Literacy and orality in Mormonism

January 23, 2013 | 11 comments
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iaacogIt 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.

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

11 Responses to Literacy and orality in Mormonism

  1. Wm on January 23, 2013 at 10:12 am

    I think these are spot on, Jonathan. I’d also add that #’s 6 and 7 may lead to richer vocabulary development among English-speaking Mormons who read the scriptures regularly as children and teenagers (and perhaps, therefore, a slight edge on SAT verbal scores).

    This gets a little more difficult to suss out, but I wonder how the narrative structure of the Book of Mormon affects textual literacy.

  2. Jax on January 23, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Having moved out of Utah into the the south, I have rather enjoyed the variety of prayer formats that I hear others use. We LDS teach our kids to follow a fairly strict prayer structure and I think sometimes we think it is the “only” or “best” way to pray. I used to think so. Now after having heard many different ‘formulas’ for prayer I think I was too rigid. Prayers that don’t follow our pattern are/can be just as respectful and just as likely to be answered with the HG/miracles/guidance/etc.

    I guess my point is that just because we believe in the “only true church upon the earth” doesn’t mean that ours is the “only true way to pray”.

  3. J. Stapley on January 23, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Regarding #2, I think the Catholics probably have us beat.

    But I generally agree. I also think things like General Conference have a huge influence on cadence, tonality, and composition.

  4. Ben S. on January 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    Interesting observations, Jonathan. I agree .

  5. Raymond Takashi Swenson on January 23, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    The kinship between the Book of Mormon and the KJV is a reason to maintain our familiarity with the latter, even as we use other translations to enhance understanding. As Royal Skousen has noted, the composer of the English translation of the Book of Mormon was apparently someone who was a contemporary of the early translators of the Bible into English. To the extent they share common language, especially with Isaiah and Matthew, our ability to speak the cadences of the one transfers into our ability to read the other. The closeness of the parallel passages makes it easier to see the variations that show up in Nephi and Mormon’s accounts. Since Jospeh Smith did not use a Bible when dictating those parallel texts, the mystery of the closeness of the quotations is another of the small miracles that witness of the divine power acting in the work of translation.

  6. jennifer reuben on January 23, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    makes sense now what explains the high pitches voice and fake smile of some many LDS Utah women.

  7. Chad too on January 23, 2013 at 11:18 pm

    One word: moisture.

  8. Abu_Casey on January 24, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    Don’t forget the deep and weird effect on language that the scriptures (points 5-7), the missionary lessons, and Preach My Gospel have on missionary language. As a Ward Mission Leader, I was surprised at how few missionaries could speak what I recognize as “good” English. At least some of this was because the missionaries thought that “partake” and “unto” were words that people actually used.

  9. Jonathan Green on January 25, 2013 at 10:50 am

    Thanks for all the comments. Abu Casey, I really should have included something about missions, which have all kinds of linguistic effects on Mormons of all kinds.

  10. Brad Kramer on January 25, 2013 at 11:24 am

    I’m halfway through writing a dissertation on #3.

  11. Steve Smith on January 25, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    I’ve noticed that Mormons have distinct and unique terminology when they talk about matters philosophical or religious. A number of phrases are commonly used in Mormon parlance but may not be well understood by those unfamiliar with Mormonism. Here are a few examples:

    “Having the priesthood in the home” instead of having a father or male older than 18 who is an active participant in church functions and observant of the church’s prescribed code of conduct;
    “Being born in the covenant” instead of born to parents who have both been baptized and engaged in all the temple ceremonies and continue to be active participants in the church institution;
    “Having or losing a testimony” instead of believing or not believing the fundamental doctrines of the LDS church;
    “The world” instead of people who are not LDS and who engage in conduct that the LDS church frowns on;
    “The mission field” instead of the geographic area outside the mountain west where Mormons aren’t as prevalent.

    Also another curious thing that I find about Mormons is that while many are indeed acquainted with the Bible, they don’t tend to be as familiar with its stories and literary style as they do with those of the Book of Mormon. Mormons appear to be by and large far more comfortable talking about Nephi, Laman, and Lemuel than Peter and Paul.