The End of English

The demographics of Church growth suggest that our days as a lilly-white, Moutain-West denomination are limited, if they are not in fact already finished.

The majority of Latter-day Saints who are “on the books” now live outside of the United States. I am not sure what the numbers look like if you look at things like church attendence and self-identification as Mormon. I suspect that we are not yet as international as we tell ourselves that we are, although I could be wrong on this. Regardlesss of the current situation, however, it seems clear to me that the future of growth for Mormonism is firmly outside of the United States.

Generally speaking, Mormons think about this shift in terms of race or in terms of money. The basic point is that the median Mormon is getting browner and poorer as the years go on. We think of this less often, however, in linguistic terms. Most LDS are aware, I think, of the massive translation efforts of the Church. Indeed, I think that much of the simplification of Church curriculum has as much to do with the costs of translation as of anything else. For example, the new Teachings of the Prophets lesson manuals, which get translated, seem to serve a dual purpose. First, they provide instructional material. Second, the provide a reference for non-English speaking Latter-day Saints who otherwise would not have access to the words of Brigham Young or Heber J. Grant.

The focus on translation, however, carries with it the implicit (and not so implicit) assumption that the primary language of the Church is English. Demographically, however, I wonder how much longer this will be the case. For example, how long will it be before the single largest linguistic group within the Church is Spanish speakers? And when this happens, what — if anything — will happen to the Church. Will we begin to see Spanish sermons in General Conference, with English translations provided for English speakers?

The last two stake conferences that I attended (in two different stakes in two different U.S. states) both included talks delivered in Spanish, with English translation provided. In my last ward, our first counselor was called, at least in part, because he was a Mexican immigrant who was completely bilingual. I couldn’t help but think as I sat in these meetings that I was seeing the future of Mormonism. I certainly want my son to study Spanish once he begins schools. Perhaps it will be an important skill for reading the words of the prophets in the original.

54 comments for “The End of English

  1. Amira
    December 2, 2004 at 3:03 pm

    I think the linguistic point of view is very interesting. I hope that the day the GC talks are given in Spanish comes soon. Or is it really more practical to have the entire thing in one language? I hope not. Are there any GA’s whose native langauge is not English that don’t speak English well enough to give a talk in Conference? Are articles from the foreign langauge Church magazines only translations of English talks and writing? Does the Ensign ever publish articles not origianlly written in English? I think we have a very long way to go linguistically to become an international Church. As long as the Church is based in SL, I think English will remain the “official” langauge, but Spanish clearly is the language that is most likely to become somewhat official.

    I think the number of RMs who speak foreign languages give the impression that the Church is quite international. However, missionaries come home with nothing like native ability.

    I have seen statistics, but no real references to the numbers, that say that the BOM has been translated into the native langauge of 92 percent of the world’s people. I think this is an overestimation, if you are focussing solely on native languages, which we should. Every member or investigator should be able to read the BOM in his native language. But according to what I’ve been able to find, we still have a long way to go. There are an estimated 6000 languages in the world, and we’ve only translated the BOM into about 100. My husband and I have given the BOM to people in their second language, because it’s not in their first.

    There are about 20 major languages (well over 10 million speakers each) that have no Church materials translated. There are about another 20 with 5-10 million, depending on if you think individual dialects are intelligible. Will it ever be possible that the BOM is translated into each person’s first language? Is it possible that langauge death, which is decried in linguistic circles, could actually help the Church in spreading the gospel?

  2. Jim Richins
    December 2, 2004 at 3:19 pm

    FYI, the recent WorldWide Leadership Training broadcasts included portions done entirely in Spanish.

  3. Wilfried
    December 2, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    Interesting point, Nate. There are various issues related to this question. First, Church demographics are pretty uncertain. What is the ratio of languages used in the Church as it pertains to active members? This raises the problem of how we count. Mormon activity ratio’s are higher in the U.S. than elsewhere. Moreover, many converts, also abroad, know English — often it was a major factor in their conversion process.

    Second, the language of the majority of members does not dictate the language from the top. Look at the Catholic Church and their central use of Latin for centuries, while only a very small fraction of the members still spoke it since the middle ages. A central language at the top and from the top gives unity.

