Orthoglossy

January 8, 2007 | 11 comments
By

The people of Zion were of one heart and one mind and dwelt in righteousness. Our goal is to be like them. Are we? It’s hard to be sure, since we can’t easily know what’s in another person’s heart. Without a formal creed and with considerable tolerance for varying belief, we’re scarcely able to define orthodoxy outside of a few core principles. If pressed, we’d probably say that a specific creedal conformity is less important than a more nebulous being of one heart with one another, and in any case righteous actions are more important than stating allegiance to an itemized creed. But are we all of one mind about what constitutes orthopraxy? Again, it’s hard to be certain. The range of each others’ actions that we’re able to observe is largely limited to the liturgical and to other things people do at church meetings when they’re dressed in their Sunday best. With such a limited range of observable acts, our categories for classifying a community member’s actions are impoverished, largely confined to noting presence or absence. So, is your ward approaching Zion? Which members are, and which need an extra dose of encouragement? If we can’t base our judgment on belief or behavior, then the next best proxy is observing whether we share a common language. In practice, the community norms of the imperfect Zions we live in are often defined not by orthodoxy or orthopraxy, but by orthoglossy.

Orthoglossy combines a Greek root for ‘right’ or ‘correct,’ in parallel to orthodoxy and orthopraxy, with a Greek root for ‘tongue’ or ‘speech.’ For an invented word, I like the associations it suggests both with plodding observance and with charismatic gifts, including the rare and rarely welcome glossolalia and the much more commonly sought and received gift of xenoglossia. In a community where speech often has to stand in for belief and behavior, speaking in an exclusive unknown tongue seems hardly an appropriate manifestation of divine influence. Miraculous knowledge of a foreign tongue, allowing us to overcome the limits of human language in order to achieve spiritual community with each other, is much more what we’re about. Even when we all speak the same native language, sometimes we need the gift of orthoglossy to communicate with people who are, outside of church, very different from us.

The community features of Mormon language are rooted in our lexicon, our vocabulary. The lexicon is the most unsystematic and arbitrary element of any language. Grammar has patterns and rules, but large swathes of the lexicon have to be acquired one word at a time. Think of prepositions, for example, the little words like “to” and “with.” How do you know that you fight ‘with’ someone else, and not ‘to’ or ‘at’ someone else? There is no predictive rule; you have to acquire each combination (fight + with, wait + for) on a case-by-case basis. Consequently, lexical elements often reveal to what extent someone belongs to a speech community. On the other hand, minor lexical errors don’t usually hinder communication. If one of my kids tells me that his sister fought ‘at’ him, I’ll understand what he means.

In the Mormon lexicon, there are few unique words, but many examples of words that have a specific meaning in a Mormon context (bishop, ward, stake, seminary, etc.). I would guess that the essential component of the Mormon vernacular, however, is comprised of clear preferences for using some words and not others. Mormon youth do not fornicate, for example. They have problems with the law of chastity. (And no, we’re not the first people in the world to refer to sex with euphemisms.) Our churches house chapels, not sanctuaries. The semantic difference is inconsequential, but the pragmatic function is quite clear: it tells us quickly and accurately if a partner in conversation is part of the community or not. Which are you more likely to take seriously: advice on how pastors can decrease fornication among their adolescent parishioners, or advice on how bishops can help the youth follow the law of chastity? One formulation suggests that the author understands the particular nature of a Mormon congregation, while the other does not.

In the Mormon manner of speech, vulgarities are strongly deprecated. Simply put, Mormons don’t say ####, ####, ####, or any of their more specialized relatives or derivatives. It’s become a linguistic sign of identification, the speech equivalent of avoiding tobacco and alcohol. As such, a quick #### every now and then in conversation is a handy way for recent converts to signal their skepticism about cultural integration, for longstanding members to proclaim their freedom from convention, and for disaffected members to demonstrate their disassociation from their upbringing. For the last two cases, the results rarely turn out well. Cursing is uniquely emotive language that requires real mastery to be effective, and if the input of vulgarities was impoverished in your youth, you won’t make it up in adulthood. Just like a foreigner swearing in English usually provokes laughter, there are few things more pathetic than a Mormon boy trying to prove that he has arrived in the big city by sprinkling his paragraphs with #### and ####. (However, I did once observe an adult convert instantly gain the attention of an LDS Scout troop, who until that moment had been engaged in the pyromanic disposal of aerosol cans in a campfire just five miles down the trail from the still-smoldering remains of a high country forest fire, with a well timed “What the #### do you think you’re doing?!”)

