Linguistics, the study of language’s inner workings, is a source for concepts and technical vocabulary that are also useful for thinking about religion, because language and religion are both, among other things, mental constructs for making sense of the world around us. Each provides categories with which to organize the way we think about life: singulars and plurals, nouns and verbs, sinners and the saved. Upcoming posts will address particular aspects of language and belief, but for now I would merely like to point out some similarities.
Neither language nor religion is a system of rigorous logic. The next time an analytic logician tries to tell you that a double negative is actually a positive, tell him he ain’t got no friends. Tell him again if you have to; he’ll get the point eventually. Languages and religions are not logical, but they are both coherent systems with their own inner logic. A language’s fundamental mechanisms will be articulated in various ways throughout a language, like the ablaut gradations that gave rise to the principal parts of English irregular verbs (sing–sang–sung) but also to nominal derivations (song). The basic structures of belief reappear again and again in our religion, like the process of read-ponder-pray in the First Vision, in songs for children, and in our proselytizing.
Belief systems and languages can change over time. Change does not lead to collapse, although deleting an element of faith creates pressures and tensions that cause realignments in the rest of the system. Abandoning the practice of polygamy in the years following 1890 may have created a conceptual gap that was filled by the renewed importance of the Word of Wisdom in the early 20th century, for example. The reanalysis of the plosive consonantal system between pre- and proto-Germanic is probably the paradigmatic example for how changes to one part of a system can cause the restructuring of the system as a whole. (In brief: the three original categories unvoiced/voiced/voiced aspirate turned into a system with the three categories voiceless fricative/voiceless stop/voiced stop such that /t d dh/, for example, become /th t d/, thus Latin pater with unshifted consonants corresponds to English father.)
Languages and religions have different degrees of complexity on different levels, but similar degrees of overall complexity. English has no need of most declensional morphology, but its idiomatic verbal system is extremely complex. Mormons have nearly nothing to say about demonology but relatively quite a bit to say about prophets and their functions. The loss of complexity at one level usually causes an increase somewhere else in order to preserve the ability to make fine distinctions.
No two people speak exactly alike, and no two Mormons are exactly alike in their understanding of their religion. But speech and belief communities both exhibit widespread agreement about the most important things. When Mormons talk about their faith, I understand them like one native speaker understands another. For some other religions I can translate their experience into my own idiom. For others, I can read the words, but I don’t know what they mean.
I imagine that the originality of these observations does not extend beyond the walls of my own home. Who has already compared religious studies to linguistics? What other comparisons between language and belief can you think of? At what point do these comparisons fail?