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David O. Mckay Lectures

Man & God's Gift of Languages

Alice C. Pack represents a significant milestone in the distinguished history of the David O. McKay Lecture series: She was the the first graduate of Church College of Hawaii selected to deliver a lecture, the fifteenth in the series. A night class in Tongan at CCH, taken when on a labor mission in Laie with her husband, Paul, eventually led to her B.A. in 1965, several years after she had turned fifty. Her M.A. from the University of Hawaii in 1968 and a Ph.D. from Walden University in 1975 followed.

Pack joined the faculty at CCH in 1966. Devoting her considerable scholarly energies to promoting the TESL Reporter, as its second editor, writing the 3-volume Dyad series (ESL textbooks) and improving the University's English Language Institute, all of which provided fertile background for her lecture on the origin of language.

A past Relief Society president, Pack also worked for the Red Cross and in health care services. She and her husband, Paul, have 6 living children: Elbert, Virginia, David, Paul, Patricia and Barbara: a seventh, Dorothy, is deceased.



As I stand here this morning and look over this group--students and colleagues--I'd like to preface this lecture with a few words of appreciation for the many opportunities and blessings--the great enrichment--this school has brought into my life. Because of this institution, the education I dreamed of in my youth has become a reality, and, in addition, the realization of never imagined educational achievements.

I am particularly grateful to President David Oman McKay, whose prophetic vision and great love for all people, in addition to his appreciation for higher education, provided for its establishment (Law 25-30). This latter-day prophet first touched my life when I was quite young. Among the many visiting authorities who attended conferences in the early California Mission (and there were many whose names and faces I no longer remember) was a tall, commanding figure who wore a swallow-tailed coat and carried a tall silk hat. Perhaps many of the General Authorities were attired this way; I really don't remember because the outstanding thing about this conference visitor was not his physical appearance--commanding as it was--but his way with language--his oratory, his choice of words and syntax, his use of metaphor and simile--his skillful use of all the rhetorical devices of English. He was a master of language and he touched my life. I felt a kinship with my own interest in words--the core of language. In view of my early and continued interest in language I suppose it is no coincidence that my chosen discipline--Linguistics and the Teaching of English as a Second Language--is primarily concerned with words and language, and that my theme today is "Man and God's Gift of Language."

History of Language and Language Acquisition

Man, among all creatures on earth, has the gift of language--the endowment of a physical and mental capacity which renders him psychologically capable of symbolic expression and interaction. Susanne Langer has aptly expressed it:

Not higher sensitivity, not longer memory or even quicker association sets man so far above other animals that he can regard them as denizens of a lower world: no, it is the power of using symbols--the power of speech--that makes him lord of the earth. (26) Language is, without a doubt, the most momentous and at the same time the most mysterious product of the human mind. Between the clearest animal call of love or warning or anger, and man's least, trivial word, there lies a whole day of Creation. (103)

Although many interesting experiments in teaching animals to use sign language and symbols or push computer buttons to express needs or wants have recently been carried on (e.g., Washoe, Sarah, Nim and their contemporaries) and possibly, in time, some of these chimps may even teach some form of symbolic representation to their offspring, these language experiments cannot possibly compare to human language acquisition.1 All normal human beings learn their family and peer group language as part of the maturation process. By the age of five or six, children have a high degree of proficiency in their native tongue. As Mark Twain humorously remarked that, much to his amazement, when he visited France even the little children were conversing in French!2

Relating language and personality development in the young child, Gertrude Wyatt observed:

A learning process of constantly increasing complexity, taking from five to six years of the child's early life, is necessary [for the acquisition of language] and this learning process itself is part and parcel of the individual's ego development. But this symbolic transformation of bits of reality into language serves the child in more than one area. Not only can immediate events become identified and thus meaningful and coherent for the child; the same fascinating occurrence can be repeated indefinitely, even after the actual stimulation has passed. With the help of words, sensations and their feeling, tone can be remembered and recalled at will. (26)

Today's scientific studies on language acquisition focus on how language is learned and on how children acquire speech; the premise that children do learn language is irrefutable.

Scholars still speculate on where and how man got his words. O. Hobart Mowrer asserts that this has occasioned more interest and speculation, probably, than any other single aspect of the whole language problem and that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries "so much attention" was addressed to this subject "that the French Academy of Science passed a rule formally excluding any more communications on this topic from its transactions" (27). Theories of language origin have included the onomatopoeic or "bow-wow" theory--the idea that language began with imitations of sounds occurring in nature--the "ding-dong" theory which maintains there is a mystic correlation between sound and meaning, the "pooh-pooh" theory which holds that speech first consisted of reactions to fear, pleasure, pain, etc., the "yo-he-ho" theory which asserts that grunts from physical exertion originated language, and the "ta-ta" theory which poses that vocal organs unconsciously attempted to mimic bodily actions or mimic gestures of the hands.

