The Gospel Anglosphere

Does the Mormon God speak English at home?

In terms of religion, this is not an entirely ridiculous question. Certainly one can imagine that Arabic dominates Islamic paradise. The same goes for Hebrew (or maybe Yiddish) in G-d’s celestial courts. Most religions are flavoured by language: can you imagine Hinduism without Sanskrit, or classical Catholicism without Latin?

In a recent Mormon Matters episode, J. Nelson-Seawright urged patience on American Mormons who may one day have to cede English to Spanish as Mormonism’s lingua franca. Certainly, in terms of demographics, Spanish will soon replace English as the dominant language of the Mormon church. But will Mormonism’s sacred tongue remain English nonetheless?

God’s Mormon revelation came to the world in the bilingual tongue of Yankee and Jacobean English, and while no official attempt is made by the church to equate English with a pristine form of the revelation (unlike Arabic for the Qur’an), generations of Mormons will still look to the English originals as the ur-text from which the Gospel sprang.

Also, this notion of a “sacred” English fits the traditional Mormon view of the world, one that sees Anglo-ism as a modern incarnation of Ephraim. Mormon conservatives find comfort in the status of the Anglosphere as the Great Civilisation, one that encompasses the beacons of freedom that shine in North America, Britain, the Antipodes, and India. Liberals would do well not to choke on this characterisation: ask yourself which emerging power, China or India, you would rather be confronted by. Then ask yourself why. Even Marx believed that India would benefit from English — as opposed to Russian, Persian, or Turkish — colonisation. We bleat about the Anglospheric alliance, particularly after the disastrous Iraq invasion, but who is in power in those Anglo countries with supposedly anti-American populations: Tony Blair’s Labour (still), Stephen Harper, John Howard. When it comes down to it, the people vote for America. On the flip side, in Britain, if the EU constitution were up for a referendum, it would get hammered.

Now, I do not believe for a moment that English is somehow the Language of God, but it is the case that English dominates two vital cogs in Mormon self-understanding: the Mormon revelation and Anglo-exceptionalism. For this reason, I do not see American Mormons giving up the English Church too easily. God spoke English to the latter-day Prophet, and English, not Spanish, characterises the half of the world that is most American (where “American” is believed to equal the system most favoured by God). I’m not saying that any of this is justified, but it is how things will continue to work in Mormonism for the next hundred years at least.



  1. JSJ and his inner circle appeared to believe that God spoke and speaks Adamic, which, if the KEP and their musings in church organs are an accurate indication, seems to be a combination of “pure” Hebrew, Egyptian, and perhaps Greek and English.

    Just anything but Klingon.

  2. The idea of English as a sacred tongue because it’s the original language of the Doctrine and Covenants and the available source language for the Book of Mormon is certainly one that has substantial traction. During my mission, various general authorities encouraged the Spanish-speaking missionaries to learn English so they could study those sacred texts “in the original.”

  3. I served a stateside Spanish mission. My mission president often encouraged the native Spanish-speaking Elders to learn English. Although sometimes they would use the “so you can read the BofM and D&C in English” rationale, I got the sense that they were more concerned with the fact that learning English would bring a world of practical benefits to these Elders and their families when they returned.

    I wonder to what extent these benefits relate to or are confused with divine approval and blessings.

  4. English is the language of choice for the information technology world as well. “Localization” of software, etc, still is taking place, but for an international student trying to get a place in the infotech world, fluency in English has become a default requirement. Considering the role that such technology plays in our lives, one more reason for native Spanish-speaking missionaries to learn English.

  5. Peter LLC says:

    There’s another vital cog, too: General Conference.

    At least in my neck of the woods the native German-speakers always outnumber the native English-speakers in the room with the broadcast clean and pure. I don’t blame ’em–simultaneous interpretation is hard to listen to, especially when you can catch the drift/drift off to sleep in the original just as well.

  6. Certainly, in terms of demographics, Spanish will soon replace English as the dominant language of the Mormon church

    And one reason for native English-speaking Saints to attempt to learn Spanish.

