Saturday, November 16, 2013

Alpha-Bytes: the Deseret alphabet

It's been a while since I've done one of these posts about my favorite weird alphabets and languages.  Today I'm thinking about a fascinating bit of 19th century American history: the Deseret Alphabet of Brigham Young and the early Mormon community.

This says "Holiness to the Lord"
The reasons why this religious leader decided to promulgate a new alphabet aren't universally agreed upon.  Young did state that a main goal of this project was to simplify written English and save schoolchildren years of anguish learning to spell.  He wasn't alone, of course; see my earlier post on various attempts at orthographic reform that kept on chugging through the 20th century.  However, some also believe this alphabet was an attempt to set apart the new Mormon community from the rest of mundane America.

Click to be magnified
The Deseret alphabet only really lasted a few decades as a major "supported feature" of Utah Mormonism.  After Brigham Young's death in 1877 it quickly faded into history. The letters have a kind of an ornate beauty to them, but they may be a tad too complicated for their own good.  Still, like many other obscure interests, our lovely inter webby super highway has brought together its fans and energized its community.

As an eternal searcher in realms spiritual, I sometimes get a bit jealous of groups like Mormonism that set themselves apart and live a life so full of symbolism and meaning.  To be clear, I'm not eager for someone to spoon-feed me my beliefs, but the idea of living within an ornate surreality (see here for more thoughts on that word), decorated with such a rich interior design of ideas, has a strong pull.  In some ways, I already do that with the concepts of Thelema and Hermetic Kabbalah, but I don't tend to identify with many of the actual people who work with those ideas.  The surreality is built more strongly in like-minded community, I suppose.

Oh well, there are plenty of other communities... family, professional, and blogospheric... they're sometimes too much for me to handle already... why would I want to add something else?  :-)

FYI, the next few weeks will be filled with hectic travel for me, so posting may be sparser than usual.  Best wishes to all as we head into the dark days of winter!

19 comments:

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    1. Thanks, Laoch! I hope you're feeling better.

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  2. Yup, alphabets are fun.

    Deliberate attempts to manipulate language always seemed doomed to failure. There have been successes, of course. Noah Webster certainly succeeded in getting rid of all those superfluous u's that the British use. I'm sure there are others but most permanent changes come about slowly and serendipitously.

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    1. I think you're right. Esperanto gave it as good a try as any, and it's still pretty marginal. Have you seen the blog titled "Separated by a Common Language?" Lots of interesting cultural stuff about American vs British English.

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    2. I have not. I'll have to check that out. When I was in Japan, most of my friends were British. Most of those who weren't were either Aussie or Kiwi whose languages are much closer to the British side than the American. These were frequent topics of discussion. Those conversations were genuinely a lot of fun and did a great deal to shape my view of the lingual world.

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  3. That is really interesting...Deseret, hmm.
    Audacious, really, to make your own alphabet. Would be cool if it caught on.

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    1. "Deseret" supposedly means "Honeybee." There's some important symbolism there, I'm sure, but the first thing I thought of was this.

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  4. What an interesting post. I didn't know the Mormons developed an alphabet; I wonder if it was also supposed to be a sort of code to be used just by Mormons, or if they hoped it would catch on in the general public. It's pretty cool looking, but not much of a simplification.

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    1. Thanks, Kerry. Not sure about the code aspect, but Joseph Smith was fond of ciphers and secrets, too. The way this alphabet seems to be used nowadays is pretty clearly along the lines of preserving their unique history. I thought the same thing about the non-simplification, too... most of the letters seem to have one or two strokes too many. Visually striking, though.

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  5. Very curious alphabet! Didn't know about it before. Strange, I can spell SMITH with it easily enough but not JOSEPH. Voiced palato-alveolar affricates seem to be underrepresented.

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    1. It's interesting that so many of these letters kind of look like the human tongue, in various states of attention and repose. I wonder if someone has designed a phonetic alphabet in which the designs of the letters are matched somehow with the specific mouth movements that make them.

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  6. Dear Cygnus,
    this Mormon alphabet is interesting (the word 'Lord' is easy to read, I think). We have a late friend who collected books with alphabet themes (also the artistic side).
    As to a closed community to live in: it might be the fascination of something clear and simple, understandable rules etc . When I read Sue Bender's lovely book where she lived with the Amish, "Everyday Sacred", I was fascinated. When I told husband that I could imagine the life in a cloister (had seen 'Cadfael' on TV), he laughed heartily and unnecessarily long - me, being neither religious (Taoism is no religion) nor obedient or submissive (and their might even be the little thing of abstinence) did not seem have the right qualifications - and then he said: 'If - IF, then I see you only as an abbess." Another dream gone :-)
    As to making orthography easier they did a few years ago a strange reform in Germany - language is always changing, when it lives, and that is good - but that I have to write your word 'tip' now in German with double 'P' - 'Tipp' - is a bit strong.
    Have a nice holiday! Britta

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    1. Ha - the cloister took its revenge in grammatical and orthographic mistakes - I think you will understand me nevertheless.

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    2. Abbess Britta... there's a good character for a novel.

      It's funny, I sometimes think that I'd thrive in the confined space of a long interplanetary journey -- as long as I'd have decent access to some kind of internet. A medieval cloister or Amish village? Probably not. :-)

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    3. 'I sometimes think that I'd thrive in the confined space of a long interplanetary journey -- as long as I'd have decent access to some kind of internet.'

      The life of the mind is a curious thing.

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    4. Yes. I could've always tested this, I suppose. Those long-term astronaut psych-simulations wouldn't just take anyone off the street, though. Biosphere Two? Nah, too much gardening... ;-)

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  7. I had a question about the image you have of the beehive with the holiness to the Lord. Is this an image your created or is it in the public domain. I am doing an article on the Deseret Alphabet and would love to be able to include this image. Do you know what the usage rights are on it, or where I can find a copy of it?

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    1. I wish I could help with sourcing this image, but it's been about 4 years since this post, and I really don't remember where it came from. (Ultimately, that is -- the immediate source must have been Google Images!) You can now "drag" actual images from your desktop into the Google Images search bar, and it will look for other places on the web that have it.

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  8. That is a great tip to know. Thank you!

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