Deseret alphabet

FeeltheKern's picture

Deseret Alphabet

Does anyone have more information on the Deseret alphabet? I've read about the Pitman alphabet before, but never come across this Mormon alphabet.

Arlo Vance's picture

If i remember correctly, there's an issue of Emigre magazine that had an article about it. Can't remember what issue number though.

Stephen Coles's picture

My 11 year old nephew has this to say:

"Hi, my name is Joe. In fourth grade I did a report on the Deseret alphabet and it was fun. It's very different from our alphabet. The Mormons made it when they first came to the Territory of Deseret (now it's called Utah) because they wanted a unique alphabet for themselves. I wrote my name in it and everyone thought that was cool."

Si_Daniels's picture

As it's in Unicode, and there's a Mac system font providing support (?) it's here to stay.

With Klingon rejected as a Unicode language sci-fi oddballs need to look elsewhere. So perhaps in the future it will have non-Mormon uses.

blank's picture

This from Mr. Battlestar Helvetica

Si_Daniels's picture

I was writing on behalf of all "sci-fi oddballs".

aluminum's picture

Seems unfair that the Mormon's get an officially recognized alphabet but not the Klingons.

dan_reynolds's picture

Si, James, at Reading we've had at least one in-depth discussion about what script the Cylons use. While the Colonials seem to use the Latin script (exclusively? I can't remember what the scrolls of Pythia were written in…), I can' recall seeing any Cylon printed matter. Perhaps they have no need for print, and transmit all data electronically or telepathically. But since they had access to lots of Colonial equipment twice (both on the newly Cylon-populated Caprica and on New Caprica), it seems at least feasible that they might have taken up human printing the way they take up other human design things, like clothing and furniture.

Si_Daniels's picture

>at Reading we’ve had at least one in-depth discussion about what script the Cylons use.

I think the answer is here...

dan_reynolds's picture

Darrell, at the risk of starting a discussion about the factuality of any religion's beliefs, one should remember that there are several million Mormons in the world, and – to date – zero Klingons. Also, Unicode helps encode all the written languages and systems the world has ever had. At least for a time, some Mormons were printing real things with Deseret. I know that Trekkers print in Klingon, too – and I'm actually for Klingon's inclusion in Unicode – but I don't see how Klingon is nearly as historically relevant as Deseret.

Si_Daniels's picture

As I recall Klingon was rejected on a technicality - the written form of the language uses the Latin script rather than the Klingon script.

As to the Cylon script, they do use a pentagraphic logo.

Cheers, Si

aluminum's picture

"one should remember that there are several million Mormons in the world, and – to date – zero Klingons"

Hmm...I'll let you have that one.

"I don’t see how Klingon is nearly as historically relevant as Deseret" the context of history, I think one could argue for Klingon. Mormonism isn't that old, founded by a small group of folks. Seems that Klingon could be argued to have a similar 'historical progression'.

This would actually be an interesting debate. I don't think I could keep up, but would love to see a scholarly discussion of it. Alas, I'm not well versed in Mormonism or Trekkie-ism (is that a word?).

FeeltheKern's picture

Does anyone own, or at least read, the Roby Wentz book, "38 Mormon characters: A forgotten chapter in Western typographic history?" Let me know if it's worth picking up a copy.

blank's picture

…I think one could argue for Klingon.

Very true. If I understand things correctly Deseret was ditched by its creators long before they got around to doing much with it, so it’s not so much historic as historical. And I get the impression that more people have used Klingon than Deseret.

On the other hand, I think that I’d rather discuss type with Mormons than with Klingon cosplayers. And if Klingon gets in then all the Tolkein languages get in, followed by the crazy glyphs from Lovecraft, and then the webcomic nerds will be angry that nobody takes them seriously and demand the glyphs that they make up…what a headach!

analisa's picture

Wow, I finally decide to make a typophile account, and someone is asking about the deseret alphabet.

I suppose you’ve looked here: ? I didn’t read through it, but there are some images of the books printed in the alphabet that are pretty interesting.

