I had the fun opportunity to be a guest in a podcast today! Faith Promoting Rumors is a new podcast that my brother and dad started that explores Mormon myths and culture. Having published on an interesting linguistic quirk about Mormon culture—the alternation between calling someone either as “Brother Jones” or as “Bob”—I was asked to talk about my research and about this convention in Mormon culture generally.
There is a robust practice of using titles among Mormons. Kids and teenagers are expected to refer to all adults using the appropriate title (usually Brother or Sister, though in some cases Elder, Bishop, or President—see below), plus their last name. Adults reciprocate by calling minors by their first name, establishing a clear superiority between kids and adults, though this can be flouted for comedic, sarcastic, or reverential effects.
But between adults the rules are less straightforward. Sometimes adults use first name for each other and other times they use titles. Familiarity is the strongest factor but age and status within the congregation play a role as well. I had a hunch that things like situation, audience, family make up, and place in the social network had to do with it too. This is essentially the same as how some languages have their T-V distinction in pronouns. This is a classic sociolinguisic variable since it doesn’t appear to be a conscious decision by speakers and it’s an extremely common linguistic feature.
So what started off as a mild curiosity during Sunday meetings ended up being a term paper in both my sociolinguistics and social network analysis courses, two conference presentations, a spot in the 2016 Penn Working Papers in Linguistics, and my first qualifying paper—I got a lot of milage out of that study. I was just getting into quantitative methods, so it’s a little statistics-heavy, but I did find some interesting results.
Summary of the Study
Essentially, what I did to answer this question was give a survey out to members of my own congregation and ask them to indicate what they would call other members of the congregation in four different situations. I also asked them to tell me how well they knew each person.
As I mention in the podcast, some of the main findings are pretty intuitive. The better someone knows anther person, the more likely they are to use their first name. There was more first name among people of the same sex, especially women. Holding all other variables constant, more peripheral members of the social network of the congregation generally use more titles and get called by titles more than the core members. There were some differences between the sexes and the situation: men use more titles for present company while women use more first name in face-to-face situations.
One thing I tested was whether southerners use more titles. It’s a pretty common stereotype that southerners are more polite and call people “Miss Betty” more often. It turns out this carries over into Mormon circles as well: southerners generally used titles slightly more than northerners or Utahns.
Surprisingly, age wasn’t a factor. I thought there would be a clear effect of increased usage of titles for older people, but this didn’t pan out. What did appear to be the case was that people roughly within a couple years of each other use more titles for each other, but this was more an effect of familiarity than anything else: people are friends with others their age so they use fewer titles.
One of the more interesting findings was that people who have children were called by their titles more than those that didn’t. I’ve heard anecdotes where unmarried people get titles far less often than married people their same age, and it seems like having kids moves a person up another step in the “adult” category. One of my conclusions was that it seems like a Mormon is truly considered an adult until they are married and have children. Interestingly, the number of kids didn’t matter, just whether someone had kids. This is explainable by the family-centered religion and culture that Mormons are a part of, and it seems to made manifest in how people address each other—at least in my Georgia congregation.
Titles + First Name?
The title of the episode, “Brother Joseph”, alludes to the practice that early church leaders had in calling people by a title and their first name. I don’t know exactly when the change from first to last name happened, but it appears to be sometime in the mid-to-late 1800s. It also might be that certain individuals had this special use of the title: Brother Brigham [Young], Brother Joseph [Smith], Brother John [Taylor], Brother George [Cannon], and Sister Eliza [Snow] were some of the top hits in the mid 1800s. Though Brother [John] Taylor and Brother [George] Cannon were also common in the corpus I looked through. There are a lot of unknowns about forms of address in the early days of Mormonism, but we try to look into it a little bit.
As we mention in the podcast, there are other titles too that you might hear occasionally. Elder is reserved for male full-time missionaries, whether they be the young guys you might see on the streets or for men in global leadership positions. Women who serve missions retain their generic title of Sister. What’s interesting about the women though is that in some languages this is a unique title: in Portuguese for example the title is Síster rather than the generic Irmã (‘sister’) that other women have.
President is for leaders of specifically organized groups of men. This can apply to the president of the church, the leader of the greater local area (what we call “stakes”), or the group of 14–15-year old boys. This is a case when calling a 15-year-old boy “President Jones” is attested in certain circumstances. This title can also be used for the president’s assistants or “counselors”, though this applies more to the larger groups and is much less common at the local level.
Bishop is for the presiding authority of a congregation. This title, as well as those for full-time missionaries, have a unique position syntactically: they can stand on their own. In other words, it’s perfectly acceptable to approach to missionaries and say “Hey, Sisters!” or to approach a bishop and say “Hey, Bishop” instead of “Hey, Bishop Jones.” President can be used sometimes in this way though it’s less common.
This is an interesting part of Mormonism, and in the podcast we discuss some of the cultural implications of it. Linguistically though I still think there’s a lot more to be said and I’d be curious to see other research on this.