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The history behind Utah's unique and mostly forgotten alphabet

Posted at 10:03 PM, Mar 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-11 00:03:56-05

SALT LAKE CITY — 𐐜𐐮𐑅 𐑅𐐲𐑋𐐲𐑉, 𐐏𐐭𐐻𐐫 𐐶𐐮𐑊 𐑅𐐯𐑊𐐲𐐺𐑉𐐩𐐻 𐑄 175th 𐐰𐑌𐐲𐑂𐐲𐑉𐑅𐐲𐑉𐐨 𐐲𐑂 𐑄 𐐲𐑉𐐴𐑂𐐲𐑊 𐐲𐑂 𐐣𐐫𐑉𐑋𐐲𐑌 𐐹𐐴𐐲𐑌𐐨𐑉𐑆 𐐮𐑌𐐻𐐭 𐑄 𐐝𐐫𐑊𐐻 𐐢𐐩𐐿 𐐚𐐰𐑊𐐨. Did you get that? That's just a taste of Utah's forgotten alphabet, which was created in the mid to late 1800's.

Here's the English version of the sentence above: This summer, Utah will celebrate the 175th anniversary of the arrival of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley.

In the years that followed, few people impacted Utah as much as Brigham Young.

Cities and towns he formed are still thriving today.

However, an alphabet he championed was largely forgotten.

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The Deseret Alphabet is a phonetic alphabet with characters that might look a bit like Egyptian hieroglyphics at first glance.

“They’re unintelligible,” said Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sander Rare Books in Salt Lake City.

“Brigham Young had complete and utter autonomy and power,” said Sanders, recounting how the alphabet came to be.

Under Young’s direction, early settler Charles D. Watt developed the Deseret Alphabet, and in the mid to late 1800’s four books were published in the alphabet.

Three were instructional books, also called “readers”, while the fourth was the Book of Mormon.

“The readers were produced in ten thousand print-runs, they sat abandoned and unknown in the bowls of a church basement somewhere, and in the 1960’s they were discovered. The BYU Book Store, Deseret Book, Sam Weller’s all had stacks of them, 50 cents each. I get 300 bucks out of them now, mind you,” said Sanders.

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While the “readers” can occasionally be found on online auction sites or at rare book stores, Ken Sanders, who has also served as an appraiser for the PBS television series ‘Antiques Roadshow’- says complete 1800’s printings of the Book of Mormon in Deseret Alphabet are harder to come by.

“It’s fairly rare, and can fetch between five and ten thousand dollars for a copy,” Sanders said.

While few people probably utilize the Deseret Alphabet on a regular basis, knowledge of it has become more widespread in the computer age.

One website even offers a Deseret Alphabet Translator. It’s free and easy to use and can be found by clicking here.