|English Phonotypic Alphabet 1847|
|The Deseret Alphabet|
All of this is well known by historians who have an interest in the Deseret Alphabet. What is not as well known is that the Deseret Alphabet was also used to transcribe foreign languages for pedagogical use. Haskell’s companion, Marion Jackson Shelton, used the Deseret Alphabet to write out an English-Hopi vocabulary list during their time in Oraibi. There are 486 entries, and it shows some interesting things about the state of the Hopi language at the time.
For me the most interesting thing that Shelton’s Vocabulary shows us has to do with a fine phonetic distinction made in Third Mesa Hopi. Unlike the other dialects of Hopi, that of the Third Mesa has developed tone; it thus joins other world languages like Mandarin, Thai, and Hausa in using the pitch at which words are pronounced as important cues to their meaning. It’s been the source of some speculation as to how tone originated in Hopi. Using traditional linguistic reconstruction methods, Alexis Manaster-Ramer in a 1986 paper posited the existence of a set of consonants that caused the pitch of the voice to fall on the vowel just before the consonant. One of these consonants is /h/. This /h/ was eventually dropped in Third Mesa speech, leaving behind only the falling pitch as evidence that it was ever there. At least, this is Manaster-Ramer’s story.
|Hopi girl (photo by Edward Curtis)|
Many in and out of the Church have regarded the Deseret Alphabet as nothing more than a historical curiosity—something that certifies the weirdo status of those wacky 19th century Mormons. But in Shelton’s Vocabulary we see it providing part of serious documentation of an indigenous language now in decline; a 150 year old aural snapshot of a lost time.
|Contemporary view from Oraibi (photo by JaumeBG)|
[*] This post is based on a forthcoming book that I coauthored with Kenneth R. Beesley. (Beesley, Kenneth R. and Dirk Elzinga. 2015. An 1860 English-Hopi Vocabulary Written in the Deseret Alphabet, University of Utah Press.) My thanks to Jeremy Grimshaw for his careful reading and suggestions that improved this essay.
 He later transcribed (and lightly edited) his journal into standard English spelling, which was then edited and published by Juanita Brooks in 1944. That’s probably the version you’ve seen—if you’ve seen it. Haskell’s original DA journal is in Special Collections at the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU.
 This is the later, 38-letter version. The version discussed here is older, and had two additional letters: OY (boy) and YU (use).
 Manaster-Ramer, Alexis. 1986. Genesis of Hopi Tones. International Journal of American Linguistics 52.2. pp 154-60.
 When linguists don’t have written records to help illuminate earlier stages of a language, we have to resort to inferences based on evidence from contemporary language usage, often with an assist from diverging dialects. This is what Manaster-Ramer did in his 1986 paper.
 There are also many words where we might expect an /h/ but don’t get one; Shelton was a decent field linguist, but even the best of us miss stuff. The Deseret Alphabet also got in his way. It was intended to write English, after all, and Hopi is very different from English.