About the Deseret Alphabet

The Deseret Alphabet is a phonetic alphabet for the writing of modern English. It was developed over the course of the 1850’s and 1860’s by the regents of the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah). All the regents, however, were LDS and Brigham Young was one of the alphabet’s strongest advocates, so it is generally attributed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sporadic efforts to promote the Deseret Alphabet were made as long as Brigham Young was alive, none of them particularly successful. Only four volumes were published in the new alphabet: two reading primers, the books of 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon from the Book of Mormon, and a full Book of Mormon. The remaining 19th Century material is a miscellaneous lot: passages of Scripture published in the Deseret News, a coin, a tombstone, some street signs, and various handwritten materials including a Hopi dictionary.

Two typefaces were commissioned by the Church in the 19th century, the second of which is the most familiar. This typeface is widely criticized for its poor readability: the lower- and upper-case letters are identical except in size, no letters have ascenders or descenders, the differences between thick and thin strokes are extreme, and it lacks serifs. Some 21st typefaces, such as those used by the Deseret Classics Library, attempt to overcome some of these deficiencies.

Even though the Deseret Alphabet is considerably easier to use than traditional English spelling, the realities of English phonetics create a number of surprisingly difficult problems. The spellings used here should not, therefore, be taken as final and definitive.

Spellings are derived using data from the CMU Pronouncing Dictionary from Carnegie Mellon University, pronunciations generated by the built-in text-to-speech engine used by Mac OS X versions 10.7 and later, the New Oxford American Dictionary, Kenyon and Knott’s A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English (1953) and some hand-tuning. The hand-tuning, in the main, is based on early 21st-century Utah English. 

Except for proper nouns, non-English text is left untranscribed. 

There are thirty-eight letters in the standard Deseret Alphabet. The table below gives, for each letter:

(The glyphs should appear correctly on OS X 10.9 or later. Other plaforms may require a Unicode-based Deseret Alphabet font be installed; and, of course, the difference in glyphs may not be visible.)

The Deseret Alphabet





𐐀 𐐨



Long I

𐐁 𐐩



Long E

𐐂 𐐪



Long A

𐐃 𐐫



Long Ah

𐐄 𐐬



Long O

𐐅 𐐭



Long Oo

𐐆 𐐮



Short I

𐐇 𐐯



Short E

𐐈 𐐰



Short A

𐐉 𐐱



Short Ah

𐐊 𐐲



Short O

𐐋 𐐳



Short Oo

𐐌 𐐴




𐐍 𐐵




𐐎 𐐶




𐐏 𐐷




𐐐 𐐸




𐐑 𐐹




𐐒 𐐺




𐐓 𐐻




𐐔 𐐼




𐐕 𐐽




𐐖 𐐾




𐐗 𐐿




𐐘 𐑀




𐐙 𐑁




𐐚 𐑂




𐐛 𐑃




𐐜 𐑄




𐐝 𐑅




𐐞 𐑆




𐐟 𐑇




𐐠 𐑈




𐐡 𐑉




𐐢 𐑊




𐐣 𐑋




𐐤 𐑌




𐐥 𐑍




*The Deseret Alphabet includes three letters that sound like “ah”: 𐐂, 𐐃, and 𐐉. Most dialects of modern American English have only one ah sound (the Deseret letter 𐐂). The letter 𐐉 is the ah used by someone with a thick Boston accent to pronounce the name of their home town; very few English dialects continue to distinguish it from the other two. The distinction between 𐐂 and 𐐃 is still to be found in some American dialects east of the Mississippi. Most readers should simply treat 𐐂, 𐐃, and 𐐉 as the same sound and use 𐐂 when writing.

Spelling Rules

Even in a phonetic spelling, it’s necessary to have spelling rules to deal with ambiguities. We include here the main spelling rules we generally follow.

Rule 1. One spelling convention used with the Deseret Alphabet in the 19th century is that when the name of a letter is itself a word, that letter can be used by itself for the entire word. Thus, 𐐒 is used to write be or bee, 𐐜 is used for the and thee, 𐐘 for gay, and so on. The indefinite article, a, is spelled with 𐐂. This rule we retain.

Rule 2. The Deseret Alphabet has no letter for schwa (/ə/) (the first a in banana the way it’s usually pronounced). 𐐊 is used to serve that purpose. 

Note that most unstressed short vowels in English are pronounced either as /ə/ (𐐊) or /ɪ/ (𐐆), and it can be difficult to distinguish them. Indeed, for any given word, one dictionary may say it’s pronounced with /ə/ when another says it’s pronounced with /ɪ/. 