    Third, the ingrained superiority of English, tied to sciento-socio-economic factors, will most probably also continue in the Church. It was Harold B. Lee who once said to a large European conference of Latter-day Saints that it would be so much easier for the Church if all the members would learn English. It was a strange (and for some shocking) declaration. But, obedient, for months after that the European Saints set up English classes… Even as a non-English native, I can see wisdom in Pres. Lee’s remark. Simply look at the wealth of Mormon material in English.

    Of course, this does not mean that our efforts to translate should diminish. There are still thousands of Mormons, and their numbers will increase, who will need translated material.

  4. a random John
    December 2, 2004 at 4:02 pm

    This is probably off-topic, but the thought of the Teaching of the Prophets books as reference materials makes me shudder.

  5. December 2, 2004 at 4:04 pm

    Just to second Wilfried, I think more and more people will at a minimum become bilingual with English. English is the language of science and the language of trade. As nations become more “modernized” English as a necessary skill will increase. I think this will affect how the church develops over the next 100 years.

  6. December 2, 2004 at 4:04 pm

    They are, I admitt, not ideal. On the other hand, how much material on Heber J. Grant can you find published in say Vietnamese. Even if the manuals are not good as historical reference works, they do at least allow non-English speaking members to hear something in the original voice of these men. I think that there is real value in that…

  7. Ben Huff
    December 2, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    a random John, of course the Teachings of the Prophets books are not the ultimate reference works, but what it would be like to be a member of the church who could not read *any* of the words of modern prophets not named Joseph? What an exciting thing to have a whole book full of excerpts from Brigham Young, in your language! Was there any such thing before this series? And who on Earth is going to translate the Journal of Discourses into Urdu?

    As a missionary in Japan, I had a companion who told me repeatedly how much he wished “secondary” books would be translated into Japanese! Of course, many Japanese are already moving in the direction Wilfried mentions, learning English so they will have full access to the conversation.

    Wow, I am torn by Wilfried’s question. Of course, I gather there are whole countries in Europe and to a lesser extent in Asia where it is pretty routine to learn English so as to have access to international conversations, particularly scholarly conversations. This trend is likely to increase before it decreases, and certain kinds of conversation pretty much require a lingua franca. But we are not a church of scholars. We have a lay clergy. Even if all general authorities will have to be functional in English, I can hardly wait until we have General Conference talks delivered in languages other than English.

  8. December 2, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    One thing that came up on the Eyring-L mailing list was the fact that in many countries, the texts that are translated often give a fairly biased view of what is or isn’t “mainstream” theology. i.e. there may be a divide theologically simply because the texts translated are biased towards McConkie and JFS and not texts like the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. With regards to geology and evolution that may make it seem like theology closer to the most fundamentalist literalists Evangelicals is in fact the official LDS position, rather than its actual position of neutrality.

  9. quinn
    December 2, 2004 at 5:17 pm

    end of english? hardly. sure spanish is quite the “mode” right now, but think about it, there are several african nations, where the church is new, that are french or portuguese speaking. its just something that is going on right now. soon, when the gospel is preached in china, perhaps people will be saying “chinese” is going to be the new language of the church. to me it seems like we have chosen our latin, and its the english language.

  10. Wilfried
    December 2, 2004 at 5:23 pm

    Ben: “Who on Earth is going to translate the Journal of Discourses into Urdu?”

    On the other hand, automated translation has been making lots of progress and is already available for many languages on the web. As to Urdu: “SYSTRAN started the design and the development of Arabic, Farsi and Urdu to English machine translation systems in July 2002.”

    As a linguist I am impressed how much the systems have improved over the past few years. Of course, for specific terms, you’re still in for surprises. Try “Latter-day Saints”…

  11. a random John
    December 2, 2004 at 5:28 pm


    I am concerned that because of the perception that the lesson manuals fulfill the need for reference materials that actual reference materials will not be translated as often now as they were in the past. Perhaps this is not the case and source materials continue to be translated into a variety of languages.

    It does seem to me that the manuals could fulfill this need in a more legitimate way if they contained complete talks instead of heavily editted snippets. The might even be better manuals that way as well. It certainly seems like it would be pretty easy to make them fulfill more of a dual role.

  12. December 2, 2004 at 5:30 pm

    I absolutely agree with you that the manuals would be better if they contained complete sermons rather than edited snippets. This, in general, is my objection to virtually every “Teachings of the Prophet ___” book published in Mormondom. It drives me nuts!!

