Speaking Mormon

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Keira Shae is the author of the phenomenal BCC Press megahit How the Light Gets In, a memoir of her early life in the dark underbelly of Provo, Utah. She was taken from a Meth-house to an LDS foster home as a teen. She will be joining fellow BCC authors Ashley May Hoiland, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, and Keira Shae this weekend for readings at Anthony’s Antiques & Fine Art in Salt Lake City (7:00 PM on Friday, April 5) and Writ & Vision in Provo (7:00 PM on Saturday, April 6). Her story, and her book, are featured in the April 3 Edition of the Deseret News.

I speak Mormon.

People ask me all the time for “proof” of my standing with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons and ex-Mormons alike will question my garment-wearing habits or Sunday routine, an “in-group” or “out-group” marker.

These are still tribes sticking to hard and fast rules. I did it, too. And do. It’s a way to gauge your interaction with others and adjust to their knowledge or preferences.

Also, because I’m a resident of Utah, the LDS Church gets brought up a lot, no matter what “side you’re on”. Frequently people ask me if I’m LDS only so that I can understand the context of the situation they are explaining (for example, words like “primary-aged child” or “my calling”).

I don’t feel like I’m traditionally or Orthodox LDS, but at the same time I understand what they’re explaining. It’s made me think about what Mormonism is. That instead of feeling as if we are groups or tribes or that being LDS is about places to stand or travel to, “Mormon” is actually a language. What they are asking me is if I “speak Mormon”, or if they have to translate for me (both their vocabulary and their culture). In this increasingly global community, this both makes sense and is a very thoughtful gesture.

And I do speak Mormon. Converted to the church as a teen, I am now very fluent in “Mormon.” And even though Mormonism is not a language that fully expresses all the emotions and experiences that I have, it is still a framework in which I move about in and interact with my world. It is still a connecting factor in most of my relationships. Without it, I couldn’t get to the emotional and intellectual place that I am now.

There is a linguistic theory that our language structure informs our view of the world and our actual cognitive abilities. It’s called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or Linguistic Relativity. One modern example of this is that we are struggling with integrating Non-binary gendered peoples into our cultures. Non-binary (NB) persons identify as not male or female, which means that talking to them or referring to them in our gendered language can be inconvenient, even difficult. Our language (and many other languages, actually) forces us to see people as “he” or “she”, never “it” or “they”. As a child who only knew English and Spanish, I don’t think I would have been able to comprehend the third possibility nor understand why someone would choose the third option.

Whether I like it or not, English informs how I see my world. Whether I like it or not, Mormonism has informed the way I see my world, especially spiritually. One fantastic example of an LDS doctrinal point that informs how I view things is seeing God as a combination of Male and Female, harmoniously married.

As a woman who previously only experienced a male (single) creating-God, this was a source of hope and happiness for me. Another example of Western religious culture limiting what I knew was possible comes from learning that certain cultures don’t just practice polygyny, but the reverse, polyandry. As I learn more, my world feels huge. It’s scary and humbling. I love this process of learning outside of my comfort zone, my “language” zone.

Even though I feel my “languages” are not all-encompassing, I’m thankful for them. I’m happy to speak “the language” if it means more connection with people that I care about. So I keep up my language skills. It’s just that on the side, I’m looking for something else to supplement my vocabulary.


  1. Just to be clear, linguists are usually pretty careful to emphasize that Sapir-Whorf is a hypothesis rather than a theory, as the idea is still rather controversial and not widely accepted in the field.

    I do not believe that the above clarification negates the points that you make in later paragraphs, with which I largely agree.

  2. josidave says:

    Great post! I had a middle-school student come up to me, a new teacher, to ask me, “Are you one of us?” I suspected what she meant, from a previous references to religion, but I asked anyway, “what do you mean?” “You know,” she replied, “with US.” I taught her and a few others the word irrelevant. Sharing my denomination was not necessary for her to know. The tribal language is very strong among us.