The rule we use here is that if the word in standard English spelling has an i or a y, we use 𐐆 in the corresponding place in the Deseret spelling; otherwise, we use 𐐊. For example, we use 𐐰𐑌𐐻𐐮𐐹𐐬𐐼 for antipode, but 𐐰𐑌𐐻𐐲𐑊𐐬𐐹 for antelope. The case where the vowel is followed by r is exceptional, as the r distorts the vowel sounds and makes them easier to distinguish.

Rule 3. Words with an unstressed initial e can variously be pronounced with /ə/, /ɪ/, /ɛ/, or even occasionally /iː/. Unlike other unstressed short vowels, there is generally consistency among authorities as to how they are reduced (most frequently to /ɪ/). In such cases, we generally use 𐐯 if there is any ambiguity or inconsistency (e.g., 𐐯𐑌𐐻𐑉𐐰𐐹 for entrap).

Rule 4. In many cases, different speakers will pronounce the same word with different numbers of syllables. For example, chocolate can be pronounced with two syllables (𐐽𐐫𐐿𐑊𐐲𐐻) or three (𐐽𐐫𐐿𐐲𐑊𐐲𐐻). In such cases, we use the number of syllables implied by the standard spelling (in this case, three).

Rule 5. We write syllabic m without a vowel (e.g., 𐐿𐐰𐑆𐑋 for chasm) but generally write other syllabic consonants with a schwa (𐑉𐐮𐐼𐐲𐑊 for riddle), in accordance with the previous rule. 

Rule 6. Full spellings (reflecting the way a word is pronounced when spoken slowly and with emphasis) are generally not used, inasmuch as they are rarely given in contemporary English dictionaries. (This is our main break with 19th century practice. 19th century spellings were based on Webster’s dictionary, which at the time gave full pronunciations.)

Rule 7. In most cases, two successive vowels are pronounced separately, e.g., 𐐿𐐬𐐪𐐹𐐲𐑉𐐩𐐻 for co-operate. There are, however, some vowel pairs used for diphthongs (𐐺𐐬𐐮 for boy) or to indicate an extended pronunciation, as in 𐐨𐐨𐐿 for eeeek. We use a diaeresis (¨) as needed to disambiguate such cases: 𐐹𐑉𐐬𐐮̈𐐺𐐮𐑇𐐲𐑌 for prohibition or 𐑅𐐮𐑊𐐨𐐨̈ for ciliae. (Note that the latter is an instance of a technical term retaining its Latin plural form.)

Rule 8. Non-English proper nouns are given an anglicized pronunciation and Deseret spelling, such as 𐐏𐐬𐐸𐐪𐑌 𐐝𐐲𐐺𐐰𐑅𐐽𐐲𐑌 𐐒𐐪𐐿 (Johann Sebastian Bach). The main exception is names of biological orders, genera, species, and so on, so Felis silvestrus catus instead of 𐐙𐐨𐑊𐐮𐑅 𐑅𐐮𐑊𐑂𐐯𐑅𐐻𐑉𐐲𐑅 𐐿𐐰𐐻𐐲𐑅.

Rule 9. Other non-English words written with Latin letters are left unchanged. 

Many words are in the process of becoming naturalized English words. Criteria used to determine when a word should be perceived as foreign or English include:

Italics are not used to mark non-English words spelled with Latin letters, as superfluous.

Note that this includes common abbreviations for Latin terms: viz., i.e., e.g., A.D., p.m., etc.

Rule 10. Acronyms—words formed by using the initial elements of several words, such as laser (light amplification by the stimulated emission of radiation) or Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg)—are spelled to reflect their actual pronunciation, not the pronunciation of the words from which they are derived. Thus 𐑊𐐩𐑆𐐲𐑉 instead of 𐑊𐐰𐑅𐐯𐑉 and 𐐒𐐯𐑌𐐲𐑊𐐲𐐿𐑅 instead of 𐐒𐐯𐑌𐐯𐑊𐐲𐐿𐑅.

Initialisms—psuedo-words formed the same way, such as URL or BBC—are given spellings that reflect the pronunciation of the word from which they are derived: 𐐏𐐡𐐢 and 𐐒𐐒𐐗.

Some words can be pronounced either way (IRA for Individual Retirement Account). Such words are generally treated as initialisms.

 In all cases, exceptions will be found. Some of these are simple errors, others are cases where a strictly correct spelling simply “feels wrong.”