  13. Bryce I
    December 2, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    English will always have a privileged status in the LDS church as the language of first translation of the Book of Mormon and the original language of the Doctrine and Covenants.

    As the Church continues to grow internationally, we will see more and more General Authorities called from lands where English is not the primary language. The nature of Church governance requires that the General Authorities be able to communicate with each other in one language. Given that English has emerged as the common language for most international discourse, it seems unlikely that English will be replaced as the common language for official Church communication.

    This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expect to see talks in conference given in languages other than English at some point. I wish this would happen. Having heard Elder Kikuchi speak in both English and Japanese, I would say that he is a much more powerful speaker in his native language. Also, having had some limited experience as an MTC translator, I can say that there are plenty of elements of talks that simply do not translate very well (mostly due to cultural factors, but things like President Monson’s predilection for alliteration and wordplay as organizing principles for his talks don’t come across very well either).

  14. Kaimi
    December 2, 2004 at 5:38 pm


    If they had entire sermons, they would never make it past correlation . . .

  15. December 2, 2004 at 5:46 pm

    Kaimi: Not so. Jack Welch once did a content analysis of BY’s published sermons (JD and Deseret News), what he founds was that the wonderful wierdness that makes BY so dang lovable — Adam-God, polygamy, etc. — actually constitute a fairly small percentage of his sermons. As I recall there were more sermons on farming than Adam-God…

    Besides, you could still redact sermons. I just want chunks of text that deal in ideas that are larger than two or three paragraphs. The John Taylor manual was actually better on this front, since several of the chapters in that book basically were single redacted sermons.

  16. Joel D.
    December 2, 2004 at 5:59 pm

    Having read some of those Brigham Young sermons, I’m not sure you really get that much more out of having a complete sermon. For the most part, BY’s sermons were all over the place and he didn’t feel constrained to stick to a topic and develop it much. I think your beef is probably much more that that content that was edited out was the snippet you would have liked to see included.

  17. a random John
    December 2, 2004 at 6:00 pm


    If we are editing the semons so much as to change their meaning in order to pass correlation then what is the point of studying these sermons at all? I can take any sufficiently long talk and edit it so that the meaning lines up nicely with current understanding of the doctrine. How does that give the reader any insight into the original speaker? We mighta as well just read recent conference talks that quote the particular president of the church that is being studied this year. How are saints in other lands going to gain an understanding of how the church has changed over time? What are the odds of having an apostle from Vietnam that has never learned English if none of the more serious works are available in his native language? Ok, now I’m just spewing…

  18. December 2, 2004 at 6:03 pm

    John, why do you assume that the point is to give insight into the original speaker? Isn’t the point to get at what the speaker was speaking about?

    Not to restate the off said, but the manuals are not histories and church lessons should be about the gospel and not history.

  19. December 2, 2004 at 6:04 pm

    Perhaps the future is now…at least in part? Elder Pratt gave his October PH session address in Spanish…at least to those listening in Spanish. They played his pre-taped Spanish address for the Spanish channel while he gave a live English version.

  20. Mark N.
    December 2, 2004 at 8:13 pm

    If the Book of Mormon peoples were really located in Central America, and if the descendants of the Lamanites are going to eventually blossom as the rose (see D&C 49:24), it would seem we should expect a larger and larger percentage of the population of the Church to be native Spanish-speaking. Maybe the eventual takeover of California by Mexicans is all a fulfillment of ancient prophecy.

    Which is too bad for me, because I don’t really have any desire to learn to speak Spanish. Looks like the language of my mission (French) is going the way of the dodo.

    Maybe we’ll eventually find out that the original Adamic language sounds a lot like Spanish…

  21. a random John
    December 2, 2004 at 8:46 pm


    I am not assuming that the original intent of the manuals was to give insight into the lives of the prophets whose words are being studied. I am saying that is the way they are taken, and having the two paragraph “from the life of” intro to each lesson and the mini-biography at the start of the book makes it even easier to take them that way. This is especially true in a language in which source materials are not available.

    I agree that the point is to learn about and discuss the gospel. If that is so then why not use the full original text? Weren’t the original sermons about the gospel? If you can get the gospel, some church history, and insight into a man we consider a prophet in one fell swoop, why not kill multiple birds with one stone and make the manuals much more useful as a reference at the same time.