What exactly are you interested in learning about it? At my university, one of the projects for the sophomore typography class is to redesign a number of characters in the deseret alphabet, since theoretically one of the main reasons it failed was simply very poor design. It lacked a lower case, ascenders, descenders, and any sort of consistency between characters. There are probably a few BYU grads here on typophile who have this project archived away somewhere :)

From what I remember from class, there were a few theoretical premises for the development of a new alphabet or language among a body of people that included 1) an isolated location (Utah, then known as Deseret) and 2) a strong leader (Brigham Young). There were more reasons than that, but those were the two that I remember. They also felt the need for a phonetic alphabet because a large amount of people were immigrants who did not speak English, and they needed an easier way to teach it.

My teacher showed us some copies of grammar books set in the alphabet and I believe someone in the class was even able to bring in a Book of Mormon from his grandfather who wrote a thesis paper on it. I remember hearing the Univeristy of Utah owns most of the remaining deseret alphabet books. They hold on to them to make people think they’re rare :)

I’ll have to email my teacher and point out this thread—I'm sure he'll have a few things to add/correct in my brief recap of the project.


FeeltheKern's picture

Without descending into calling early Mormonism a cult, it does seem that part of the intent on the Mormon leaders' part, or at least the intent as seen through the eyes of non-Mormons at the time, was for "the language now introduced... to make the faithful still more peculiar than anything that distinguishes them from other mortals," as The New York Herald wrote in 1859.

This got me thinking about religious languages and scripts, not only as a way to isolate and control knowledge, but also as an individual's spiritual expression. The Catholic church, of course, kept the Bible in Latin for hundreds of years, probably the most used example of the downsides to controlling a sacred language. But then there's also speaking in tongues, most commonly associated with Pentecostal Christianity, which typically has no discernable structure, but is usually thought of by its practitioners as being the language of angels, or sounding like the languages of the Hebrew and Aramaic Bible. This seems to be the exact opposite of a controlled language, being entirely personal, but it goes even farther than Latin, in that rather than an elite few who can understand it, nobody except the speaker could understand it. I came across this Enochian alphabet, which apparently is believed by those who have studied it to be derived from speaking in tongues. Does anyone know of any other scripts that have come about as a way to transcribe the experience of speaking in tongues?

David Sudweeks's picture

Interesting question concerning the transcription of speaking in tongues; I might remind you of instances such as these where speaking in tongues results in comprehensible, established, and well-documented language:

4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:4–6)

Concerning the Deseret Alphabet, the second section here, (1.2) is helpful. The Deseret alphabet movement from what I understand shouldn't be seen as religious at all. It borrowed a lot from Pittman, was strictly utilitarian and for use only with the English language.

There are hobbyists who read and write english using the Deseret alphabet today. These folks are of course much rarer than HAM radio enthusiasts who communicate via CW, and decidedly crazier, from what I've heard.

It was Emigre #52.

(My apologies in advance to Deseret alphabet hobbyists who also happen to be HAM radio enthusiasts; I totally forgot about you guys.)

Christian Robertson's picture

It is true that one of the stated purposes of the alphabet was to separate the Mormons from the rest of the world. That being said it also served a pragmatic purpose. The person primarily responsible for the alphabet was George D. Watt, said to be the first British convert to the church who studied shorthand under Pitman himself. When he emigrated to the States and joined the main body of the church he was immediately put to work as a scribe for the prophet. In a time where there were no voice recorders having someone that could transcribe the spoken word in real time was extremely useful, especially if you believe that the prophet is a living oracle. One of the primary reasons that so many of Brigham Young's speeches survive in full text is because of George D. Watt's shorthand ability. Compare this to the speeches of Joseph Smith that only exist in fragmented notes (though Joseph Smith's writings do persist; from what I understand Brigham Young wasn't much of a writer).

