Isogloss

October 20, 2006 | 16 comments
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One way to think about religious difference is with isoglosses. Any feature of how we speak–the words we use, how we pronounce them, what they mean–can differ from other people’s usage. The imaginary line that separates people who share a particular speech habit from people who don’t share it is called an isogloss. In the US, if you drew a line around all the people who say “y’all,” or rather around all the places where a majority of such people live, you would have an isogloss. Most national languages of Europe have produced encyclopedic works of linguistic geography that map out the borders between dialectal features.

Some Mormon religious practices and beliefs, both major and minor, are shared with other religions. We’re on the monotheistic side of the line, along with Jews and Muslims and other Christians. Other practices and beliefs, such as according religious authority to the Book of Mormon, are important dividing lines that separate us from nearly all other churches. Isoglosses can run through the middle of language areas, just like denominations can experience religious differences among their adherents: High Church vs. Low Church, for example, or ‘willing to ordain women pastors’ vs. ‘not willing.’ There are distinctions within Mormonism. For example, we can imagine an imaginary line separating sundown-to-lunchtime fasters from not-one-second-less-than-24-hours fasters.

Do any of these lines matter? Some of them clearly do. If you don’t share enough common features, you’re no longer speaking the same language. But in many cases, minor differences are invested with more significance than they actually have. In Indo-European studies, scholars spent a century classifying languages as belonging to either the centum- or satem-group, depending on palatalization of initial velar stops, before coming to the conclusion that the distinction was uninformative and arbitrary; there were no other features that set apart centum- or satem-languages as a group. To note another famous example, it doesn’t really cause any confusion if you say ‘shibboleth’ or ‘sibboleth,’ unless the Gileadites decide to kill you because you and the other Ephraimites can’t pronounce a palatalized initial s-.

Is “Utah Mormon” a coherent dialect? We can map out all those places that enjoy released-time seminary and other relevant “isoglosses” of religious practice, such as proximity to church leaders, monuments, and meeting houses, maybe even a peculiar view of church and state. Maybe there’s a slightly different dialect of Mormon in Hawaii. Do the differences add up to something significant?

One lesson we can learn from dialect geography is that linguistic boundaries are messy. Isoglosses of significant features do not neatly run together, no matter how similar they seem. Among German dialects, the boundary between ich and ik is one line, the boundary between machen and maken is another. It’s a mistake to think that “liberal Mormon” or “conservative Mormon” identifies any neatly delimitated groups of people or beliefs. For example, some people will support legalizing gay marriage while at the same time holding fast to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The hard part is figuring out what elements of Mormon belief and practice constitute necessary borders, and which have become shibboleths invested with meaning far beyond their actual significance.

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16 Responses to Isogloss

  1. JKC on October 20, 2006 at 9:20 am

    This is a really interesting observation. I find linguistics and religion to yield lots of apt comparisons. In either case, you’re talking about the word.

    One small nitpick, though—I was taught that an isogloss had an inherently geographical element to it. Is this true? If so, is this relevent to the mormon comparison? In other words, do these little religio-cultural idiosyncracies follow geography at all? Or are you simply comparing geography to a more abstract conception of mormondom where the culutral map doesn’t have much to do with the geographical map?

    I hope this doesn’t distract from what you were getting at, it’s just a curiosity.

  2. Matt W. on October 20, 2006 at 9:53 am

    And on the Liberal/ Conservative issue. Can anyone define a Liberal or a Conservative Mormon? Or even a Liberal or Conservative person in Politics?

    Have these terms, Liberal and Conservative lost all meaning? I mean at least with Centum and Satem groups you have something that is in common among all. Is there anything in common among all Liberals? Anything in Common among all Conservatives?

    Is Liberalism wanting any kind of change and Conservatism not wanting any kind of change? Somehow that just doesn’t seem like a correct assumption.

    As for the “Utah Mormon” idea. I was pretty shocked and surprised to here so many people I know from Utah say Singles Ward perfectly described how it was like there. When someone who was innactive from the time he was 14 on tells me Singles Ward is exactly how the church is in Utah. While there is no doubt that there is probably some examples of such things (and worse), I’ve never seen it in any of my interactions with them.

  3. Bookslinger on October 20, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    A couple friends and I have commented on the “Utah accent”. I call it more of a “cadence”. We call it the “Utah sing-song”. It gets more pronounced when someone is bearing testimony or when teaching, and it’s noticeable when missionaries from Utah are teaching missionary lessons. It sometimes gets kind of creepy when you hear the non-Utah companion of an elder from Utah start to pick it up, because then it’s a secondary or affected accent, and comes across as a bit insincere. It’s as if someone is trying to invoke the Spirit by imitating the speech pattern of someone whom they had heard speak with the Spirit, or someone they thought was speaking with the Spirit. That seems to happen among both the Utahans, and the non-Utahans.

    It is an analog to how people, both missionaries and people who move permanently out of Utah, try to propagate the Utah culture and attitudes to where they move to, giving the impression that the culture is the gospel.

    But imitating a culture doesn’t implement the gospel any more than affecting or imitating a speech pattern invokes the Spirit.

    A couple of the attributes of the Utah speech pattern seem to be repeated rising and lowering of volume or inflection, like rolling over small hills. And “downtalk”, a lowering of pitch and volume at the end of a sentence, which is the opposite of Valley-girl speak or “uptalk.” Imitators of it sometimes use inappropriate or too long pauses between sentences. Imitators of the Utah accent sometimes come across as trying too hard to sound sincere. But someone who has a genuine Utah accent or speech pattern, as they grew up with it, doesn’t come across as insincere just based on the speech pattern.