  22. Jonathan Green
    December 2, 2004 at 9:46 pm

    There are two additional factors to consider about the end of English: chronology and class.

    At some point, the English of the KJV and the Book of Mormon will become unintelligible to most native speakers of the contemporary forms of English. I mean, even more than it is now. How do missionaries share scriptures with people, if it requires you to know what ‘holpen’ means? Adopting another translation of the Bible and updating the language of the Book of Mormon are entirely possible, but still tricky issues. Maybe Testimony Meeting English will one day become our liturgical language.

    Wilfried brought up, and others have commented upon, members outside the US learning English. This can help a lot, but my impression is that the really fluent English speakers are predominantly found in the groups that attend university-track secondary schools and aim for careers with an international component. That’s not quite as exotic in the EU as in the US, but still mostly a matter for the upper and upper-middle class. Would making fluency in English almost a requirement for leadership positions create or exacerabate tensions between members in some places?

  23. Bryce I
    December 2, 2004 at 9:58 pm

    Not relevant to any particular discussion, but Jonathan’s remark about the difficulty of the language of the KJV Bible and the Book of Mormon for many English speakers reminds me that the Japanese translation of the Doctrine and Covenants is so difficult for native Japanese speakers to read, since it is done in classical Japanese, that some members resort to reading the English language version instead.

  24. December 2, 2004 at 10:16 pm

    “Maybe the eventual takeover of California by Mexicans is all a fulfillment of ancient prophecy.”

    For what it’s worth Mark, Orson Scott Card seems to believe that, or at least implied as much ten years ago (look here). Perhaps he’s changed his mind since then, but still, it’s an interesting possibility.

  25. December 2, 2004 at 10:24 pm

    Russell, he actually wrote a story in Folk of the Fringe that dealt with that particular prophecy of the Book of Mormon.

  26. Ivan Wolfe
    December 2, 2004 at 10:24 pm

    Russell –

    I’m not sure if in that article OSC is saying that it’s a fulfillment of prophecy so much as he’s saying it’s a illustration of the pride cycle in the BoM (but it’s all in how you read the implications of the article).

  27. December 2, 2004 at 10:26 pm

    Jonathan, your point about how English itself is evolving further and further away from the (far from perfectly imitated) KJV-style English via which Joseph Smith expressed the scripture which was revealed to him, and your observation about the learning of English by the educated European elite, are actually closely related. In an era of globalization, the English which becomes standard isn’t even contemporary American English; it’s what some in the EU refer to as “ELF”–English Lingua Franca. It is an English which has traveled back and forth across numerous European lingual borders, and is increasingly being shaped by a subcontinent English (i.e., India) and an Hispanisized English (i.e., “Spanglish”) as well. Paradoxically, the more elites or immigrants attempt to make English their own, the more they change English. Languages work that way. I don’t think Joseph Smith’s literary production is going to ever disappear–there will always be scholars who will want to study the original text, so far as it may be recovered–but I think a church-approved, revised English-language Book of Mormon is absolutely inevitable, probably within our own lifetimes too.

  28. Ivan Wolfe
    December 2, 2004 at 10:28 pm

    basically, we should all learn Esperanto.

    I wonder if anyone has translated church materials into Esperanto?

  29. Ivan Wolfe
    December 2, 2004 at 10:30 pm

    basically, we should all learn Esperanto.

    Has anyone translated Church materials into Esperanto?

  30. December 2, 2004 at 10:32 pm

    Clark, you’re right; I’d forgotten about that. And it’s sitting right on my shelf beside my desk too: “America.” I always thought, and still think, Card’s short stories and novellas were better than his full-length works.

  31. John Mansfield
    December 2, 2004 at 10:37 pm

    Once I was in the company of some German, Italian and Chinese engineering graduate students who were discussing languages. (Americans were scarce in our department.) I asked which language besides English they thought was most worth learning. Their unanimous opinion was that there was no language besided English that was worth learning. Another time, a Brazilian professor at BYU was to leave for an engineering conference in Brazil. I asked if he would present his paper in Portuguese, and he said that he had learned the discipline in English and wouldn’t know how to present it in his native language. It is convenient that the principal language of the Church is such a dominate one.

