The Language of Our Fathers (or You Should See What I Hear)

“And behold, it is wisdom in God that we should obtain these records, that we may preserve unto our children the language of our fathers…” (1 Nephi 3:19)

My kindergartner is learning to read, and his big sister has been infinitely patient in helping him sound out words from the Pokemon adventure book he’s currently working through. He’s in that early stage where he takes it one letter at a time, though he’s now working at stringing several letters together.

So it was an interesting surprise as I heard him carefully sound out “bee-atch” while reading about Squirtle’s latest adventure. My daughter bit her lip, then explained that when two vowels are together, you usually only say the first one’s name, so the word is actually “beach.”

The words we see and the words we say sometimes seem only tangentially connected. Most of the time it’s irrelevant—I remember one young church speaker who kept saying how “poyg-nant” (hard g) a particular Book of Mormon story was. Like my son’s pronunciation of “bee-atch” it was a simple case of failing to connect the written symbol to a more commonly heard word combined with generic unfamiliarity with the written form.

But sometimes the mispronunciations seem more troublesome. Just this morning I was listening to a distinguished panel of university professors discuss potential contamination of a major “aqua-fire.” I suspect it was a simple case of someone misreading the word aquifer as “aquifier,” but it revealed that no one on the panel had more than passing familiarity with the word itself, because the first one mispronounced it and the second perpetuated the error.

No one was misinformed and the political conversation made perfect sense, but it jarred pretty hard on my ears—not least because I’ve been unusually immersed (no pun intended) in issues of water tables, aquifers, the water cycle, and more in relation to a local sewer debate.

The point is that there was a distinct disconnection between how the word was formed and how it was used; it would be difficult to reverse-engineer the spelling of the word (or even identify its major parts) from the way it was mispronounced.

This happens all the time with words like “nuke-you-lur.” A regional oddity here in central Utah is the discussion of “ree-lah-turs” in relation to people who broker the sale of real property. If you wrote it the way it was said you might come up with “relater,” which is a real word that has nothing to do with real estate. One that jars on me fairly regularly is “jew-lah-ree,” a word that has nothing to do with Jews.

Again, no one is confused about the concept being discussed, but the spoken words themselves are becoming increasingly disconnected from the linguistic components that created them, and are clearly represented in the (correctly) written version of the word. An atomic nucleus is the core concept of nucle-ar, just as jewels are the prime concern of a jewel-er working with jewel-ry.

When the shift is great enough, the underlying word components can be lost—potentially damaging our ability to interrogate a word for its formative and secondary meanings. For example, I heard two common mispronunciations of important Mormon words in my various Sunday activities this week that beg the speakers’ understanding of those underlying components and the concepts they represent.

I actually giggled out loud as one person talked about the importance of a particular temple ordnance. I understand it’s just a regional accent that swallows the soft “i,” but I suddenly had visions of the Angel Moroni atop the Provo temple lobbing mortars at the unfaithful through his trumpet. In this case there is a real word with a completely unrelated meaning that could actually confuse one unfamiliar with the long-running discussion of important rites performed in temples. Paranoia about what happens in Mormon temples is active enough without suggesting we manufacture weapons there.

But the one that actually troubled me a bit was a mention of one church-goer’s “patriartical” blessing. I know, it’s just a single consonant shift that moves the sound to the tip of the tongue rather than the back, but it also changed the root word in a conceptually important way.

A patri-arch-al blessing describes a type (al) of ordinance (blessing) where a chief (arch) officer or father (patri) speaks words according to the power and authority of his office. It is a specific concept fully explicated in the word that describes it. But a patriartical blessing is a conceptually different idea where a non-specific father (patri) speaks a type of blessing (ical) after the manner (art) of his position.

I know…I need to chill; there was no misunderstanding of what the speaker intended to say, so communication was effective even if pronunciation was a tad eccentric. But if one read a transcript of those words disconnected in time and context (as scripture and written history is), there is a real chance of misunderstanding the important underlying concept should the wrong word be written down from auditory memory.

Which is part of why connecting spoken and written language is so important—and why pronunciation still matters. It’s part of the establishing the ground rules to accurately and completely share ideas in community as we communicate.

In an increasingly visual and auditory media environment it’s to our advantage to keep tabs on the written word as a precise and clear set of symbol for the underlying concepts, and to preserve a record unto our children of the language of our fathers so that we can truly turn our hearts (and minds and analytical efforts exercised through pondering) to our fathers and actually understand what they meant—not just what we think they said.

That’s one part of the unique power of literature, and one worth both understanding and protecting.

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3 Responses to The Language of Our Fathers (or You Should See What I Hear)

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Interesting thoughts. Thinking about several of the examples you gave that have passed into frequent usage among some groups (patriartical; nuke-you-lur; ree-lah-tur), it strikes me that these are easier to say than the “correct” pronunciation, which may explain the shift. In other cases (poyg-nant) it seems to be a sign of someone who has encountered a new word through reading that was not previously a part of oral vocabulary — which is, in its own way, a positive thing. Other cases (aqua-fire) suggest quick reading and possible false etymologies, leading to possible misinterpretations of meaning.

  2. I give up. What temple ordinance sounds like lobbing mortars when mispronounced?

    • Scott Parkin says:

      Ordnance = weaponry, generally understood as explosives.

      Ordinance = a religious rite (ordained), or an authoritative rule (zoning ordinance)

      That little “i” makes a huge difference in meaning, even though we often don’t pronounce it here in central Utah.

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