Thesis Christ: The Language of Liturgy

Linguistics senior Adrianne Leary examines the ideological implications of choosing between two distinct liturgies in a local Episcopal church

Photo by Paul Molamphy

Photo by Paul Molamphy

“This is sort of a niche field within sociolinguistics — my advisor was like, ‘I don’t know anything about this, so you’re going to be teaching me.’” Sociolinguistic analyses of ideology in religious language may be lacking, but thesising senior Adrianne Leary is working to change that. Working with the Portland church Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, her senior thesis examines how ideology plays into whether church-goers decide to attend King James English (also known as Early Modern English) or contemporary English services.

The marvel of human communication, as well as her childhood love of spelling bees, led Leary to the field of linguistics. “I never really got over the fact that I can speak … or the fact that anyone can,” she explained. When it came time to choose her thesis, her faith provided her with an opportunity to examine her spirituality within her academic discipline.

The Episcopal church is a liturgical church, which means that each individual church follows certain patterns and scripts in their services. In the case of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, attendants of the church are able to choose between two different church services: one service is conducted in an older form of English, while the other is conducted in modern, contemporary English.  

Going into her research, Leary expected to find strong ideological differences between attendants of the two forms of liturgy. The limited academic literature available on the topic had also prepared her for this conclusion. However, her findings disagreed. “It was all pretty surprising,” she explained. “I was expecting to find that people view King James English … to be the appropriate thing. But I actually found that people seem not to view it as exclusive. They see it as a personal preference. They have much looser understandings of what appropriate language for worship is than I expected.” Leary also found surprising demographic diversity in the two groups of churchgoers, especially in their ages.

Leary posits that these results might be understood as part of a broader shift in people’s thinking towards the role of language in their faith. The contemporary liturgy was introduced in 1979, only a few years after the Catholic church shifted away from using Latin as a worldwide standard for their services. As people’s attitudes towards the appropriate language of worship have changed, so have the ideologies that underlie their choices.

Plenty of research still remains to be done on this topic. When the liturgy of the Episcopal church split, many practitioners created their own, smaller religious communities. “I think it would be really interesting to look at those,” Leary added, “and to try to compare it to what the more mainstream Episcopalians are doing.”

While Leary’s topic of study may be niche, she believes that it has broad implications for the assumptions that linguistics brings to the study of religious language. “It really challenges a lot of the beliefs and understandings that anthropology and sociolinguistics have brought to bear about the religion,” she said. “People are going into it with expectations about what religious people are like, and how they use language, versus really listening to the people who attend religious services.”

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