Monday, November 24, 2014

Hopi and the Deseret Alphabet*

In the fall of 1859, Jacob Hamblin and six other men left their homes in what is now southwestern Utah and traveled to the Hopi villages on the southern tips of Black Mesa. The purpose of the trip was to establish good relations with the Hopis and learn their language with an eye to translating the Book of Mormon and bringing the Hopis into the fold of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the “Mormons”). Two of the men, Thales Haskell and Marion Jackson Shelton, ended up in Oraibi, a village on what is called the Third Mesa. They would spend a total of four months there, living and working with the Hopis.

English Phonotypic Alphabet 1847
We know about their time in Oraibi because Thales Haskell kept a journal. It’s pretty interesting reading, provided you can read the Deseret Alphabet.[1] The Deseret Alphabet was all the rage at the time. Or at least spelling reform was. Sir Isaac Pitman (of shorthand fame) developed several versions of a “Phonetic Alphabet” with the goal of reforming English spelling. The Pitman orthographies were based on the traditional Roman alphabet, with modified characters added to fill out the range of symbols needed to adequately represent English sound structure.

The Deseret Alphabet
Brigham Young and other Church leaders thought that orthography reform would be a good idea for the Church as well. In fact, they were on the verge of adopting a Pitmanesque Phonetic Alphabet when Willard Richards called a halt to it, declaring it to be “new wine in old bottles.” His objection was that using traditional characters (however modified) would be confusing, and what was needed was a clean break; nothing less than a brand new set of symbols would do. George D. Watt took up the challenge and produced 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[3] 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.[4]

Hopi girl (photo by Edward Curtis)
In Shelton’s Vocabulary, we clearly see many entries with the syllable final /h/ that have since disappeared.[5] Two entries in particular are especially important—the entries for ‘little boy’ and ‘little girl’. In modern Third Mesa Hopi, these words are tiyòoya and manàwya, respectively (the grave accents show the falling tone). In Second Mesa Hopi, they are tiyohoya and manahoya. From these examples and others like them, we can reconstruct a diminutive suffix *-hwya for a pre-modern version of Hopi, which through various sound changes gives us the range of variation we see in the modern language (-hoya ~ -wya ~ -ya).

In the Vocabulary, ‘little boy’ and ‘little girl’ are given as <ti.o.hwi.yʌ> and <mɑ.nɑ.hwi.yʌ>. The diminutive ending is clearly <-hwiyʌ>, which is as good a match as you can hope for to the hypothetical *-hwya. And that’s what makes my toes tingle. The hypothetical reconstructed form isn’t hypothetical anymore: it’s right there in the Vocabulary where we can read it. And it clearly has an /h/, so Manaster-Ramer’s story about the origin of Third Mesa Hopi falling tone isn’t just a convenience to explain a divergent dialect: it’s rooted in fact. And we know about it now because Shelton wrote it down, and he used the Deseret Alphabet to do it.

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.

[1] 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.

[2] This is the later, 38-letter version. The version discussed here is older, and had two additional letters: OY (boy) and YU (use).

[3] Manaster-Ramer, Alexis. 1986. Genesis of Hopi Tones. International Journal of American Linguistics 52.2. pp 154-60.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.


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  2. super cool. This helped me on a report that I was writing on the importance of the deseret language