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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are developing resources to study the Deseret alphabet, which was created by Mormons and used briefly in the 19th century.

Linguistic professor Ryan fired and computing professor Neal Davis created the Illinois Deseret Consortium to make searchable transcriptions of texts written in Deseret available online for scholars to study and also to help people rediscover the alphabet.

Their website at go.illinois.edu/deseretincludes phonemic transcriptions of texts using computer-readable script so that researchers can look up phonemic spellings without using Deseret characters, as well as computer-readable transcriptions in the alphabet.

Shosted’s research interest is phonetics, and Deseret is a phonetic alphabet, using symbols to spell words as they are pronounced. Growing up in Salt Lake City, Shosted remembers his grandmother’s unique pronunciations. She and others of her generation pronounced the “ou” sound like “ar” – so “cord” sounds like “card” and “fork” sounds like “fark”. He wondered if texts written in Deseret would offer evidence of this way of speaking in the middle of the 19th century.

The Deseret alphabet grew out of Mormon interest in spelling and shorthand reform that began when they were headquartered in Nauvoo, western Illinois in the 1840s. Shosted said. They wanted to be able to quickly write down the words of church leaders and make them available to the public. Education was a priority for Mormons, and they also wanted to make English easier to read, he said.

After arriving in Utah, they invented Deseret, heavily influenced by Pitman’s shorthand. But Mormon citizens rejected the use of the alphabet for education, and it was only used for a short time, mostly for official church-produced materials, Shosted said.

While on his sabbatical this semester, Shosted researched Mormon texts written in Deseret. He found a first edition of the Book of Mormon written in Deseret – one of only 500 produced using that alphabet, and one of 200 to 300 still in existence – and the Library of Rare Books and Manuscripts in Illinois bought the book.

A close-up of the Deseret Alphabet characters used in the 1869 Book of Mormon recently acquired by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Photo by Michelle Hassel

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RBML has an extensive religious history collection that includes a small but important group of books related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other closely related denominations, said Caroline Szylowicz, curator of rare books and manuscripts. The collection includes a first edition of the Book of Mormon printed in 1830; several major revisions and first translations into foreign languages, as well as related texts; the recently acquired 1869 Book of Mormon, written in Deseret; and two 1868 Deseret children’s primers.

Producing the Book of Mormon in Deseret “was a major undertaking, at great expense,” Shosted said. “Utah’s Latter-day Saints had a lot of financial burdens at the time, and they chose to invest in it anyway. They were sincerely committed to the Deseret Alphabet project, but I’m still trying to understand their motivation. I suspect it was their commitment to education and the publication of the word of God that influenced them the most.

In addition to how the alphabet can illuminate language shifts, Shosted is interested in its role in cultural preservation.

“The Deseret Alphabet texts are perhaps as close as you can get to an audio recording of how people spoke in Utah in the late 19th century. It’s a window into history because that it reflects their pronunciation,” he said. “Had Mormons continued to use the alphabet, or used it more widely, they would have retained fascinating linguistic information about the emergence of a dialect and a culture in Utah, born of so many immigrants living together in one place.”

Other writings in Deseret that are available for research include publications of other Mormon scriptures in addition to the Book of Mormon, minutes of meetings of church officials, journals kept by Mormon missionaries who transcribed the Hopi language using Deseret, some entries in the Deseret News – a newspaper in Salt Lake City – and children’s readers. In the University of Utah archives, Shosted found a photograph of a tombstone written in the alphabet.

Many documents written in Deseret are available online through digital scans, but they cannot be transcribed or made searchable because there is no transcription system that recognizes Deseret characters. Shosted painstakingly made phonemic transcriptions of published texts. Davis develops an optical recognition system capable of automatically transcribing printed documents written in Deseret. The goal is to make available a body of text-searchable material that can be used for research, Davis said.

Davis is also producing a new typeface to replace the existing Deseret typefaces with heavy typefaces which are quite difficult to read.

“We’re laying the groundwork for everything to be available in one place in a way that wasn’t there before,” he said.

The Deseret alphabet was added to Unicode, a standard developed to represent the writing systems of the world’s languages ​​on computers. Its addition makes it easier to work with documents written in Deseret, Davis said, and it has been used for Deseret texts on the consortium’s website.

The alphabet’s inclusion in Unicode also led to a resurgence of interest in the alphabet, with intellectuals and artists using the alphabet in online forums and to produce copies of popular memes, Davis said. .

“It ended up generating a lot of adoption on the internet. A community of enthusiasts formed around it,” he said. “There is a group of people interested in understanding it and preserving it. as something of a living tradition.”

Shosted said the Illinois Deseret Consortium project, as well as RBML’s purchase of the Book of Mormon written in Deseret, is important to Illinois.

“Utah dominates the popular imagination when it comes to who Mormons are, but in many ways Mormons are Illinois people. Mormon history is also Illinois history” , he said. “Perhaps we can help Illinois remember the major role that communities in this state have played in Mormon history. As a small but interesting example, the seeds of the Deseret alphabet were planted a fairly short distance from Champaign-Urbana, Nauvoo.

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