  7. No one in Particular says:

    …while no official attempt is made by the church to equate English with a pristine form of the revelation (unlike Arabic for the Qur’an)…

    I think (as I have mentioned) the times may be changing on this one. Several apostles have pushed English as being both spiritually and economically important in talks in Latin America in the last 5 years, not to mention countless area and stake leaders echoing the advice or expanding it into injunction.

  8. I was impressed with how many non-English-speakers spoke at General Conference. However, I couldn’t help but wish that we’d just let them speak in their native languages! Is there a requirement that General Authorities speak English? If so, it seems that it would be increasingly difficult to justify as the proportion of non-English-speakers in the Church grows in proportion to English-speakers.

  9. . . . while no official attempt is made by the church to equate English with a pristine form of the revelation . . .

    When I was a missionary in Japan a third of a century ago, there was such an official attempt. The second clause of eight article of faith included the parenthetical “Eibun” (English version). I haven’t found a current version of the Japanese articles of faith, but I’m sure it is different now, if for no reason other than that the name of the Book of Mormon is translated differently now.

    As to missionaries learning English–I saw the following in Preach My Gospel, chapter 7:

    Learn English

    If you do not speak English, you should study it as a missionary. This will bless you during your mission and throughout your life. Learning English will enable you to help build the Lord’s kingdom in additional ways and will be a blessing for you and your family.

    As I read the rest of that chapter, it seemed that many of the suggestions for foreign language learning could be used to advantage by the native English speakers [sic]:

    4. Learn grammar.
    6. Improve your ability to read and write.

    If only they would add:

    9. Use proper inflection in your sentences. A rising intonation at the end of a statement indicates that you are asking a question, or, at best, that you are unsure of yourself. Do not let the power of your words be diminished by a mistake in intonation.

  10. It blew me away, when I used to travel for business, how many people, even in remote areas, spoke English. It was hard for me to practice my language skills, because everyone wanted to practice thier English on me.

    I, too, wish the non-native speakers would use their native tongue in Conference talks.

  11. 8) Steve, you know how many translators there are for GC? Multiply that number by the number of languages spoken at conference. That is one reason why English is the only language.

  12. Hi Ronan,

    Reading Hitchens recently? I agree with the gist of your post.

    I want to back up #11. I ahve a Nigerian brother in my ward who travels to SLC every conference. he translates the whole thing live and then flies back home. Imagine throwing in another language from the pulpit.

  13. KyleM,

    I could see the Church asking that, say, a Korean GA speak in English, as Korean-speakers only form a small proportion of the Church population. But I think it would be justified for a Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking GA to speak in his native language. Most of the talks are translated beforehand; it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to find someone who could translate a talk from Spanish to Korean, which could then be read by the Korean translator during the talk. I know it’s more complicated than I’m making it seem, but I think it could be done.

    I interpreted Chinese talks at the MTC regularly for 3 years following my mission. Translation is certainly logistically difficult, but I’m sure the Church would be up to it, and I think that allowing the millions of Latin Church members to hear a few talks originally delivered in their native languages would justify the undertaking.

  14. Steve, I think a short term comprimise might be prayers. Doctrine isn’t expounded, or at least shouldn’t be, in prayers. The language is less important than the spirit, even without translation.

    I think a standard language in GC talks is important aside from the logistical problems of translation. I don’t care what that language is, but there must be median from which most missives metaphrase to minimize the misfourtune of a morphing message.

  15. Christopher says:

    Steve M,

    it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to find someone who could translate a talk from Spanish to Korean


  16. Hmmm. The General Conference argument seems unpersuasive to me. We already have translators, right? Those translators mostly work from previously-prepared texts, so they could just work from the English translation of a Hungarian (say) original text. For impromptu moments, this wouldn’t work. But it would work if the non-English broadcasts were put on a two-minute delay so that the English translation could be translated.

    A handful of talks in other languages have indeed been handled in one or another of these ways; not all conference talks have been in English, because some Seventies have been uncomfortable with or unskilled in the language. So this hasn’t been an insurmountable problem when it’s been done.

