The library here had a display this week about the “Deseret Alphabet”, a new writing system for English invented by Utahns a century and a half ago.
I’d heard of it before, but now, here in linguistics, I felt obligated to give it a deeper look. It’s pretty easy to translate; it’s like a code. Kind of fun.
One thing that stood out was the different pronunciation of some things… like “Des-ee-ret” instead of today’s “Des-uh-ret”. And some Book of Mormon names were different… like “Jay-rom” and “Jay-red” instead of “Jeh-rom” and “Jeh-red”. They also had heavy Ws for “wh-” syllables, and some other vowel differences.
Anyway, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it…
I thought, first of all, that I ought to promote it as an aspect of culture… MY culture… I, who am convinced I have no culture, who reject this “American” culture and chafe at this forced patriotism of our religion. Let them uphold the ideals of the Constitution, now abandoned by so many others… but let them not tell me to love this government that is poisoning the world, or ever sacrifice myself for it — this land and people so polluted that heathen nations are now holier than they. So, what… America infects the heathens too, and then they’re even again. Nice trick, America.
Anyway, here in this alphabet was something I could actually call my culture, something of my people. I don’t mind associating myself with the Saints — not necessarily with their mutated spawn of today (whom they themselves would view, at best, with great surprise) but with the purebred of past and present. And such cultural relics of my people are worthy of celebration and restoration.
I also wondered what had possessed Brigham Young to attempt something so radical, so big. I know those were pioneering times in many ways… but reforming the whole language, just like that?
And I wondered… could it work? Obviously it fell out of use… but, was it a good idea?
Well, people just did the same thing later. Now linguists use their “IPA”, which is simply a newer attempt of the very same thing.
Brigham had other ideas that didn’t quite succeed, either. Imagine if we had gained a presence in China from that 1853 mission. That idea, going to China, India too, was possibly even bigger and wilder than rewriting English.
…But nobody regrets that brave, amazing effort that proved the divinity of purpose in the hearts of those men, and also proved the work — as God had enlightened ages and peoples past, so that from the beginning, we as a whole race never had any excuse for our blindness, so China’s billion suddenly assumed renewed responsibility for their sins, their bloodshed, and their consequent suffering when those angels, those messengers of God, spent those few tragic months in the midst of their occupied harbour city. I’d happily go so far as to suggest that the whole occupation and subjugation of China by Europe was to give those three tiny missionaries the brief chance to save that race… and the same for their contemporaries elsewhere. So God repeated his mercy in pre-war Japan.
What of this alphabet, then? Brigham stated his reasons clearly. Spelling in English is corrupted. Our easy language is one of the very difficultest in the world to learn. Specifically, he noted that vowels such as “a” had half a dozen pronunciations at least, in different settings. Also, shorthand can be written very much faster than denser letters — but maybe not typed any faster. Only a compacter spelling would accomplish that… which Deseret attempted to provide.
Me, I’ve been rather a traditionalist. I’ve always preferred standard words and old spelling. This semester I learned some of the obsolete letters in the traditional English alphabet, and I wanted to start using them, try to resurrect them. At the same time, I’ve learned more of the fluidity of the language. I was sobred by the discovery that some of the “slang” variants of today’s otherwise unimpressive, mentally devolved youth are actually attested as ancient forms — thus, correct forms — more correct forms.
You know, if I could…
…I’d go right back to the beginning, or as close to it as I could get. I care nothing for our innovations, though useful, and though many perhaps would need to be repeated. I’d throw them all out instantly for a chance to see the beginning, to truly understand the language of deified man by seeing its purest form. It would be like meeting and getting to know the first ancestor of your race, and being filled with greater appreciation of whom and what you really are.
But here this mad, stupid population of devils, this generation intoxicated with false doctrines of “change”, throws itself over cliffs of forgetfulness; and so their own posterity someday will likewise detest them and their ways and words.
What, then, of Brigham’s plan? He clearly had a somewhat different spirit from me, that respected language only as a workman respects his tools: for what they can accomplish.
And I, insufficiently learned, am here defending the “traditions” of oldness that (if I only knew it) were radical in their day, destructions of older and truer modes.
Well, surely, the older radicalism is still closer to the whole than today’s radicalism that fractures even the fractions.
But could I throw it all out, anyway?
Sure I could. These “English” letters aren’t English. These “Roman” letters, these Grecian, these Phoenician… none of them are original, all stolen and slightly twisted. (Funny. Almost looks like Deseret borrowed from several of these “Proto-Canaanite” letters…)
…Was it efficience? It seems we started everywhere with picture writing. Are we moving inevitably toward one long, blurry line, a long “blaaahhh…”, or are we rather getting more economical at writing?
Well… I don’t know if this English is even alphabetic… No language really can be… We don’t look at these words letter-for-letter. We eat up the whole word at once; each becomes its own distinct picture — or at the lowest level, each syllable is its own picture. These are all “syllabaries” — yes, these are logographs. The alphabet is only used for learning how to pronounce things, and is forgotten once the word-picture is memorized with its sound. You can’t know a word alphabetically only; you know it for what it represents. “Sounding out letters” is what foreigners and children do who have no idea what they’re saying.
This Wikipedia makes an entirely pointless distinction between “logographic” (word-representing) writing systems and “ideographic”, (picture-representing) ones. Within any language, there’s no difference between an idea of something and the word for it; certainly, a new thing can’t even be conceptualized without grasping its word, its verbal description.
Then, this English is verily ideographic, just like the old Chinese and Egyptian.
Well, I was against reforming the Chinese, too, preferring the “complex” older innovations to the diluted, enfeebled new ones that are slightly better suited to be scratched out by the monkeys the current Chinese empire wants her people to become.
So… what of Brigham…
…I’ve never rejected anything from him, as far as I can remember.
Is it possible to take this Deseret… and improve on it? It’s half IPA already, though IPA has far excelled everything with its phonological markings (and thereby made itself impossibly unlearnable). But where a global pronunciation is required, some form of IPA is more and more consistently relied on.
Deseret certainly saves strokes… but, anyway, there are more sounds to reckon with in the world than just our English ones. It would need development no matter what, as lovely a relic as it is, and as useful for studying the past dialect of this para-American civilization.
Well, I don’t know. Before my day is up, I hope to familiarize myself with a lot more writing systems; and I will continue to dream (though impossibly) of their eventual unification into something more beautiful than its parts… a fit utensil of communication and record for beings who claim descent from God.
I’m not big enough for such a work anyway, nor am I interested enough. But it’s a happy dream.