… by the letters
When I was a little kid, my babysitter was Lora. She lived around the corner from me in Orem and she was 13 years old when I first met her. I was 6 at the time and thought she was so mature and such an adult, not a little kid like me. She knew all the cool music and when she’d come over to babysit she would bring with her the hits of the late 80s. My favorite was Tiffany and the single “I think We’re Alone Now.” I borrowed it from Lora all the time so one Saturday afternoon my mom took me to the record store on State Street and bought me a copy, which I still have, and which is now autographed by Tiffany because a few years ago I met her at Phoenix Pride. Point is – Lora was the coolest person I knew.
When my family moved from Utah to California in 1991, Lora wrote me letters. But being the coolest babysitter and creative, attentive person she is, she didn’t just write a letter. She would create a new alphabet and create a key on a 3×5 index card so I could crack the code. For example the letter A would match a new symbol like +. The letter B was denoted with a !, C with a #, D by an = and so on. Without the index card the letter was impossible to read. A letter from her was an experience because each was a puzzle, written in our own secret language that took me about 20 minutes to decipher. I translated the symbols and then could read her words. I cherished those letters.
Mormon history includes a similar story.
On January 19, 1854 the Board of Regents of the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah and where I will soon be working on my masters) announced that they had adopted a new phonetic alphabet, developed at the request of Brigham Young. An English convert named George D. Watt was chosen to create the new alphabet, likely because he had studied Pitman shorthand in England. With his understanding of the English phonemes he created the Deseret alphabet to be used by the Mormons. The Church published newspaper articles, children’s readers, as well as The Book of Mormon in Deseret. The alphabet was used on coins, in store windows, and even on some gravestones.
Various theories exist to explain the reasons for this orthographic reform. One reason errs on the benevolent side, stating that Brigham Young was looking for a way to help immigrants arriving to Salt Lake learn English. That idea seems fishy to me. Brigham Young rarely (if ever) did things for the benefit of individuals, his motive was always to strengthen the LDS Church and his/its influence. I like to think of my ancestors arriving in Utah in the 1860s when the alphabet was in use and thinking, “What the hell is this!?” But for all I know my ancestors embraced it and used it. How awesome would it be if I could find a family journal written in Deseret?
Another theory, the one I think more plausible, is that Young wanted to keep written correspondence secret from the Gentiles i.e. non-Mormons. (In Utah, Jews are considered Gentiles.) However, this motive isn’t as sinister as it might seem. The alphabet is not hard to figure out. There are no new grammatical rules, no foreign words. It’s just English written with weird looking symbols and if you know what sounds they make, you can sound out the words. You just have to have the key and you can read Deseret, and from what I can tell, the Church made the key very public. The Deseret alphabet is not much different from the coded letters Lora used to send me.
Despite Brigham’s enthusiasm for the new letters the alphabet never really caught on and it died with him in 1877. After his death the Church ceased printing literature in the Deseret alphabet and it is now a relic of the 19th century, which for me is like gold!
My resolution this year is to learn the letters so that I can read and write in Deseret. Yeah, it’s a little pretentious and weird and useful to no one, not even me, but I want to learn it. The Deseret alphabet is like a Polaroid of how English was spoken in Utah in 1850s-1870s. For example the word “Lord” reads like “Lard” based on the letters used to write it and the word “Mormon” sounds like “Marmun.” Neat!