The Deseret Alphabet in Facebook Profiles

By October 10, 2014

In the past few days I’ve seen two different Facebook profile pictures with “I am a Mormon” written in Deseret. The happy confluence of Mormonness and nerdiness in these images makes me happy. Further, even though I know very little about Deseret or its mechanics, these images also give me entrée to talk about two of the (many) reasons Deseret failed to catch on in Mormonism or anywhere else.

The Garden of Enid provided the first image, on the left; Nate Oman, inspired by Enid, made the one on the right, which Ardis Parshall reposted at Keepapitchinin.

Deseret IAmAMormon GardenOfEnid 20141009a Deseret IAmAMormon OmanN 20141009a

Notice that the texts are different, as shown below. [1]

Deseret IAmAMormon Enid u Nate 20141009b

I don’t know why Nate or Enid used “I am a Mormon” rather than “I’m a Mormon” like the marketing campaign. Enid’s version of “Marmon” sounds like it might have spent some time in “Spanish Fark.” It also matches the rendering of “Mormon” in the 1869 edition of the Book of Mormon in Deseret. [2] Nate’s indefinite article (the “a” in “a Mormon”) matches the indefinite articles on the title page (“a remnant”) and in “The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses” (“a surety”) in the 1869 BoM.

Below I provide two alternate renderings:

Deseret IAmAMormon MyTransliteration 20141009a

It’s only “almost” because Deseret can’t quite get the indefinite article. [3] Note that the contracted “I’m” has no apostrophe. Since Deseret is phonetic I don’t have to indicate possession orthographically: I can just write it how it sounds to me.

And therein lies two rubs. People speak and hear sounds differently across time and space and written languages have different rules and norms than spoken languages. Above are four versions of the same idea, all at least partially plausible. I couldn’t swear that any one is “the correct one” but it is sort of historically “authentic” that there should be more than one rendering of the same exact sentence.

For the bonus round, two more versions and some interesting reads:

Deseret IAmAMormon extra 20141009a

Neil Alexander Walker, “A Complete Guide to Reading and Writing the Deseret Alphabet,” 2005.

Frederick M. Huchel, “The Deseret Alphabet as an Aid in Pronouncing Book of Mormon Names,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9.1 (2000): 58–59, 79.

M Scott Reynolds, The Deseret Alphabet Portal, 2010.

_________

[1] The Deseret font I use throughout is “Zarahemla Bee,” by Joshua Erickson, available, free, here.

[2] I haven’t asked Nate, but his version seems to be machine-generated. Deseret is a self-consciously phonetic script so different sounds have different characters, at least as far as you can with only thirty-eight characters. In Nate’s sample each letter in written English is replaced by a single character in Deseret. Thus, there are five vowel sounds represented by three characters (i, a, and o); in a more precisely rendered Deseret, we’d expect five different vowel symbols for five different sounds, like we see in Enid’s version.

[3] I don’t detect any hint of an “a” when I say “Mormon” and there is usually no difference in how I pronounce “more,” “Moore,” and the first syllable of “Mormon.” But, I can only do “almost” because I frequently use a “schwa” for the indefinite article. That is, I say “uh mohr mun.” Even though Deseret attempted to be phonetic, and the schwa is and was one of the most common vowel sounds in American Englishes, Deseret does not have a symbol for schwa.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. I want to be a historical detective like Edje when I grow up.

    Comment by Ben P — October 10, 2014 @ 6:09 am

  2. This is very nice, Edje. Good work.

    Comment by Robin — October 10, 2014 @ 8:08 am

  3. This made my Friday. Thanks, Edje.

    Comment by Christopher — October 10, 2014 @ 8:57 am

  4. You’re absolutely right that the DA doesn’t have a consistent way of dealing with schwa. Schwa is typically the result of a phonetic process of vowel reduction and is thus not considered to be a distinctive vowel in English. The creators and promoters of the DA didn’t have a very sophisticated theory of English phonology, so they often represented schwa with the symbol most closely corresponding to the standard English spelling. So the indefinite article is written with LONG-A (“ate”), even when it would have been pronounced as schwa, because the standard English spelling uses the letter “a” (The indefinite article is also pronounced as LONG-A when stressed). On the title page of the Book of Mormon you can find several examples of this kind of spelling transfer: the first syllable of ‘upon’ has SHORT-U (“ut”), ‘abridgement’ has SHORT-A (“at”) in the first syllable, and SHORT-E (“et”) in the last syllable. All of the vowels are pronounced as schwa, however.

    The pronunciation of the vowel in the first syllable of ‘Mormon’ (and ‘ward’, ‘born’) has become a sort of Mormon shibboleth: pronouncing it as AW places you squarely in (rural) Utah. According to the DA Book of Mormon, though, it was the standard pronunciation of this vowel (for the transcriber at least), and is still heard in East Coast varieties of English in words like ‘orange’ and ‘Florida’ (both of which make this Utahn chuckle). Most younger Utahns no longer have the AW pronunciation in ‘Mormon’, ‘ward’, etc, though you may still hear it from older lifelong residents.

    Comment by Dirk — October 10, 2014 @ 9:32 am

  5. Very nice! Someone in a conversation elsewhere shared a Deseret Alphabet translator:

    http://2deseret.com/

    It looks like its result matches Enid’s translation. I’ll try and copy and paste, but don’t know if it’ll come across in WordPress:

    Des Alph

    Comment by Amy T — October 10, 2014 @ 9:54 am

  6. Nope. Oh well.

    admin: Fixed.

    Comment by Amy T — October 10, 2014 @ 9:54 am

  7. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — October 10, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

  8. The renderings at the bottom of the post are: “I be a Mormon, matey” (ie, Pirate) and “I yam wot I yam, and wot I yam is a Mormon” (ie, Popeye).

    Comment by Edje Jeter — October 10, 2014 @ 2:36 pm

  9. Thanks,Edje. This was great.

    Comment by Saskia — October 10, 2014 @ 3:25 pm

  10. Thanks for fixing that, Edje, and too funny about the pirate/Popeye-Deseret Alphabet fusion.

    Comment by Amy T — October 12, 2014 @ 6:54 am

  11. Nice work, Edje!

    Comment by WVS — October 12, 2014 @ 6:44 pm


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