    Those interested in this entry may find these thoughts of a language buff interesting:

  32. Jonathan Green
    December 2, 2004 at 10:47 pm

    Ivan, we already belong to one cult of fanatical true believers. Belonging to two at the same time is more than I can handle.

  33. December 2, 2004 at 10:52 pm

    Reminds me when I was attempting to learn Russian at BYU. All the Russian grad students (of which there were many at the time) thought I was an idiot for learning Russian.

  34. HD
    December 2, 2004 at 11:03 pm

    Jack Welch once did a content analysis of BY’s published sermons (JD and Deseret News), what he founds was that the wonderful wierdness that makes BY so dang lovable – Adam-God, polygamy, etc. – actually constitute a fairly small percentage of his sermons. As I recall there were more sermons on farming than Adam-God…

    The value of Welch’s analysis is limited to some extent in that he normally relied upon the headings to the discourses in JD to identify two or three main themes in each speech. He then used these main themes to create the index. Blood atonement, for instance, appears twice in his index. Yet Brigham Young certainly discussed it more than twice (e.g., JD 3:247-, which didn’t make the index, likely because the speech heading doesn’t mention it).

    Plural marriage was a main theme in 21 of his speeches, or his 12th most frequent theme, according to Welch’s analysis. It ranked above themes such as Jesus Christ/Savior, Spirit of God/Spirit of the Lord, Testimony, Zion, and Faith. As far as I can tell from the index, Adam-God was discussed several times more often than farming.

  35. Matt Evans
    December 2, 2004 at 11:37 pm

    This may be apocryphal, but I heard a story about a stake president (from Italy?) who was told to learn English by a GA so that he would be qualified to be called as a General Authority, should the call come. Does anyone know if local leaders are urged to learn English so they can serve in the international church?

  36. a random John
    December 3, 2004 at 12:15 am


    My mission president (a Brazilian) was always saying that all the Brazilian missionaries should learn English. He also said that all English speaking members of the church that don’t already speak a second language should learn Spanish. Going even further he expressed the wish that Brazil had been settled by people that spoke English as his first choice and Spanish as his second, and that it was unfortunate that they speak Portuguese because it isolates them from the rest of the hemisphere. Finally (and most relevant to your question) he said that it was useful to speak English as a leader in the church because when you had a 30 minute interview with an apostle you didn’t have to waste half of it on translation.

  37. Jared
    December 3, 2004 at 4:28 am


    One of my mission presidents was Brazilian and spoke very little English. He told me that he was encouraged to learn English by at least two GA’s, but he did not mention whether it was about being qualified to be a GA.

  38. Geoff B
    December 3, 2004 at 6:15 am

    To follow up on Wilfried’s comments, I think Americans do not understand the extent to which English is spreading and becoming the world’s dominant language. It is truly the first worldwide tongue since the Tower of Babel. And the trend is increasing rather than decreasing. Almost all international commerce takes place in English, and virtually everywhere people realize to get ahead they need to learn English.

    This does not mean the Church should not accelerate efforts to become more multilingual. I would love to hear conference talks in Spanish, Portuguese or Tagalog. In Miami, where I live, at least 80 percent of Church members are fully bilingual (English and Spanish), and Portuguese and Creole are very common. Many more Church materials and inspirational books need to be printed in other languages. But we should not make the mistake of thinking English is on the decline inside or outside the Church — the reality is just the opposite.

  39. quinn
    December 3, 2004 at 7:17 am

    to answer matt’s (evans) questions, here in portugal, i know 2 seventies, and both of them were told that they needed english, in fact, one of them in his interview, one of the first questions was, how confident do you feel about your english?

  40. John Mansfield
    December 3, 2004 at 7:36 am

    Retranslation is another aspect of this matter. Generally, we won’t have the N*(N-1) translators needed to translate every language directly into every other language. So, there is a two-step process of translating from each source language into a common language and then from the common language into each target language. Those longing for multilingual General Conferences may picture themselves at the head or middle of this translation chain, and not the end.

  41. Ivan Wolfe
    December 3, 2004 at 8:16 am

    Jonathan –

    I know. I just happen to have a lot of sci-fi geek friends who are fluent in Esperanto and Klingon. Esperanto seems to me like on those really good ideas that is unimplementable. (We won’t say what I think about Klingon).

