Easy as ABC? No, but studying this Mormon pioneer alphabet is now easier.

Two Illinois professors, both BYU grads, have made searchable transcripts of texts written in the 19th-century Deseret Alphabet.

University of Illinois linguistics professor Ryan Shosted remembers how his grandmother spoke while he was growing up in Salt Lake City.

She pronounced “or” words as “ar,” he said. “Fork” became “fark” while “horse” became “harse.”

Shosted said many people in his generation remember their grandparents speaking this way, and he wondered how far back the linguistic quirk went.

It was 2020 and he was unable to do his typical linguistic research, which requires closely studying people’s mouths, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. So he turned his focus to unraveling the origins of his grandmother’s speech by tackling a new project: the Deseret Alphabet.

The 38-character phonetic alphabet was created by early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints living in Utah. Though it never saw wide use, its phonetic nature means that documents written with this system are the closest thing available, Shosted said, to a recording of how people spoke in the 19th century.

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Now, Shosted and a colleague, University of Illinois computer science professor Neal Davis, a fellow Brigham Young University graduate, have made their ongoing research available online at the Illinois Deseret Consortium.

The project makes searchable transcripts of texts written in the Deseret Alphabet, something that was previously impossible because there was no transcription system that recognizes Deseret characters, according to a news release.

Documents available for research include Latter-day Saint scripture, meeting minutes, Deseret News articles, children’s readers and diaries kept by missionaries who transcribed the Hopi language using the specialized alphabet.

Shosted has been making phonemic transcriptions of the texts, while Davis is developing an optical recognition system that can automatically transcribe printed documents written in the Deseret Alphabet.

Davis also is producing a new font to replace existing Deseret Alphabet typefaces, which can be heavy and difficult to read.

Additionally, the Deseret Alphabet has been added to Unicode, a standard developed to represent the writing systems of the world’s languages on computers.

How the Deseret Alphabet began

(Michelle Hassel | University of Illinois News Bureau) A copy of the Book of Mormon written in the Deseret Alphabet at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

The Deseret Alphabet was created in 1850 at the request of Latter-day Saint prophet-president Brigham Young, according to the faith’s website. He hoped the phonetic alphabet would make English simpler and more consistent, as well as “unite the Saints and create a Zion society by making it easier for them to overcome differences in language.”

The church printed a number of materials in the Deseret Alphabet, including newspapers, children’s primers and Books of Mormon, the faith’s signature scripture, but the system was never broadly adopted. After Young’s death in 1887, it largely fell out of use.

Still, many materials employing the alphabet remain. Shosted found a first edition Book of Mormon printed in the Deseret Alphabet — one of only 500 produced, and one of only 200 to 300 still in existence, according to a news release — and the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Illinois purchased it.

Pronunciations for official publications like the Book of Mormon were based on Webster’s Dictionary, Shosted said. But in a personal diary written in the Deseret Alphabet, he found evidence that at least some 19th-century Utahns did, indeed, pronounce “or” words with “ar” sounds, just like his grandmother.

Shosted also emphasized that he’s not the first person to research how the Deseret Alphabet reflects the way these early Utahns spoke.

Examples of the alphabet’s use

(Michelle Hassel | University of Illinois News Bureau) A new acquisition of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library — a copy of the Book of Mormon written in the Deseret Alphabet, invented by Latter-day Saints in the 19th century and used only briefly for some purposes.

Previous research found, for instance, that Cumorah, typically pronounced “kuh-mor-ah,” was sometime spoken as “que-mor-ah.” (Latter-day Saints believe the Hill Cumorah, in Manchester, N.Y., is where church founder Joseph Smith unearthed gold plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon.)

Another example is how “deseret” was sometimes written as “dezzy-ret” in the phonetic alphabet.

Shosted said it’s unclear when certain pronunciations began or ended, but the Deseret Alphabet is still a useful tool for understanding language patterns.

“If you tell people to write things down in a phonetic alphabet, the simplest outcome is that they’re going to use it to write down [words] the way they sound in their own head,” he said, “or the way that people they talk to sound.”

Shosted said that for modern Latter-day Saints, the Deseret Alphabet is an artifact of their history.

“It was important to [early Latter-day Saints],” he said, “and so we should try as students of history to … figure out why it was important to them.”

Davis added that while the significance of the Deseret Alphabet isn’t the same for people unconnected to Utah or to its predominant religion, a hobbyist community still appreciates it as a curiosity or for aesthetic reasons.

“We can be glad that there’s been enough dedication to the overall project of cultural heritage to preserve [the Deseret Alphabet] into the present,” he said, “and make it again a minor living tradition that we can carry forward.”

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