In Internet communication, orthoglossy is probably an even more important factor than in real life. When dealing with anonymous conversation partners, in a forum where identity is unknowable and words are everything, we parse every word for clues to community allegiance, sometimes more closely than words can withstand. But there really are trolls under some of the bridges. Luckily, faking insider status and allegiance to a foreign community is usually quite difficult. One of the hardest things to hide on the Internet is your agenda.

Using community speech practices as a proxy for behavior and belief is liable to hypocritical deception, of course. (Orthoglossy also makes possible two interesting types of text, one violating community speech norms while making statements that are entirely conventional or banal, the other using innocuous insider language to express something radical, even heretical.) A more common problem is pushing community speech patterns well beyond the bounds of good taste. It’s worth asking yourself, before you next speak in sacrament meeting, if a reasonably educated non-member would have the foggiest clue what you were talking about. D&C has an entirely different meaning to the rest of the country, for example. Go easy on the testimony voice. Like aftershave, a hint here and there is all it takes.

One consequence of orthoglossy is that missionary discussions are to a considerable extent vocabulary lessons. Many of the concepts are familiar, but the words Mormons use to describe those concepts are often not the usual ones. In language pedagogy, there are no shortcuts for learning vocabulary. My students often ask for suggestions, but the lexicon would not be the lexicon if it were easy to acquire long lists of idiosyncratic elements. There are limits on the human capacity to learn new words in a classroom setting, usually no more than a few hundred words per semester. I can offer only a few guides for learning vocabulary. One is that students will retain vocabulary better if the words have emotional associations (how did you feel when you read about the First Vision? how do you think Joseph Smith felt?). Students will also more easily learn words if they can locate them in some kind of geographic space (what is the office of a bishop, and where is the bishop’s office?). And I tell my students, as early as the first semester, to start preparing to go abroad, because the most effective way to learn a new language is by immersion.

Tags: ,

11 Responses to Orthoglossy

  1. KyleM on January 8, 2007 at 1:44 am

    Choice.

  2. Wilfried on January 8, 2007 at 6:49 am

    Great post, Jonathan.

    And next we move to interlingual orthoglossy. Take “latter-day” into other languages. That’s not “last days”, for latter is not last and day is not plural and latter-day has a hyphen. The way it’s used in the name of our church, it has an adjectival value — “latter-day saints”. Saints of the latter-day or of the latter days? OK, and now we move to all those other languages in which it is impossible to translate the adjectival “latter-day” litterally. Derniers jours. Laatste Dagen. Ultimi giorni. Where do we end up? In heteroglossy?

  3. Russell Arben Fox on January 8, 2007 at 8:57 am

    This a fascinating post, Jonathan, filled with all sorts of interesting and insightful observations. But I’m bothered by it, and I think it’s because of your use of “Zion” in the beginning. The common understanding of the concept of Zion in the church involves both descriptive and normative markers: a Zion society is one of righteousness, with the characteristic of being of “one heart and one mind” being a precondition of the former. Hence, by associating the search for Zion within our wards and stakes with orthoglossy, you seem–to me at least–to be suggesting that orthogrlassic (another invented word?) metrics are a good way of discerning how loving we are to each other, how much we are doing to lift up the poor, how devoted we are to equality and morality, etc. Is that, in fact, the case?

    I’ll allow that there might be some truth to such an analysis; good communitarian that I am, I accept that a loving and just society is going to have to be characterized by a certain degree of moral and sociological cohesion, even homogeneity, and so perhaps in our case, orthoglossy is one way of knowing how much the members of a ward or stake are “on board” with the collective goals of the gospel and church. Maybe it’s kind of like Elder Packer’s “unwritten rules of the church.” Still, I’m doubtful that you can really milk that much normative potential out of linguistic descriptions. It seems to me more likely that what you’ve brought up here is another way in which linguistics can shed light upon the internal dynamics of the church, as opposed to its progress.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on January 8, 2007 at 9:04 am

    “As such, a quick #### every now and then in conversation is a handy way for recent converts to signal their skepticism about cultural integration, for longstanding members to proclaim their freedom from convention, and for disaffected members to demonstrate their disassociation from their upbringing.”

