The Deseret Alphabet among the Hopi

Professor Dirk Elzinga gave a preview of his work with Kenneth R. Beesley in rediscovering the linguistic work done among the Hopi tribes using the Deseret Alphabet.

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 18, 2014)—It’s something out of an adventure novel: a researcher finds a long-forgotten book, written in what looks like ancient runes and unlocking secrets of a past civilization.

Like any good adventure, the story begins with an expedition. In the fall of 1859, Jacob Hamblin led a group of men to the Hopi villages, located in what is now north-eastern Arizona. The group was comprised of six men – including Thales H. Haskell and Marrion J. Shelton – and tasked by Brigham Young with establishing relations with the Hopi and preparing the way for a translation of the Book of Mormon into Hopi.

Consequently, Shelton compiled a list of Hopi vocabulary. To do so, he employed the Deseret Alphabet – a script developed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the intent to improve English spelling – for writing the Hopi words and their English equivalents. Shelton’s manuscript of the Hopi Vocabulary lay for decades in the Church’s history archives, where it was only recently discovered by Kenneth R. Beesley.

Dirk Elzinga, associate professor of English language and linguistics, has partnered with Beesley to coauthor An 1860 English-Hopi Vocabulary Written in the Deseret Alphabet. The duo’s book aims to document Haskell and Shelton’s four months among the Hopi, detail the history of the Deseret Alphabet, describe the Hopi language and its history and present the vocabulary compiled by Shelton. Elzinga gave a preview of these topics in a Humanities Center colloquium on Thursday entitled “How do you say ‘friend’ in Hopi?”

Hopi belongs to the Uto-Aztecan language family, a group that encompasses languages spoken as far south as Nicaragua and Panama and as far north as Montana. Despite his work with Beesley, Elzinga’s expertise originally lay elsewhere. He said, “The Uto-Aztecan languages that I work on mostly are Shoshoni and Goshute, but I’ve also begun work recently on Ute, so this was a challenge for me.”

However, Elzinga still saw potential in this project for his own work. As a scholar of Uto-Aztecan language and its development, he saw the partnership as an opportunity to approach the language family afresh.

Elzinga began his presentation by explaining the history of the Deseret Alphabet. Created by George D. Watt, The Deseret Alphabet was phonetic, with characters designed to represent the distinctive sounds of the English language.

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, people started to get really interested in reforming or regularizing English spelling,” Elzinga said. “The early leaders of the Church became involved in this movement, and they believed that orthographic reform would benefit Church members.”

Elzinga provided his presentation attendants with a key to the alphabet, then invited them to decode words written in the script, words like “window,” “rabbit,” and “turkey.” Afterwards, Elzinga said, “You can see that, to a certain extent, using the Deseret Alphabet could give you a clearer picture of the sound pattern of English.”

This focus on sound made the script effective in transcribing the previously unwritten Hopi language. However, it was still unable to treat every sound equally. Many were so subtle in English that there wasn’t an exact character in Deseret, creating an issue if they were more prominent in Hopi.

Despite these challenges, Shelton’s work is full of insights for contemporary Hopi scholars. In transcribing the language the way he heard it, Shelton recorded an archaic form of the diminutive suffix, nearly identical to a form only recently proposed by modern linguists.

“He wrote it down,” Elzinga said. “So we don’t have to propose it anymore. It doesn’t have to be hypothetical anymore.” Shelton’s word list serves as further proof of other changes in the Hopi language that linguists have been wondering about for years.

Elzinga concluded with the importance of this and other texts – many of which are forgotten or undiscovered – and said, “We may ask ourselves, ‘What can we learn from looking at dusty old vocabularies?’ Well, we can tell what happens to languages as they age and as speakers leave their marks, generation after generation. And there are all kinds of vocabularies – for Hopi and other languages – that are just languishing in library archives, waiting for somebody to come along and look at them, to decipher them, to figure out what’s going on with their languages.”

For news on upcoming colloquium presentations, visit the Humanities Center website.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. English ’15)

Image provided by the Church Historical Department