It would be surprising, and disappointing, if Mormons didn’t sound a bit odd when we speak, or if Mormon verbal art were indistinguishable from any other literary text. The regular activities of Mormon life involve several unusual kinds of speech and literacy, none of them entirely unique, but which add up to a distinctive foundation of written and verbal speech when taken together. Compared to the language acts of most Americans, the following are relatively unusual.
- Regular practice in oral-formulaic composition. I don’t know if Beowulf or the Iliad were composed spontaneously by someone practiced in improvisation on the basis of established formulas, but the person who just offered the benediction in Sunday School or a blessing on the food before a meal certainly is. A well-formed Mormon prayer has to meet several criteria, which it can do most easily by repeating one of several common formulas, but it must also be spoken aloud in the process of extemporaneous formulation. The monthly testimony meeting, which replaces prepared sermons with unprepared expressions of faith, provides another opportunity for oral composition with somewhat broader and more flexible criteria.
- Weekly engagement with ritual language. Sacramental prayers have to be spoken exactly as written in order to be acceptable. There are very few other things like this in American life, and the exceptions tend to be one-time rather than weekly events. You can mumble your way through the Pledge of Allegiance, but not through the blessing on the bread or water.
- Taboo language. The aura of sacredness surrounding temple worship leads Mormons to avoid using phrases that are too reminiscent of temple ritual. This is not a prescriptive statement about what Mormons should do, but rather a descriptive statement about what we actually do. Gesturing towards temple language is a rhetorical flourish that can add particular emphasis to a sermon, but there is substantial risk of crossing the boundary into poor taste and even sacrilege.
- Talks and lessons. From the age of 3 on, Mormon children have opportunities to give speeches or presentations to groups both small and large. We don’t all become talk show hosts, but that experience adds up over time.
- Intensive reading. “Intensive reading” isn’t about how intensely one reads, but is rather a technical term for repeated, concentrated study of one or a few texts, as opposed to “extensive reading,” the comparatively rapid and one-time reading of many books. Mormons do that too, but intensive reading as a way of approaching texts has largely disappeared outside of the religious sphere.
- Intensive reading of the Book of Mormon. What makes Mormon literacy even more unusual is that the most common object of our intensive reading, the Book of Mormon, is peculiar to Mormonism. In Sunday worship and in regular scripture study, we reinforce our familiarity with phrases and narratives that are unfamiliar to nearly everyone else.
- Continued use of the KJV. Mormons do study the Bible intensely, but when we do so, we most often use the King James Version. At one time that made us similar to American Protestants, but now our use of the KJV preserves familiarity with language that has become antiquated. Even if you don’t think using “thee” or “thou” in prayer makes sense, it can slip out in writing poetry because that is the religious language you have heard your whole life.
There are probably more ways in which Mormons do unusual things with their reading, writing, listening, and speaking, but this list is a reasonable place to start looking for distinctive orality and literacy. A Mormon literature that was organic rather than imitative would reflect that distinctiveness.