02 June 2005

Plain language

"Roberts' Reflections" this month [dead link, not archived] mention early Friends' plain language and their substitutions for the pagan names of days and months. I like Arthur Roberts' comment, "Even June weddings no longer claim an edge on 'queenly bearing and imposing beauty.' Good crops and good marriages don’t happen from Juno 'weaving the clouds' but from people acting sensibly."

On the Northwest Yearly Meeting's pastors' e-mail list, one respondent replied to Arthur's "Reflections" with memories of his mother using the plain language. "It was often a profound epiphany when, as a lad, I would [hear] the 'thees' and 'thous' and almost remember genetically why the church needed to take a stand against the world even in such minutia as this."

I didn't hear the plain language until I was an adult convert to Christianity, mixing with Friends for the first time. Among the Friends of Ottawa Meeting, I think that the late Deborah Haight was the only person who very occasionally slipped into the plain language of her Norwich, Ontario, childhood and youth. I vividly remember the first occasion she used it in my presence. In monthly meeting, one Friend was criticizing another for lack of participation. She got up and sweetly said, "I have seen him more than I have seen thee."

In the mid-1970's among the older, long-time Friends of New England and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, I often heard husbands and wives, and siblings, using the plain language among each other. Among Friends of Ohio, Iowa, and North Carolina (Conservative) Yearly Meetings, even up to the present, I've observed the same thing, along with another interesting phenomenon -- the adoption of the plain language among some younger people, even the recently convinced.

Among those to whom the use of "thee" and "thy" seemed to come very naturally, two features impressed me: first, the gentleness of the pronouns, the affection they seem to hold as they caress my ears; and second, the ease with which these Friends considerately switched to "the world's" usage when not speaking within the family or the "plain" circle. Few of the plain-speakers I've known were as thorough as William Bacon Evans, the beautiful soul who, I've heard, was the last "plain" public minister of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. He consistently used "thee" to friend and stranger alike. I believe his consistent use of this no-longer-familiar mode of speech was akin to its use in the class-conscious England of the early Friends: an occasion of "provocative innocency" (R.W. Tucker's phrase) intended to evoke an interest in the spiritual source of the speaker's nonconformity.

Not all of us are called to "plain speech" or "plain dress" in this day and age, although advocates of both would be right to ask us whether we would know if we were called. It is always helpful to remember the distinction between personal witness and rigid group rules, and between a creative counterculture witness and an opaque, inhospitable peculiarity.

Nevertheless, the classic Quaker plainness surely has functional equivalents today, both large and small, that could also mark our lives as Christians, as Friends. Simplicity is a case in point; the modes of living simply may change from one social context to another, but the spiritual exercise of discerning and modeling what is fair, truly beautiful and enough remain perennially important.

Plain language, part two: torture.

Our simple chariot has returned.

Last week I reported the theft of our 1991 Honda Civic Wagon. The very next day we heard it had been illegally parked not far away, and towed to an impound lot. The only thing that was missing was ... *sigh* ... a full case of Wilhelm Foods marionberry jam. Our thief or thieves obviously had good taste.

We were cautioned by the impound lot's staff to have the car thoroughly cleaned by experts. We did, and they found two syringes under the front passenger seat.


Anonymous said...

A case of marionberry gone? Syringes?? And I thought I had a serious Wilhelm's Jam habit...

Johan Maurer said...

Actually, trying to get Dea's jam through a syringe might be part of a withdrawal regime!

Anonymous said...

'Canst thou believe' that Johan Maurer would write such a thing?

One thing that I have found is that those Friends who maintain the use of the earlier versions of the scriptures are more likely to use second person singular pronouns and numbered calendar units because they see such terminology there. Modern 'translations' usually substitute with what they consider modern equivalents.