    In effect, the English-language monopoly is an implicit spiritual subsidy to Anglo Saints. It makes us just that much closer to the speakers, and puts those listening in other languages that much farther away. Do we, the group that is on average the most established in the gospel, need this subsidy — or might we grant its benefits to our newer sisters and brothers in the faith?

  17. By the way, the case becomes worse in regional/area conferences in non-English-speaking areas. While some of our church’s highest leaders do speak another language, I’ve heard more than one or two apostles speak to an almost exclusively Spanish-speaking or Portuguese-speaking audience in English with translation. Can you imagine the reverse happening in Sandy, UT? If not, think how much distance and inequality that creates among the Saints.

  18. Christopher,

    The Church has remarkable language resources at its disposal. And, as J mentioned, each translator could work from an English source text, if needed.

  19. Really?

    Sure. You get your English to Spanish guy to whisper in the ear of your English to Korean guy who talks into the mic.

    I just thought of another one. It happens often enough that visiting GAs, Area Authorities, some mission presidents, and other Church VIPs (inasmuch as they exist) will speak to the mission field in their native English with some hapless native standing at their side paraphrasing their remarks.

  20. I travel internationally extensively for my job as well, and English is understood to be the lingua franca for any communication between disparate languages. When someone from Holland and someone from France speak, it’s understood that they will speak English if they don’t know each other’s respective languages. In fact I think the EU’s official language is English for this reason.

    If you get a chance, a very fun and interesting read is Bill Bryson’s “Mother Tongue: English and how it got that way”. He discusses the history of the English language, the disparities between American and British English, etc. One of the most interesting things he states is that English has the largest vocabulary of any language (as evidenced by the size of the Oxford dictionary), in in particular, we have a huge volume of adjectives. And so therefore one of its appeals is that you can describe things in much more detail than in some other languages.
    Other advantages: No gender-specific nouns, and one generic article “THE” to describe them, among others. Of course we also have some horribly confusing spelling vs. pronunciation issues (think of how many ways “ough” is used and pronounced) and a basically non-relevant set of grammar rules. But given the advantages, there is good reason to keep English as the standard. (I should have prefaced this by saying I’m also an English major, so I’m a bit biased as well..:-) )

  21. JNS (17) of course the opposite could happen in Sandy. It’s not like you’re asking the Sandy saints to let their kids play with non-member children.

    Peter (19), that’s exactly why GC talks should originate from English. Subjecting church doctrine to the whisper game could have some interesting outcomes.

  22. John Mansfield says:

    “There are many aspects of modern education. They include science, law, economics, environment, etc. Nevertheless, the Tibetan language has not progressed in these numerous subjects. In India, efforts are being made to teach the Tibetan children all the subjects in Tibetan language from Grade I onwards. But, leave alone Tibetans, even the Indians find it most difficult to gain expertise in specialised modern subjects without pursuing it in English. In Tibet too, one has no choice but to rely on Chinese language to gain expertise in a specialised field of modern knowledge. Whether for becoming a professional or an expert researcher, in the different fields of modern knowledge in Tibet today, it is extremely important to use the Chinese language to achieve the required specialisations.”

    “One thing that comes to my mind is this: Suppose there are a hundred Tibetan students. Seventy or eighty such students could study Tibetan language as their main subject and achieve excellence in projecting one’s national identity and in preserving our cultural heritage. Twenty or thirty such students could study Chinese language as their main subject and make efforts to achieve professional qualifications in modern specialised subjects. I feel this to be important, do you understand?”

    The Dalai Lama on the importance of modern education.

  23. John, no more discussion of the Dalai Lama. BCC is very big in China and we don’t want to mess with success.

  24. Already Elder Scott and other GA translate their talks before hand so it can be heard by the native Spanish speakers.

  25. From a Mormon Studies perspective, English is definitely primate. Being able to read primary sources (the vast majority of which are in English) is important if you want to get beyond second hand interpretations. I’m feeling this now as I am doing some work in early Christian (pre-1000 AD) liturgy and not being able to read Latin gives me at a paralyzing deficiency.