    Recently, I have felt that it is much more challenging to describe myself without using tthe word Mormon. Maybe by outlawing that word, some might think that members will be protected from challenging information by forbidding the use of the word in, say, a google search. Perhaps some think they are safeguarding our testimonies by restricting our vocabulary?

  3. Beautifully written. Not much to add.

  4. Chompers says:

    Yeah, whilst the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is interesting academically, it has zero functional impact on why people don’t accept non-binary people. It’s not because our language forces us to be unable to comprehend them; most people don’t accept it because it’s bizarre, and more importantly, beyond their experience.

    You were doing really well till you went AWOL with that idea. It’s tangentially related, but enough of a contextual non-sequitur that you should’ve really skipped it or made it more of a central point.

  5. I’m not a linguist, but I understand the point being made with respect to language and gender. There are enough in-depth discussions about alternative pronouns and language inclusivity among LGBTQ communities that it is clearly very important to non-binary people.

    On the mormon vocabulary note, my high school english teacher gave all of us Utah kids a lecture about avoiding “local, cultural terms” in our AP essays, in particular if the prose or poem discussed God. I think she specifically said to avoid “scriptures,” “blessings,” and “grateful.”

  6. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra says:

    “more importantly, beyond their (shared) experience.”
    — Sokath, his eyes open!

    “my high school english teacher gave all of us Utah kids a lecture about avoiding “local, cultural terms” in our AP essays, in particular if the prose or poem discussed God. I think she specifically said to avoid “scriptures,” “blessings,” and “grateful”
    — Shaka, when the walls fell :(

  7. This resonates pretty deeply with me, as someone who has been recently making peace with the fact that, regardless of my relationship between any institutional church, “Mormon” is and will always be my native language.

  8. This comment might seem like a digression, but please bear with me–I promise I’ll come back to the topic at hand.
    As McBeth notes, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis remains controversial and is not widely accepted among linguists, though it has great power within the popular imagination. More specifically, the “strong form” of linguistic determinism has been pretty thoroughly disproved, and the example of binary pronouns creating challenges for talking to and about people who identity their gender as nonbinary is a case in point. We can and do understand the concept (unless we actively resist trying), and we can and do adapt linguistically, through normal social processes of trial and error. Both the nonspecific and the specific singular “they” are now in common usage and accepted by most style guides, and have been now for several years, though the Mormon language has been understandably slow on that particular lexical uptake.
    By contrast, a “weak form” of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which supposes that the available structure and lexis of a dialect influence (but do not determine) how we shape our concepts as well as how we talk about them, does appear to have some empirical merit, though it’s hard to tell how much, and many linguists don’t find the question all that interesting. But it is evidently harder to grasp concepts for which we lack readily available language, and nonbinary pronouns are also an example of this–though in that case (as in most cases) the problem isn’t the pronouns themselves but a whole network of lexical associations about gender, as well as gaps in biological and sociological knowledge (I’m not going to go into this further because that really would be derailing the thread).
    Anyway, I promised to bring this back on-topic. Rather than thinking of “speaking Mormon” in terms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I suggest instead thinking about it in terms of belonging to a discourse community, which can perhaps be most succinctly defined using James Paul Gee’s formula (though he prefers his own terminology rather than “discourse community”: “saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing
    In short, “Speaking Mormon” involves far more than just knowing the lingo–but that is true of all linguistic communities. And I agree with OP that there is a lot of value in thinking of “Mormon” as a “language”–one heavily influenced by but distinct from the institution of TCOJCOLDS–and in thinking about the ways in which the Mormon language enables and constrains us as we seek to understand and express our understanding of ourselves, our universe, and our place in it, both with other people who speak our language and perhaps especially with other people for whom Mormon is a foreign language. Further, this idea should prompt me to consider how little I know of other people’s “languages” (or to use the term I think is more accurate, their discourse communities) and how my own relative monolingualism might lead to unnecessary misunderstandings.

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