  4. Ardis on October 20, 2006 at 2:57 pm

    Interesting idea. I suppose it’s a limited but similar metaphor when we speak about somebody being on the “fringes” of Mormonism — we’re considering Mormonism as something that can be mapped, and pointing to a part that’s on the other side of some perceived line. And the debate about whether Mormons are Christians is chiefly between those who see only the line circling what we share with mainstream Christianity, and those who see only the line marking our differences.

  5. Eugene V. Debs on October 20, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    An isogloss can have psychological impact if you move outside of it. If moving from, for example, Anniston Alabama makes you are the only kid on the playground in, say, Manitowoc Wisconsin or Williamsport Pennsylvania who says “y’all,” and the other children tease you incessantly because you say “y’all,” life is not good.

    So, if we following the comparison that Jonathan makes, if you are the only man in elder’s quorum who fasts sundown to lunch or if you are the only woman in relief society who wears a professional suit to women’s conference and your brothers or sisters give you grief, you feel uncomfortable. If the deviance from the metaphorical isogloss is more serious–deeply felt political opinions about Mr. Bush’s adventures in compassionate colonialism, for example–and the static from God’s other children rises to the level of playground teasing, then life is not good.

  6. Mark Butler on October 20, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    I think if we extended the isoglosses to surfaces in a space that includes the time dimension, we would generally find far more significant bounds between one generation and the next than we do between groups of living Latter-day Saints, especially on all these secondary cultural matters, but also on matters theological and practical as well.

    For example, Correlation is an rather effective experiment in what happens when you teach a whole Church the same way, minimizing the teaching of oral and geographical heritage. That means if there is any strength or weakness in the new approach (for whatever reason) the whole Church will feel it, for both good and evil, in less than a generation, because of the side effects of such a standardized baseline.

    Now there are an enormous number of first generation members of the Church, but sometimes I feel like the rising generation has hardly heard of a large number of things that would be considered common knowledge, on the Wasatch Front at least, say thirty years ago, to say nothing of a one hundred and thirty years ago. In some ways that is good, in other ways not so much.

  7. Kevin Barney on October 20, 2006 at 4:58 pm

    I’m one of those described in your next to last sentence, Jonathan.

    (Does that make me liberal or conservative? Beats the hell out of me. All I know is that I’m within the isogloss of Mormons that is willing to drop an occasional J. Goldenish “hell” into a post for effect. Oh, and I watch football on Sundays and go to R-rated movies, too.)

  8. Matt W. on October 20, 2006 at 5:10 pm

    Does anyone actually believe we teach the whole church the same way? We may use the same material but…

  9. Mark Butler on October 20, 2006 at 6:28 pm

    No, but the diversity or substance of what is taught is effectively maintained to an enormously narrower canon than it once was. Lessons in Gospel Doctrine once often revolved around discussions of things once commonplace that are now considered “deep doctrine” or exotic gospel hobbies.

    The average sermon in the Journal of Discourses touched on more material than is in a full year of any current Gospel Doctrine manual, and discussions in some quarters were not too far removed from that into the 1970s. Now there are a handful of prominent gospel doctrines, well attested to in the scriptures, that the average member has hardly heard of.

    By the way, I think there are some excellent R-rated movies (my personal favorite is Crimson Tide, which doesn’t seem to deserve the rating anyway) – the trouble is knowing which are which.

  10. Jonathan Green on October 21, 2006 at 4:23 am

    I think it’s OK to play fast and loose with the geographical nature of an isogloss in order to deal with sociological factors, and applying the concept in a religious concept requires us to abandon a strictly geographical framework. But an isogloss is at heart a synchronic and descriptive concept. You can do interesting things with isoglosses and dialect geography in terms of diachronic language change–tune in next week, or the week after–but an isogloss can’t do all the work of analyzing change over time. The question is not what normative forms are taught, but what people actually believe and do. Changes to that require an explanation that a descriptive concept like an isogloss can’t provide by itself.

  11. Rob on October 21, 2006 at 11:01 am

    Mark, care to post something briefly on the “Lost Doctrines” you mention?

  12. Jonathan Green on October 22, 2006 at 9:06 am

    Don’t miss Mark Butler’s thoughts tying together correlation and isoglosses. I’ll have to think about it and respond next week.

  13. Mark Butler on October 22, 2006 at 11:05 am

    Thanks for the link, Jonathan. I appreciate it.

  14. Adam Greenwood on October 30, 2006 at 9:50 am

    The difference between religious ‘isoglosses’ and real isoglosses is that you’ll also have various ‘isoglosses’ about which isoglosses matter.

  15. Adam Greenwood on October 30, 2006 at 9:51 am

    In other words, I think its a mistake to see arguments about SSM, e.g., as mostly about whether this is a border that Mormonism needs to maintain in order to have some coherent definition.

  16. Jonathan Green on October 30, 2006 at 1:35 pm

    Well, Adam, now you’re really way over the line!

    I think it depends on what you mean by “mostly,” and I suspect I mostly agree with you. The Church takes stands on issues based on its principles. Like I said, isoglosses are about describing borders, not about explaining their origin. But if you want to think about the borders of Mormonism or attempt an explanation of rifts within it, you need tools to describe those differences. The question of which differences are felt to be constitutive is a separate issue.