Dirk Elzinga’s Research on Hopi Language and the Deseret Alphabet

In an effort to enact orthography reform during the nineteenth century, Brigham Young sought to implement a new phonetic alphabet for learning. Ultimately deciding, through the recommendation of Willard Richards, to separate from using any traditional characters in the new phonetic alphabet, Young allowed George D. Watt to create the Deseret Alphabet. This information is widely known by those who study the Deseret Alphabet, but Dirk Elzinga has brought out a fact about the Deseret Alphabet that is less known: it was used as a learning tool to transcribe foreign languages. This tool was utilized by Marion Jackson Shelton, who was serving as a missionary with Thales Haskell in a Third Mesa Hopi village starting in 1859, to create a dictionary transcribing the Hopi language into the Deseret Alphabet. Shelton made 486 entries. As Elzinga studied these entries, he noticed some interesting things about the Third Mesa Hopi language, particularly the presence of a developed tone in the language comparable to tones in languages such as Mandarin, Thai, and Hausa. These languages all rely on pitch to aid in understanding speech. Elzinga is able to study this language because of Shelton’s record of it in the Deseret Alphabet. This is significant because many historians have dismissed the Deseret Alphabet as an idiosyncratic historical artifact; however, Shelton’s use of the Deseret Alphabet has provided Elzinga a window by which to study and capture an indigenous language that is disappearing. To read more about Elzinga’s research, check out his recently published, co-authored book, An 1860 English-Hopi Vocabulary Written in the Deseret Alphabet, written with Kenneth Beesley.

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