  26. John Mansfield says:

    At the risk of jeopardizing BCC’s access to the Middle Kingdom, the Dalai Lama’s address to Congress yesterday had an interesting translation process. His first words were in halting English, kindergarten level, as he put it, but less fluid. He said that delivering his speech in Tibetan would be boring for the listeners, so he would read an English translation.

    Then he started reading, and was very fluid, easy to understand, and literate. He understood English pronunciation and could read well, but had not the ability to spontaneously express himself at a high level, and probably not to compose. At one point well into the speech, he seemed to stumble with the language. On the radio broadcast, a whispering voice was audible, apparently someone feeding the Dalai Lama the part of the text he was having trouble with.

    An old roommate, a former missionary to Japan, said that the Japanese were amazed with how fluent his presentation of the discussions was compared with his very limited language ability outside the discussions. He disabused them of the notion that something miraculous was happenning by showing them the anglicized Japanese text he was reading from.

  27. Adam Greenwood says:

    Lets not forget that french is also a divine language.


  28. StillConfused says:

    He speaks Elizabethan English. (I am told if you don’t use thee and thou and such that you are being disrespectful)

  29. I too look forward to the day when GC speakers will be able to speak their own native language. The fact is Americans are pretty stinking lazy when it comes to learning another language. The fact that everyone tends to learn ours does not help the motivation much. When I was in Italy earlier this month, even the guys in the little shops and restaurants spoke at least a little English. I had no incentive to practice what little Italian I had picked up in school, and that is a shame.

    What is more interesting to me than the fact that the BoM and the D&C came in JSJ in English is that the Church’s continued use of the KJV and the (sort of) original translation of the BoM preserves the KJV-type language in the 21st century and beyond.

  30. AHLDuke,

    The reason so many Europeans learn other languages is because they have to. Give us Yanks a break for a second here. If the US was set up like Europe, with each state speaking a different language (I maintain Utah already does), then we would be much more motivated to learn a few of those languages in order to facilitate trade and travel outside the borders of our respective states. In places like California, Florida, and Arizona, where Spanish is more widely spoken, I think you’ll find a larger number of native English-speaking Americans who also speak Spanish (or at least some). I think you will find similar circumstances in other parts of the world, like S. America for example.

  31. Sure. You get your English to Spanish guy to whisper in the ear of your English to Korean guy who talks into the mic.

    I’ve been in a branch of Japanese and Koreans, where talks were given in the native language and translated from English into the other. This doesn’t work well at all for real time translation. You lose information on the first translation, and even more on the second.

  32. In L.A., many Koreans choose Spanish as their second language for running their small stores.

  33. walkinginthewoods says:

    I think this is just the linguistic demonstration of ethnocentricity. There are ethnocentric people who know many languages and people who are very open-hearted/minded who have never learned any language besides their “mother tongue”–

    However, I do think that sending missionaries around the world to learn languages probably prevents even more anglo-centricity on the part of the “majority” (which we know is no longer a majority)–

    Some missionaries become enculturated in their “adopted” languages; others drop them as quickly as possible on return. I live in an area where I meet many missionaries, and there is a language besides English spoken in my area by missionaries–

    It is interesting to see the difference in perception by the various missionaries, according to their areas of origin–it is interesting to see which missionaries have a broader perspective and which ones are more narrow–

    The fact that English seems dominant, when it is such an inferior language in so many ways–though with as rich a cultural heritage as any language in its own way–

    is something we can hardly hope to understand now, but English-speakers don’t have to spread the arrogance–

    yet, “we” do–all the time–


    –one who once walked in the woods speaking (semi-fluently in one, fluently in another) two other languages beside English–

  34. walkinginthewoods says:

    and to answer the original question:

    of course not!!!

    I certainly hope God speaks a higher quality language than English–

    *shock and horror*

    But, then, I suspect He/She speak every possible language–numbering in the thousands or millions or . . .

  35. #9 — In 2005, FARMS’s Journal of Book of Mormon Studies published an article about the 3 Japanese translations of the Book of Mormon. I was sort of horrified by the insertion of the word “English” into the 8th article of faith, but apparently it was a result of the translator’s own extreme humility. (The translator was Sato Tatsui, a convert and native Japanese). I admire his humility. I would especially admire English speakers exercising humility with respect to the English language. Maybe it would help to include “as written on gold plates” in parentheses in the English 8th article of faith!

