There is a guy, Bob Moss, who lives in my hometown. He plays banjo in a band called the Western Men and makes clay moonshine jugs, like the ones they make in the South. But his are not made to hold moonshine. They are also decorated with strange characters â€“ backwards B’s and upside-down L’s and J’s like old fishhooks falling from heaven. They always seemed like the perfect vessel for storing Ethiopian honey wine or the alchemical elixir for growing a black diamond body.
But in actuality, maybe it’s better the jugs stay empty. Those characters are from the Deseret Alphabet, which isn’t quite dead, but close. Sesame Street monsters would love it â€“ it’s all phonetic. The characters are also much prettier than your average Roman character. They’re rounder and bouncier-looking and seem much friendlier.
Since it’s a nearly dead, 19th-century alphabet, most people don’t know what it is, even if they are Utah natives, or have pioneer ancestors. It was conceived in 1845, when Brigham Young took a shorthand class from George C. Watt, an early Mormon convert. Watt was teaching “phonotype,” a method of shorthand created By Isaac Pitman which had forty different symbols and sounds, and took less space and energy to write than plain old English.
While learning phonotype, Young had a linguistic epiphany. He went before the Board of Regents at the University of Deseret and attempted to convince them that The State of Deseret (which became “Utah” when the Mormons were forced to join the Union) needed a new alphabet. It would be an alphabet of solidarity â€“ a system of symbols that anyone could understand, whether he or she was American, Spanish, Scottish, or a kid just learning to read. Not only that, gentiles wouldn’t be able to understand it. Mormon newspapers and literature would be in a secret code, at least until the gentiles became Mormons and learned the alphabet themselves.
The Board of Regents was dubious. Watt, who was exactly the person Young needed to convince the board of the importance of this new alphabet, was on a mission in England. In 1853, when Watt returned , Young appointed him as Secretary of the Board. It was decided that a straight adoption of phonotype was a lousy idea, but they did approve the use of 38 of the 40 sounds for the basis of a new alphabet. Watt proposed the idea of the Deseret Alphabet, and Young set him to work. After many nights of scribbling and rubbing his forehead, Watt emerged with the final product â€“ a Frankenstein-like alphabet made from the English alphabet, phonotype characters, and signs that squiggled straight out of Watt’s imagination.
The name of the alphabet comes from the Book of Mormon. “Deseret” means “honeybee,” and indeed it does look like a bee’s alphabet â€“ swirly and flowery and pointing at all four cardinal directions at once. But that’s not the property of honeybees the Church had in mind. The early Mormons idealized the idea of stoicism, hard work and utilitarianism, and that’s a bit what the alphabet was supposed to reflect: efficiency. It was not an alphabet for poetry or moonshine jugs. It was an alphabet for primers and scripture and newspapers. After Watt came up with the final version, the Church began to immediately encourage its use â€“ in journals or letters (one formerly illiterate missionary was able to write letters home in Deseret Alphabet after only six weeks of instruction), and it suddenly appeared on street signs, storefronts, and money.
By 1859, the Church had acquired a typeface for the Deseret Alphabet, and so in 1859, 1860, and 1864, the Deseret News (the official newspaper of the Mormon Church) published scriptural bits in Deseret Alphabet. Young didn’t quite like the look of it, so Deseret Alphabet, version 2.0, was introduced in 1868. It debuted in three primers (two based on the McGuffie readers, and the third selections from the Book of Mormon), and the whole Book of Mormon. Although the process of transcribing the Bible and other Mormon scripture was in process, nothing else was ever published in the alphabet.
“The advantages of this alphabet will soon be realized,” Young had announced when he first presented the Mormons with the Deseret Alphabet. Unfortunately, most pioneers lived in a world of biscuits and fireplaces and sewing. It’s hard to think about what ramifications alphabet reform might have on your life if you’re just trying to keep your family fed and clothed. Parley T. Pratt, another leader of the church, estimated that it would cost about 5 million bucks to print up a mere 1,000 titles in Deseret Alphabet. Young continued to push the use of the alphabet, but after his death in 1877, it was dropped â€“ the federal government was cracking down on polygamy and everyone had less heady concerns, like being shot in the eye or sent to prison. Somehow, though, I wonder if Brigham hasn’t floated through Bob Moss’ house, or through the houses of Mormon computer programmers, inspiring them to revive the Deseret Alphabet for the end times. You can now attend Deseret University online and learn the Deseret Alphabet from a guy who calls himself Brion Zion. “While you are driving around Utah (or wherever) this summer,” Brion Zion says, “look for the Deseret alphabet. Look for tombstones, buildings (old and new), books (old and new), signs or anything else you can think of. Ask people if they know anything about the Deseret alphabet…you might be surprised.”
So even though the Deseret Alphabet is “a bit spotty and inconsistent, particularly in its handling of dipthongs,” remember that in the beginning was the word â€“ and the word was made of alphabet (this show was brought to you by the letter G). And if there is anything more perfect for an imperfect world to be made of â€“ bees, wine, bibles or clay jugs â€“ than an imperfect alphabet, I don’t know what it is.