Hopis and Missionaries: The Use of the Deseret Alphabet to Document the Hopi Language

Dirk Elzinga and Kenneth Beesley presented their research on the use of the Deseret Alphabet to document the Hopi Language.

51gsqu1n55l-_sx331_bo1204203200_PROVO, Utah (Dec. 1, 2016)—In 1859 Brigham Young sent a Mormon expedition to the Hopi villages in what is now North-eastern Arizona. Jacob Hamblin led the expedition–which included six other men–to Orayvi, a Hopi village. Thales Haskell and Marion Jackson Shelton stayed in Orayvi for four months after the other members of the company had left and compiled a list of 486 Hopi words. Since Hopi had no written form beforehand, the men transcribed the sounds using the phonetic Deseret Alphabet.

“Their task was to learn the language and develop a writing system so that the Book of Mormon could be translated to Hopi with an eye to converting and baptizing the Hopis into the Church,” said Dirk Elzinga, associate professor of linguistics at BYU. Elzinga and Kenneth R. Beesley, a computational linguist SAP Labs, presented jointly at BYU on their 2015 publication, An 1860 English-Hopi Vocabulary Written in the Deseret Alphabet, and their continuing research on the subject.

Beesley is one of the current leading experts on the Deseret Alphabet, his research including vocabulary lists made by Mormon missionaries during the 1800’s. A formative moment of Beesley’s research happened in 2002 while he on a visit to Salt Lake Church History Library. While looking for new research materials, a librarian asked if he had heard of a document called the Indian Vocabulary, which wasn’t even catalogued.

I’d never even heard of [the Indian Vocabulary], Beesley said. “When I saw the document I could see they had rightly attributed it to a Native American Language, but it had no provenance. No one had a date, an author, but the words in the left-hand column were English and could be easily read and transcribed.” The words in the right-hand column, however, seemed like gibberish until Beesley identified piki, the Hopi word for bread, and kachina, which means dancer. He had learned both words while conducting research with the Hopi earlier that year.

Transcription of Hopi started in the 19th century with Mormon figures playing an important role. One Mormon expedition, of which a man named Henry Holmes took part, led settlers to begin a town in Little Colorado in 1873. “[The settlers] sold their farms, packed up their wagons, went down to what is now Tuba City, and headed south from there. They then ran out of water, ran out of hope and eventually turned around,” said Beesley. During this expedition, though, Holmes and others of the company continued making Hopi word lists. While there are four different dialects of Hopi, Orayvi is the most documented.

Though Mormon missionaries were significant in documenting the Hopi language, Mormons were not the only ones who lived among the Hopi in hopes of converting them. “In 1893 a Mennonite missionary by the name of Henry R. Voth, a Volga German, was the first missionary of the Mennonites to learn Orayvi,” explained Beesley. Voth and his followers were somewhat of linguistic scholars and published several papers regarding Hopi language and customs.

Through the efforts of Voth and the several Mormon missionaries who served missions with the Hopi people, many vocabularies can now be used to better understand the Hopi language and culture. Though Elzinga and Beesley have started the process of documenting these vocabularies, they believe that there is still much more to research.

For more information regarding the Hopi people and Deseret Alphabet or An 1860 English-Hopi Vocabulary Written in the Deseret Alphabet, see here.

Hannah Sandorf (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Linguistics department for the College of Humanities. She is a junior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.