    Of course, similar sorts of things can occasionally be accomplished–by men at least–by strategic choices regarding beard-shaving, tie-wearing, etc. But I really do think you’re absolutely correct here about the power of swearing. I can remember sitting in Gene England’s office as an impressionable freshman, talking about one thing or another, and he casually (or was it casual?) said “damn” as part of a sentence. It completely flipped my whole perspective on him and the distinct Mormon intellectual world he was part of. Makes you wonder if J. Golden Kimball wasn’t so much a rough-edged nonconformist as he was a man with an agenda…

  5. Jonathan Green on January 8, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Russell, I agree that Zion is about what people do, not what people say. Unfortunately, most of us are terrible judges of righteousness in others, while at the same time we’re constantly looking for clues about community belonging and allegiance. Human nature (a sorry replacement for the kind of righteous discernment that would rule in a perfect Zion) impels us to look to language patterns, which is something we’re very good at judging. You’re correct that I’m only trying to describe internal dynamics here. I suspect that a real Zion would include people who speak in very different ways, and that is a good thing. On the other hand, as much as people like to complain about pro-forma testimony bearing, those stereotyped formulas serve an important function in that they show that the speaker has mastered community speech norms and is reaffirming allegiance to the community. That’s important, even if the testimony bearer doesn’t have a new way to say that the Book of Mormon is pretty neat stuff.

  6. manaen on January 8, 2007 at 5:52 pm

    The people of Zion were of one heart and one mind and dwelt in righteousness. Our goal is to be like them. Are we? It’s hard to be sure, since we can’t easily know what’s in another person’s heart.

    But it’s not just oneness of heart we’re to seek but that oneness to which Christ referred in his intercessory prayer in John 17 which is based upon righteousness and love. We all have the same target and helping each reach that target not only develops the oneness we’re to have but largely is the target.

    Without a formal creed and with considerable tolerance for varying belief, we’re scarcely able to define orthodoxy outside of a few core principles. If pressed, we’d probably say that a specific creedal conformity is less important than a more nebulous being of one heart with one another, and in any case righteous actions are more important than stating allegiance to an itemized creed.

    Maybe the Church’s doctrine seems unfocused because in this life, we are not to focus upon doctrine so much as upon changing our nature to become what God wants us to be.

  7. KyleM on January 8, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Jonathan,

    Those of us who live in \”the mission field\” share a common church lexicon with the Saints in Utah, but don\’t share some of the cultural vocabulary. Are you referring more to the Sunday School speak, or every day life. I was raised in the church, but never heard fake swearing until I went on my mission. Allot of the cultural words and ideas, I\’d never heard of until the blogs started popping up.

    Further, even church vocabulary can change by location. In Australia, what we call splits in Washington are called “trade-offs.” I recall there being other small differences, but I can’t remember what they were. You can also say damn and hell in sacrament meeting there, and no one will bat an eye. Should the saints in Australia avoid saying damn and hell, or does that prove that Zionism requires a literal gathering to truly become Zion?

    How much of the language is shaped by membership in the church, and how much by living in a socially conservative, homogenous environment?

  8. DavidH on January 8, 2007 at 6:56 pm

    “You can also say damn and hell in sacrament meeting there, and no one will bat an eye.”

    Brother Brigham would feel right at home (and so would I).

  9. smb on January 9, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    How would you compare your system of orthoglossy with the standard Christian treatment of the shibboleth? This post seems to be a relatively thorough but not particularly innovative application of social linguistic (or sociolinguistic) theory to the Mormon culture group. What about the Mormon application do you think of as distinctive?

    Are you proposing a Zion-based revision to the Sapir-Worf hypothesis, that language can determine or mediate our spiritual relationships?

    I personally don’t think Joseph Smith ncessarily had in mind the kind of orthotics (pardon the misused term) you describe. As best I can tell, he saw Zion as a large family, and what mattered above all was the sense of commitment to others in the society as family members rather than perfect uniformity of behavior.

  10. JKC on January 10, 2007 at 4:55 pm

    This is only marginally related to Jonathan’s post, but since Russel brought it up…

    I’ve come to see the descriptions of Enoch’s Zion as outlines of a process rather than just three (or four) disjointed adjectives. That is, “they were of one heart and one mind” leads to “and dwelt in righteousness and there were no poor among them.” Emotional and intellectual (one might say spiritual) unity leads to “righteousness” and physical unity. I also find it interesting that the scripture places unity of heart before unity of mind. I find that encouraging because there are some people in the church that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to agree with intellectually, but that I can at least begin the process with by fostering a more emotional sense of one-ness with them despite the fact that we are not yet “of one mind.”

  11. Ariel on January 12, 2007 at 1:26 am

    It took me *Forever* to learn the vocabulary when I (a born and raised mormon) started attending a protestant church with a friend. She said “we’re meeting in the sanctuary” and I blinked a couple of times. She had no idea why I was confused.

    When you throw words like “grace” and “works” and “salvation” and “revelation” that aren’t so easily defined into the picture… she would say something (“we don’t believe in modern revelation”) and I would think she meant something entirely different (“we don’t believe that the Spirit talks to anyone these days.”) I would respond to what I thought she said, and she would think I hadn’t been listening. (She meant “we don’t believe in prophets or that anyone has authority to receive revelation for the whole church.”) It took a couple of years for us to straighten it all out.