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 bishopâ€™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.