  42. Wilfried
    December 3, 2004 at 8:55 am

    There is no doubt English has become the lingua franca of a large part of the world. The pedagogical ESL-movement (English as Second Language) is very powerful, and draws its success for commercial and scientific reasons (in international academia: “Publish in English or perish”).

    Some other variables are:

    – generation gap: for younger people around the world, English is simply a must as a second language, also immensely reinforced through the media (film, music…).

    – school system: outside of the US, learning a second language (and sometimes third & fourth) is part of the compulsory curriculum. In most cases, English is the number one foreign language.

    – importance of the mother tongue: at least in Western Europe people from “minority languages” (Dutch, Danish, Swedish…) learn English much faster and more willingly than those from “majority languages” (French, German, Spanish…).

    – dubbing or not of movies: (which partially explains the preceding) in countries of minority languages movies are usually not dubbed. Since most (popular) movies are in English, children in countries “without dubbing” pick up English from a very young age (and become very fast readers as a consequence of reading the subtitles). Imagine what a couple of hours of English-spoken TV per day can do…

    The result of all this, also in the Church, is that you have the “know English” and the “know not English”. In the international church It would make an interesting sociolinguistic study to measure aspects of the religiosity, forms of commitment, understanding of the Gospel etc. between the KE and the KNE. Hey, the KE’s can read T&S…

  43. Adam Greenwood
    December 3, 2004 at 2:01 pm

    Apparently will soon be available in 10 different languages:

  44. December 3, 2004 at 7:33 pm

    I’ve been getting LDS stuff in Russian since I took my first class in the subject. I’d be so thrilled to get general conference addresses originally given in Russian. I don’t think all the people who are hoping for Spanish, French, Japanese, etc. general conference addresses are going to enjoy my proverbial Russian addresses as much as I would, which is why, I imagine, the Church will refrain from having very many of them, if any at all are given — and then, they’ll likely go the “record and play over” method.

    Spanish, and Tagalog, and a few other languages with absolute hordes of native speakers in the church seem more likely to get the token live conference talk in that language. But I don’t think it’ll become common then. The Pope can (and does) give his annual Christmas message fluently in what, ten languages? Still seems to prefer English, Latin, and Italian for everything else, though. It’s a matter of expediency.

    Meanwhile, the impetus for members to learn English is rather stronger than the impetus ever was for the average working Catholic to learn Latin. You can’t throw that reference around and not remember what I’ll call the “literacy situation” was like at the time when Latin and Catholocism were truly dominant. When literacy became widespread, it coincided with religious movements that said “hey, have everyone in a bible they can read, in their own language, and let them sort things out for themselves — who needs central authority?!” I think we try to walk the middle ground on the central authority/you still have to listen to your elders stuff. Yes, have the Book of Mormon in your language, and yes, study what teachings in your language that we can have available — but centrally distributed leadeship messages are still critical to your salvation, and hey, look, everyone’s already trying to learn English because it’s just expedient for modern life!

    I think that meanwhile, there’s a strong merit in everyone in charge being able to compose coherent messages in at least one common language, and allowing everyone else to listen to the original sentiment, instead of something regurgitated through translation programs and passed through the hands of multiple translators (or translation committees). That’s the great thing that Catholicism had (and still has, to some extent) with Latin: everyone who knew this one language, knew what everyone in charge meant. Why ditch that principle for more than a few symbolic exercises? Frankly, it’s easier (and possibly better as far as their temporal state is concerned) to teach people English, or whatever language you pick.

    Lastly, and strictly out of unnecessary curiosity, I’m really not sure how (or even THAT) most native English speakers have such trouble with biblical/KJV/Shakespearean language. First off, it’s not that different from modern English — and we can easily look up, or write in the margins, what those differences are. Moreover, we’re not talking about a single document written over the course of 1800 years of virtually undocumented linguistic evolution across multiple languages (e.g the Bible itself — Aramaic, Greek, Hebrew… or the original Book of Mormon, with the Reformed Egyptian stuff), we’re talking about stylized translations written in a very short period of time, by people who had at least either divine inspiration or a whole heck of a lot of linguistic experience going for them. Maybe it’s just me, but on top of that, when I was (at age 8 or 9 — can’t honestly remember what I’d read before my baptism) first seriously introduced to that style of language, studying Shakespeare in elementary school (I was Hippolyta!!! and then they made me play Juliet, blech), it was *weird* but hardly impossible. I think it’d have been even less weird to me if I’d actually grown up with the KJV or the Book of Mormon in my family or church life (I was a Unitarian Universalist as a young child). Why would, provided the Book of Mormon were used constantly, future members of the Church require special language lessons? Sure, if you’re not a native English speaker, bring on the testimony language (I have a printout of a few hundred “churchy” words in Russian in one of my notebooks) lessons; some of our usages in these meetings are a little funny anyway. But I seriously doubt Archaic Churchy English class would be necessary as a supplement to Sunday School or something, which seems to be implied somewhere up there…