It's then easy to understand why Brigham Young may have been excited about the new science (at the time) around phonetics and orthographic reform. It sounds odd now to invent a new alphabet, but there were a lot of prominent people trying just that during this time period. It just so happened that one of the only people with the political clout to make it happen was Brigham Young. As it turns out, starting a new alphabet is challenging for many reasons. The alphabet was never very widely adopted and ultimately died after the saints' isolation ended with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. (I'm writing this from memory, so I may be wrong about some of the timings)

The metal type version of the alphabet is pretty ugly. However, the handwritten version can be really beautiful, particularly the cursive. It was designed to be written very quickly. Many of the vowels are contained in the upstrokes of a running script. If I remember correctly the foundry commissioned in New York to cast the type version was called Russell and Company (this was the second batch of type commissioned, which is what we mostly see today; the first casting of the alphabet was for the Deseret News, and was much rougher). They based the forms on scotch romans that were popular at the time. In my mind their typographic interpretation of the handwritten forms could have been better, though they were likely instructed by their clients on specifically how the typographic forms were to look. Most of the problems come from the dissonance between shapes created by a running hand created with a pointy nib pen and the shapes of a scotch roman which are (however distantly) based on a broad nibbed pen. Particularly problematic are the vowels, which had thin stems (because they were written with upstrokes in coursive). It's true that the characters don't have ascenders and descenders, but I see this as less of a problem than the rhythm issues caused by the odd thin stems and curly terminals.

I'm remembering this from a paper I wrote about this is college. I spent a fair amount of time in the special collections section of the BYU Library. At the time I attempted a reinterpretation of the type that was more respectful of the cursive origins of the characters.

paul d hunt's picture

can we see it, Christian?

eliason's picture

My apologies in advance to Deseret alphabet hobbyists who also happen to be HAM radio enthusiasts; I totally forgot about you guys.

No worries.


David Sudweeks's picture

I'm also interested in seeing it Christian; and some good looking Deseret cursive. I had no idea it existed. That G.D. Watt was something else, wasn't he! I had a class with Richard Galbraith where we proofread some OCR of the Journal of Discourses, Reported by G.D. Watt, and my favorite part was the way he would sprinkle exclamation points throughout the text! Everywhere! Almost.

FeeltheKern's picture

@ David Sudweeks: Are there any other instances of speaking in tongues being discernable, in a scientific study? That would be pretty fascinating if people could really speak a language they didn't know consciously.

eliason's picture

Are there any other instances of speaking in tongues being discernable, in a scientific study?

New York Times


David Sudweeks's picture

I know of no scientific studies conducted specifically on that subject matter. If you'd like to conduct one yourself, I could suggest a place you might get started.

Connell's picture

In my regional studies of the Mormon Church in Boston (1830-1860) I have discovered that an early Mormon named Michael Hull Barton (or just Hull Barton) after abandoning Mormonism in 1831, invented a forty-character phonetic alphabet as part of his mystical search for primitive Christianity. I have uploaded the 1833 periodical he published called "Something New" as a PDF on my website. Although he had left Mormonism, he continued to pretend he was a Mormon Elder until the mid-1840s. Some of the characters bear a resemblance to the much later Deseret Alphabet and I speculate that his ideas about discovering a "perfect alphabet" may have lead to the creation of the Deseret Alphabet.

Download the PDF at

If you wish to discuss this further, please contact me at

FeeltheKern's picture

@Connell: THat's pretty amazing stuff! the texture of the writing reminds me a bit of Cyrillic script hybridized with Thai. If any Typophile moderators are reading this, Connell's post should be bumped to its own thread and put on the homepage.

John Hudson's picture

Re. Klingon and Unicode:

The proposal to encode Klingon was rejected on the grounds that it received no support from the Klingon Language Institute. While hobbyists might make some use of the script, those who study and publish in the language overwhelmingly use a Latin transcription, and the KLI told Unicode that they didn't see any need to encode the script. That situation might change, but in the meantime we have the ConScript Registry for PUA encoding of Klingon and other scripts of imaginary origin.

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