  36. What I should have said is that maybe the 8th article of faith should say that we believe the BOM to be the word of God “in any language.”

  37. California Condor says:

    More people worldwide speak Mandarin and Spanish yet English is the lingua franca of the world… I think it’s pretty clear that this is because of the economic dominance of the United States.

    Likewise, English will remain the lingua franca in the LDS Church because power in the Church emanates from Temple Square, where English is the native language.

  38. Actually Engish is the most broadly spoken language on the planet (native and secondary speakers combined), and it is, by population, the second most popular language spoken world wide. It is also the most common “Official language” of countries worldwide.

    I just did a research paper for a professional writing course at my university, on a very very similar topic (“English should be the global language”)(English (and it’s various forms I must add)also happens to have the largest vocabulary, and it’s the fastest growing language in the world)

    Eng is coming up on obtaining it’s 1 millionth word. Russian is next in vocabulary (some 800,000)(though many conjugations of other words already counted)

    It is said that the Adamic language is a perfect language. One where there is no “loss of words” you will not have to say “I don’t know how to explain it.”
    This means Adamic should potentially have the highest vocabulary, and therefor be the most descriptive. As Eng is morphing and encompassing so many other parts of other cultures it has become the closest we have to Adamic on the planet.

    English’s advantage is it doesn’t care, and it easily adapts (consumes) parts of other languages and makes it it’s own easier than any other language on the planet.

    To end this little tid bit (sorry for the tangeant, but this post reminded me of this)
    In Latin “Lingua Franca” at one time referred to French as a pure mother tongue, yet now ironically it is commonly used to referr to English, which is the most impure language.

    I can post the research paper if liked for scrutinizing :)

  39. TomG, please don’t post the paper. Since you get the etymology of lingua franca wrong and have logical fallacies regarding the Adamic tongue, I don’t have a lot of optimism for you.

  40. Steve; I’m quite comfortable with the terms, I tried to keep the post short. Therefore not scutinizing my own words well.
    But I am sincerely interested in the idea that once we all shared a common language, at Babel the tongues were confused, yet now we find ourselves driffting towards another common language globally

    Lingua franca I’m very familiar with now, though I admit to not, by any means, being an expert on The Adamic Language (though highly interested in the study of it). Likewaise the paper did not discuss the Adamic lanugage to any detail (only briefly mentioned) as it was not a religous paper.

  41. “Actually Engish is the most broadly spoken language on the planet (native and secondary speakers combined), and it is, by population, the second most popular language spoken world wide. It is also the most common “Official language” of countries worldwide.”

    There is *enormous* debate about that. If we count native speakers, then English is possibly not even in the Top 3. Mandarin Chinese is #1 by leaps and bounds, but many studies show Spanish and Hindi both exceeding English on this front, with Arabic not too far behind.

    And secondary speakers? First of all, the vast majority of those “secondary speakers” can’t actually communicate even with slight ability in English. If you’ve ever gone to give a talk in a place like Russia, Japan, Brazil, Vietnam, China, most of India– yes, even including India outside a few of the big city hubs– it is very difficult to find competent English-speakers anywhere. Even in the lodgings of all places, nobody actually speaks English! Many may have taken some English courses, but they cannot use the language for actual communication, and when they do write or talk about something important, they do so in their own languages.

    IOW, English is vastly exaggerated as a lingua franca– there are lots of regional lingua francas throughout the world depending on whoever’s trading with whomever, but English really is not as widely used as people pretend.

    Besides, these days in Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, even increasingly in the Philippines, the craze is to learn Mandarin Chinese, not English, and in Singapore, Chinese is starting to get the upper hand. (Forget about HK– whatever its past British links, those links are long past, people do not use English there.)

    Going to Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Slovakia, Finland, the Ukraine? Then learn German, it’s more useful than English there. For that matter, if you’re a techie of any sort, especially sending something for publication, German is a key feather in the cap and a good one to get noticed in.