  45. Keith
    December 3, 2004 at 8:13 pm

    “Lastly, and strictly out of unnecessary curiosity, I’m really not sure how (or even THAT) most native English speakers have such trouble with biblical/KJV/Shakespearean language.”

    Sarah, I’ve taught both English classes and Religion classes at the University. My experience has been that (unless they have been raised up with it and/or have something of a literary/philological interest) most folks really do have trouble with KJV and with Shakespeare (and this is at the university). Pick a passage out of Paul for instance and give it to the average university trained person and I think you’ll have real struggles to give a plain meaning. I teach Doctrine and Covenants and even find native speakers of English struggling to give a plain meaning for many places there (or simply misreading what they are reading.) The only way for these to avoid becoming unintelligible (or worse, simply dull and uninteresting because there’s no appreciation for what’s going on in the language) is for folks to read them, read lots, and read early. Learning to read Shakespeare helps. Knowing something of rhetoric helps. Knowing how to ask good questions helps. (For these last two, there are some good books around, including Jim Faulconer’s book on Scripture Study).

    On a different note (related to the larger issue of this thread), at BYU-Hawaii there is a real effort (with the 50%+ international student body) to get folks to learn English well. There is no denigration of their native languages, but there is great intellectual, economic, and spiritual/ecclesiatical benefit for the international students to know English well both now and when they return to their home countries.

  46. Jim F.
    December 4, 2004 at 12:19 am

    Keith, thanks for the plug. However, the problem with reading is not just an unfamiliarity with KJV English. My experience is that Honors students at BYU have difficulty reading materials in contemporary English and giving a reasonable synopses of what they have read. In other words, they aren’t good readers. In my Gospel Doctrine class, I’ve tried using modern translations of difficult Bible verses, and the results are not significantly different than when we read those verses in the KJV. I think the problem is that we are not very literate. Of course we can read well enough to say, “I can read,” but many of us cannot read well enough to understand the content of what we have read.

    I’m not sure of the reason for this. I’ve heard others say things like “television” or “the decline of high school education,” but I’m suspicious that such answers are too simplistic.

  47. Jonathan Green
    December 4, 2004 at 12:39 am

    Sarah, I think I was the one who brought up the changing English language. I agree that it’s debatable how difficult scriptural language really is for most people right now. It’s absolutely certain that this situation will not last. The overwhelming cultural significance of Latin and classical Arabic did not prevent those languages from changing, and English will also change. Here the debatable issues are: how soon? how fast? After some number of years, native English speakers will understand the Book of Mormon not as well as they now understand Shakespeare, but as well as they now understand Chaucer, and eventually it will be as poorly understood as Beowulf. It’s unlikely that we’ll reach this point soon, unless the Normans invade again next week. But note the folk etymologization of “help meet” to “helpmate,” which is a sign that the language of the KJV is difficult in some places for a lot of people.

  48. December 4, 2004 at 12:51 am

    I think Jim that people no longer are taught to read carefully. I think people read, but the whole careful reading especially of more complex texts isn’t really taught. The difficulty is that even in High School English classes the focus on literature isn’t really on reading the way it was once taught. (Or so I’ve been told — don’t ask me to defend that thesis: I went to school in Canada!)

    I am convinced that reading the scriptures with your children and asking comprehension questions will put them ahead academically. They’ll really have a leg up on their other friends.

  49. Keith
    December 4, 2004 at 12:55 am


    I agree. We aren’t very good readers. I guess what I’m saying when I say it helps to know some rhetoric, should be expanded to say it helps to see how things hang together, how they mean. And I think that if we can’t read a text of words, we also will have trouble with a ritual “text”. The end of all this is that we may be going through sentences or motions and not really experiencing anything of the meaning (except perhaps in finding prooftexts for principles or requirements for moral living. These latter things aren’t bad, but they are much richer in a larger religious context–a context which may need a degree of literacy (for lack of a better word) to see.

