I watched the Sunday afternoon session of LDS general conference yesterday while I was folding laundry. From an outsider’s perspective, there wasn’t much of interest. Church members are abuzz about the announcement of a temple in Rome, Italy, but I wonder how they will possibly fill even one of the tiny mini-temples in a country with so few Mormons. For whatever reason, no one is excited about the new temple to be built in “greater Kansas City.” If you think about it, what is located in greater Kansas City? That’s right, Independence, Missouri, future site of the New Jerusalem. Could this temple announcement be the harbinger of the end times? Enquiring minds want to know.

But what struck me most of all is the strange, lilting cadence of conference-speak. You know what I mean. It’s almost as if someone were reading a bedtime story to a child. The most pronounced conference-speakers are Thomas Monson and Russell Nelson. Monson was in full c-speak mode even when talking about the “owners and operators of satellite and cable systems.” Nelson issued a forceful defense of the church’s stand on same-sex marriage that was somewhat muted by the dulcet tones of his voice.

I’m not pointing this out to be critical, but I started wondering about how this particular method of public speaking came about. I don’t think it originated with the early leaders of the LDS church. I somehow can’t imagine that Joseph Smith’s daring, almost boastful, discourses were given in conference-speak. Nor would Brigham Young have spoken so softly in proclaiming such doctrines as Adam-God and Blood Atonement.

But somehow, somewhere, this weird speech pattern crept in, and we’re left with Keith McMullin of the Presiding Bishopric, a strained smile on his face, speaking of a miracle that took place in a “HHHAHH-spit-hull.”


4 Responses to Conference-speak

  1. K*tty says:

    Boy, do I get the conference speak tone. Before we had cable, you could get conference on the radio. It was always easy to find even if you were unsure of the station. There would be the normal voices of talk radio and then suddenly that sing-ee (not really a word) monotone voice would beam in. It didn’t matter which speaker you missed, they all had that same tone. Maybe to the righteous, it is a voice only they can tune into and be at rapt attention. For me, I could never do it, not in all my glorious days of devout activity. So I am sure that TBMs would say, that even at 11 years old, I did not have the “spirit.” When I was active, I use to say, “I will read it, but I just can’t listen to it, it’s tooooooo painful.”

  2. sideon says:

    Conference-speak originated about the same time as the secret underwear. If God mandated holy thongs, I’m sure the speakers would talk normally again.

    I’m wondering if leather would be an option?

  3. >>Nor would Brigham Young have spoken so softly in proclaiming such doctrines as Adam-God and Blood Atonement.

    That’s an understatement! Brigham was a typically rowdy, foul-mouthed frontier orator. The JoD edits out most of his more profane language. I suspect that Conference-speak took over around the time that Utah was integrated into the Union and Mormons started to feel the need for respectability in the eyes of outsiders. It happens eventually in every church. Max Weber called it the “routinization of charisma”, and Nathan Hatch has called it the “quest for respectability”. Protestantism generally deals with the problem by spinning off new, rowdy sects from the ones that lose their saltiness, but Mormonism’s centralized structure prohibits such a mechanism. The only hope for the LDS Church, then, is renewal from within: another J. Golden Kimball, perhaps.

  4. Odell says:

    I suspect that conference talk is a product of a dialect introduced by northern European immigrants and a case of imitation of a previous church leader, possibly David McKay or Spencer Kimball, both of whom had very soft, calm voices.

    Do you recall the way that FLDS women spoke when interviewed? One woman said that they were trying to sound like the Prophet Warren Jeffs, since his voice was the holiest voice on earth.

    Places like Wisconsin have had their English pronunciation affected by immigration as had places like Boston, New York and Miami.

    I think the early immigration into Utah has shaped the way English is spoken in that region.

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