writing somewhat time-consuming.

Another problem was the fact that, since the system was based on pronunciation and many people pronounce the same word differently many words were written more than one way. With no “correct” spelling, confusion resulted.

Even more prohibitive, however, was the cost of printing material in the new alphabet. Because font types had to be custom made and ordered, the cost was immense. In fact, Parley P Pratt estimated that it would cost $5 million to produce 1,000 books in the new alphabet—and that was in 1873. Certainly an impossible endeavor for a small, fledgling church located in the wild frontier.

Despite the cost involved, a few materials were ultimately printed. As mentioned earlier, two readers were published in 1868. Prior to that, the Deseret News (the Church- owned newspaper in Salt Lake City) printed some passages of scripture, and in 1869, the Book of Mormon was also printed. Today these rare publications are treasures valued as high as $2,500.

Finally, despite President Young’s strong support, the Saints themselves appeared reluctant to adopt this new method of writing. And certainly with the shortage of reading material, there didn’t seem to be much motivation to learn the new alphabet.

Shortly after President Young’s death in 1877, the alphabet quietly disappeared, although even today many Church members are familiar with the early Church’s attempt to change the writing in Deseret.

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