    And Spanish? A passport through almost the entire Western Hemisphere, more so than English is.

    As for why so few people even in elite circles actually speak or write good English– I’d venture a lot of it has to do with how ridiculously difficult English really is to master. We probably have the most non-intuitive writing system for any modern alphabetical language. In many other languages, you can read a word on the page and, once you know the basic rules, immediately know how it’s pronounced– German is like this, even more so with Spanish and Italian. They’re very consistent.

    English OTOH is just a mishmash, a total jumble for non-native speakers, and if they see a word on the page, they have no idea how to pronounce it. English writing has very little internal consistency, with exceptions and alterations if anything exceeding the # of rules. And English grammar is all over the place, with weird phraseologies, trouble with misplaced modifiers, strange tense formations (why has a teacher “taught” while a preacher hasn’t “praught”?), nonsensical compounds that are basically oxymorons, confusing ways of changing subjects and predicates around.

    IOW, English in some ways is least-suited to being a central language of any kind. Someone smarter than me on history could maybe give a reason, obviously English and German both sprouted from the same root, English had all that French and Latin tossed in too. But you see that French also in places like Dutch and Romanian, but they’re more internally consistent. Why English got so discombobulated from the experience, I couldn’t possibly say.

    So overall, I don’t know how to get past this problem. I’d probably start picking up Mandarin Chinese, or Spanish if you’re in a place like California, or German if you’re a technical sort. Or maybe we’ll bring back straight Latin as a standard, it’s something like neutral since nobody uses it. Or we can just get better at fast translating. But English is nowhere near a global lingua franca.

  42. “But, leave alone Tibetans, even the Indians find it most difficult to gain expertise in specialised modern subjects without pursuing it in English.”

    Interestingly, this has already changed very fast. I do a lot of projects in India, and besides the fact that the masses basically don’t use English at all, even the more educated classes increasingly are doing their learning in an Indian language. This is usually Hindi, but occasionally Tamil in the south– another prestige language in the Subcontinent. When they talk to each other (north and south), they *don’t use English*, it’s a not a link language there if it ever was one, they use some variant of Hindi with a ton of Tamil and local-language flavor added in.

    In some parts of South India you can still hear a good deal of French. And for whatever reason, I’ve found more and more Indians gravitate toward doing professional work in German– it’s an important, technical prestige language like English, but w/o the colonial baggage that English regrettably still has, linked to the British Empire that did untold nasty things in India. So India has plenty of choices.

    “In L.A., many Koreans choose Spanish as their second language for running their small stores.”

    Yeah, noticed this too. I would not try to business in California, let alone in Arizona, Texas, NM without knowing some Spanish. In that region, it really is essential, fortunately very easy to learn.

  43. “When someone from Holland and someone from France speak, it’s understood that they will speak English if they don’t know each other’s respective languages. In fact I think the EU’s official language is English for this reason.”

    Wrong on both counts. English is indeed better understood in these northern European countries than in other places like Vietnam and Korea (where if anything you’ll increasingly hear them use some simplified version of Chinese). But even in more English-proficient northern Europe, their English is halting at best.

    I remember there was a deal being made by a Belgian company representative and a group from Denmark, related to work in my field. They both tried to use English to communicate to each other, but neither party to the talks could actually communicate well in English, and they both wound up messing it up and totally miscommunicating. Ultimately, they just got their contracts translated into each other’s languages (Flemish and Danish in this case) and held the talks through interpreters, which was much cheaper.

    FWIW, the EU *does not have* a single official language– it’s definitely not English. The EU has multiple working languages, with the big dogs being French, German and English of course. But if anything, in the EU, German is the chief language– it has by far the highest number of native speakers, and a very large sphere of influence in both eastern and northern Europe. They have a lot of clever tricks, and lots of nifty auto-interpreters that are getting better, but there’s no one official language there. To the extent that there’s a “critical language” of the EU, it’s German.

  44. Eric Russell says:

    Therefore not scutinizing my own words well.

    At least you speak the truth.

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