American Religiolect: Christianese / Evangelicalese

There was an interesting short feature on PRI’s The World radio program several weeks ago about religious language which is very much worth sharing.

Readers of this blog probably recognize that new and interesting words catch my interest. I’m often very happy to learn a new word, especially it if serves a useful purpose or has interesting origins. This story gave me a double dose, introducing me to a word I didn’t know (Christianese) and a concept I wasn’t familiar with (religiolect).

If you share my fascination with words and ideas, you’ll relate when I say that this was like getting ready to put on the water for my morning cup of tea–and instead finding a mocha latte with two extra shots of espresso already waiting.

The actual feature from The World seems to be missing, but that’s okay because it was just an abbreviated version of this podcast from PRI’s The World in Words. The podcast focused on Christianese, an arguably distinct form of English that qualifies as a religiolect.

Broadly speaking, a religiolect is a dialect of a language that’s specific to a particular religious group. For example, the podcast prior to that one discussed Judeo-Arabic, a dialect of Arabic once widely spoken by Iraqi Jews but now dying out. The term would also cover Yiddish, Ladino, and any other variant of a language spoken primarily by a distinct religious group within a larger culture (the examples you’ll find primarily discuss Jewish religiolects, as that’s where the academic work has focused, but the concept can be applied to any religion).

The term religiolect was coined by Benjamin Hary, Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, in his 1992 book “Multiglossia in Judeo-Arabic.” Hary uses a definition in a later publication that’s very useful for being so concise: a religiolect is “a language variety with its own history and development, which is used by a religious community.” (Hary explains the concept himself in that prior The World in Words podcast, beginning around 3:15.)

It’s a useful word explaining an easily-understood concept. The word merges religion (or religious) and dialect, which might lead some to say that it’s not strictly necessary, but it seems to me the new word provides something its parent words didn’t, in the same way that infomercial holds a distinct and expanded meaning over the origin words informative commercial. That kind of word formation is known as a blend by the way; if you also know the term portmanteau, give yourself a gold star.

The podcast delves into the idea of Christianese, plausibly described as a developing religiolect of American Christians. As an unidentified voice says in a preview plug for the podcast, Christianese is “nuanced and cryptic and almost entirely unnecessary,” but it has a lot of users. The dialect being described here is probably better labelled “Evangelicalese,” because it doesn’t apply broadly to all Christians, while other strains of Christianity likely have their own dialects. For simplicity we’ll stick with Christianese. [Evangelicalese has been been noted and parodied for a while, too: this article is from at least 2003 and resurfaces as “news” on the internet every few years.]

Christianese uses something like an overlay of additional vocabulary and modified grammar. On the vocabulary side, there are terms like “god shot” (positive coincidence or synchronicity, attributed to the active agency of a higher power) and “pre-Christian” (a noun; someone who isn’t a Christian, a non-Christian). Where the grammar is concerned, phrases with unusual uses of prepositions, such as “felt led to,” “spoke into,” and “loved on me” are often cited. (If these terms confuse you, a good start for help is the Dictionary of Christianese, compiled by Tim Stewart).

The podcast suggests that people not in the “in group” don’t realize what they’re dealing with when they encounter Christianese (or any other religiolect), but I think the fact that the podcast exists dispels that idea. Observant people pick up on these cues. And people who study language, or are just especially attuned to it, are even more likely to notice. In some ways, using (or tuning in to) a dialect like this is just a form of code switching. The observer might not be in the know about the rules or vocabulary or other aspects, but they’ll recognize that they’re dealing with something different.

I had fairly extensive contact with a form of Christianese some time back but never made the connection that it could be a full dialect until I heard this segment. Close to 20 years ago, I lived in a southern US city for a couple of years and many of my co-workers used this lingo among themselves (and with others). Back then, I chalked it up to it being part of their southern religious background, but now I see it was a sort of Christianese. They definitely had the unusual grammar going, and while the Christianese in their conversations never got nearly as dense as that parodied in the first 30 seconds of this video, the basic patterns were there.

Christianese acts as a jargon (not a slang), a set of terms and word usages that identify members of a group. It’s the same for accountants, or lawyers, or…writers and editors. For that matter, it’s the same for hockey players, or video-gamers, or vegans. I wouldn’t dream of singling out Christianese for ridicule on the grounds that it’s an unnecessary, silly dialect, any more than I’d do it with the jargon used by these other groups (…but let me be clear: I think the lingo used by any group is fair game for humor, especially by those who are in that group).

At least in some ways Christianese hearkens back to a much earlier time. That “cover us with your blood” thing (listen to the podcast) got me thinking about this. If you remember some of your Shakespeare (or other Elizabethan literature) you might recognize the exclamations zounds and ‘sblood. They’re short, respectively, for god’s wounds and god’s blood…which should sound familiar to that bit about covering things with god’s blood. These are the unusual terms you’re most likely to be familiar with, but there are others in the literature from that time period: ‘sdeath, ‘slid, ‘slight, ‘swounds (there’s a good list here). This doesn’t entirely match up with what’s going on with Christianese, but there are similarities.

This religiolect has been heavily criticized–by Christians. Here’s just one of many articles opposed to Christianese. The criticisms aren’t all purely negative. This one, a mild self-parody of the dialect, is pretty amusing.

It strikes me, though, that the internal criticisms (internal as in ‘by other Christians’) are ironic in the sense that they begin (and end) within a framework already steeped in a set of assumptions that validates the thoughts and attitudes that give rise to a religiolect such as Christianese. There’s a precondition in the conversation, an implicit bias, that assumes non-Christians are a lesser order of human, scuttling around in darkness, waiting for Christians to come and save them from themselves. It’s always present, but it comes to the fore with Christianese terms like “spiritual.” To most Christianese speakers, spiritual doesn’t actually mean spiritual; it means something more along the lines of “a good Christian like me.” That’s exactly the kind of “nuanced and cryptic” use that’s bound to attract criticism, from within and without.

The term Christianese is of uncertain origin, and it hasn’t made it into any of the major dictionaries yet. The Word Spy site dates first use of the term to 1986. That citation is a little vague about the specific meaning, but a second one they offer from 1988 very clearly lines up with the word’s meaning today.

I want to wrap up with a second mention of Tim Stewart and his Dictionary of Christianese. Digging into the origins of words and phrases and their evolution, and documenting the results, is an important and usually underappreciated endeavor. The way he’s doing it might be even more important, as it’s arguably less linguistic and grammatical than it is anthropological. It’s a useful glimpse into an important aspect of American life, and could be the jumping-off point for a deeper understanding of a group that will likely continue to have a disproportionate affect when it comes to the direction of this country.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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