  50. Jim F.
    December 4, 2004 at 1:17 am

    Keith: “We may be going through sentences or motions and not really experiencing anything of the meaning (except perhaps in finding prooftexts for principles or requirements for moral living). These latter things aren’t bad, but they are much richer in a larger religious context–a context which may need a degree of literacy (for lack of a better word) to see.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I don’t worry about some future need to rewrite the Book of Mormon in more modern language. That may happen (but, on the other hand, the KJV has stood up well for a very long time, even if it no longer may not). I worry more about what happens to us when we are unable to read carefully and not get at the meaning that goes beyond mere propositional content. I worry that as we lose that ability we may also lose some of our ability for spiritual response because the ability to understand texts rhetorically and ritually is excellent spiritual training. I’m not sure what would replace it. Merely reading for surface content, something that is itself more and more common, flattens religious texts out, and if our religious texts become flat, then I think our religion probably also does.

  51. December 4, 2004 at 7:23 pm

    I think English may be a language well-suited to translation and expression of ideas, simply because English can express many things other languages cannot because it is more flexible than many other languages. It’s not always better in every specific case, but I think that, overall, it is.

    I loved when, as a missionary in Germany, you’d get the discussion on the difference between belief and faith. There is only one German verb, “glauben,” that means both of those things. Germans, therefore, don’t have a concept that there can be a difference between believing Joseph Smith is a prophet and believing that the Earth orbits the Sun.

    In the manuals there is an artificial distinction made by inventing a new verb, “fürwahrhalten,” (for truth hold, or to believe something to be true) that is then explained in two full paragraphs as meaning something of less conviction than “glauben” as Germans understand the word. That is just one anecdote, but I’m sure there are many more from around the globe.

    Please, give me some counter-examples. (My major is Computational Linguistics)

  52. Bryce I
    December 5, 2004 at 10:14 pm

    Shawn Dowler —

    I’m in computer science working with natural lanugage dialog systems.

    As to your point, I think you’ve overstated your case by quite a bit when you say that “Germans, therefore, don’t have a concept that there can be a difference between believing Joseph Smith is a prophet and believing that the Earth orbits the Sun” simply because they use the same word to express both concepts. After all, just because in English we use the verb “to know” to describe knowing a fact and knowing a person doesn’t mean we don’t have a separate conception of each type of knowledge, whereas the French do, as evidenced by their separate verbs “savoir” and “connaitre”.

    You’re essentially arguing for strong interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I don’t know that you’ll find too many takers.

    I will agree with you that English has a wonderfully rich lexicon available to its speakers, and has robust mechanisms for incorporating new words and constructs. One has only to read product labeling in multiple languages to see how short and punchy English can be compared with French.

    I’m sure Jonathan Green will be commenting here soon …

  53. Jonathan Green
    December 5, 2004 at 11:56 pm

    Am I really that predictable, Bryce? Yep, I guess I am.

    Hi, Shawn. I think Bryce is right that the strong statement of the SWH hasn’t fared well. I think linguistic orthodoxy these days also frowns on notions of one language being more capable or expressive than another. But I’ll let you argue it with the linguists.

    About “fürwahrhalten”: I don’t think we invented it. It seems to show up in 18th-century German philosophy, including Kant ( I know better than to say word one about Kant around here, so I’ll let the philosophers field the question as to the precise distinction between ‘glauben’ and ‘fürwahrhalten’ and the implications thereof.

    You’re absolutely correct that verbs of believing and knowing can be a minefield. “I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet” sounds harmless in testimony meeting, but the equivalent in German–using the verb ‘wissen’–once provoked a minor eruption during a first discussion. But then, we had already exchanged interpretations of the conclusion of Faust II by that time, and the guy was anxiously looking for an excuse to erupt. You knew the type, I’m sure.

    Jim, now that I’ve got you’re attention by throwing out the name of Kant, could I ask you to go on at further length, here or in another post, about what you mean by a decline in reading? I’m quite interested, but not exactly sure what you mean.

  54. Bryce I
    December 6, 2004 at 12:15 am

    Jim F.–

    I second Jonathan Green’s request. Perhaps a new thread, even, if you have the time/inclination?

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