Mario Pei has asked the question, "What are the chances that modern linguists, equipped with the powerful aids of present-day science, may one day break down the veil of mystery that enshrouds the origin of language?" and then he has answered it, "Frankly, very slight" (26):

All that the scientist in the linguistic field can do in connection with the beginning of speech is to observe what is observable around him (the speech of infants, the language of primitive groups, etc.), compare his observations with the earliest records and known historical and anthropological facts, and basing himself upon those observations and comparisons, make surmises which will be more or less plausible, more or less complete, but never scientific in the true sense of the word. (Pei 47)

As more and more languages are analyzed and extensive information on language becomes available, the faultier seem the theories that language evolved from imitative sounds or primitive grunts and groans. Surprising to those who have subscribed to these theories is the fact that primitive languages

are, as a rule, anything but primitive, save with reference to the vocabulary of modern civilization. Linguists who explore these tongues regularly find in them refinements of distinctions and complexities unknown to our own languages, even though circumscribed by the primitive group's experience and environment. (Pei 27)

Chase records:

There are no languages properly to be termed 'primitive.' The living standards of Australian bushfellows may leave something to be desired, but the structure of their language is more complicated than English. Though systems differ widely, yet in their order, harmony, and subtle powers of apprehending reality, they demonstrate the link which binds all men together. 'The crudest savage,' says Whorf, 'may unconsciously manipulate with effortless ease a linguistic system so intricate, manifoldly systematized, and intellectually difficult, that it requires the lifetime study of our greatest scholars to describe its workings.' (106)

Although the focus on today's linguistic papers seems to have shifted from language origins to language acquisition, i.e., brain dominance and artistic versus mechanical learning, there is one thing upon which all linguists agree, that is, that the problem of the origin of human speech and the means by which it is acquired are still unsolved.

In a recent symposium on the Gospel and behavioral sciences, Neal Maxwell stated that "the LDS scholar has his citizenship in the kingdom, but carries his passport into the professional world--not the other way around" (589). This is the key to our study of language. We can dismiss statements like "Some [theories of language learning] are traditional and mystical, like the legends current among many primitive groups that language was a gift from the gods" because we know that language, like life itself, is a gift from God (Pei 21). It has always co-existed with man upon this earth. Adam not only had an oral language but a written one as well. Moses states,

And a book of remembrance was kept, in the which was recorded, in the language of Adam, for it was given unto as many as called upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration; And by them their children were taught to read and write, having a language which was pure and undefiled. (Moses 6: 5-6).

Sociolinguists, just beginning to explore the integral relationship between man and his language, have concluded that these are inseparable. A person whose language is considered inferior by others relates that inferiority to himself, and, conversely, a person whose language is considered prestigious in relation to others applies that prestige to himself. The latest innovative methods of second language teaching are based on the premise that the highest motivation for learning a language is present when it is prestigious to write or speak that tongue.

As in the beginning "the whole earth was of one language," (Gen.11: 1), the pure Adamic (or a dialect of it) lasted until the confounding of tongues at the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11: 9), so probably Jared and his brother, with their friends (who were permitted to retain their native tongue) spoke it (Ether 1: 34-37).

Languages change from generation to generation, although sometimes almost imperceptibly, particularly where people live in isolated groups. Without a written form and a literate public, there is more rapid change. Consider the people of Zarahemla, whose ancestors, approximately four hundred years earlier, shared a common tongue with Lehi and his family. We read that "their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them. . . and [neither] Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah [who were the descendants of Lehi], could understand them" (Omni 1: 17). Moroni comments on the Hebrew of his day compared to that of his ancestors: "but the Hebrew hath been altered by us also" (Morm. 9: 33).

In considering the term "language corruption," one could apply that appellation to any change that had occurred from an earlier form. Hence, all languages are a corruption of the original, pure Adamic language. Consider the term corruption with a meaning besides that of change. This is a deterioration from good toward evil. As the original Adamic tongue, due to its God-given origin, should be considered perfect or the ideal (at least for this world), so any deviation from that ideal would make it less perfect than the original. Again we read that the people of Zarahemla "denied the being of their creator," (Omni 1: 17), so they might also have lost the method and/or the vocabulary to speak about or address the true divinity.

Purpose of Language

Compared with the vast body of materials on language sources and language acquisition, little has been written on the purpose of language. As God gave man language, surely he had some great purpose in mind for this gift. We cannot agree with Hawthorne when he states that "Language--human language,--after all, is but little better than the croak and cackle of fowls, and other utterances of brute nature,--sometimes not so adequate" (qtd. in Pei 21).

Most linguistic and communication texts accept language as a necessary communication factor and then proceed either to indicate how lexicon and grammar or semantic interpretation point out meaning or treat the processes involved in attaining success in specific situations through language choice. All admit that language has power, and many intimate that specific language choices will automatically bring about desired responses. Such is often the case; there are some language symbols forbidden to man because of the evil they conjure, and there are others that are so sacred that they should not be used indiscriminately. Akish, in early Jaredite history, administered ancient oaths, handed down from Cain, which Satan had devised for usurping power and exercising unrighteous dominion over others, thus depriving them of man's original birthright--free agency (Ether 8: 15-20).

If one examines the direction of the Lord to his prophets when he commands them to use language--either in speaking or writing--the purpose for this form of communication is manifest. Speaking to Moses, he explained that the purpose of all creation was "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1: 39). Then continuing, "And now, Moses, my son, I will speak unto thee concerning this earth upon which thou standest, and thou shalt write the things which I shall speak" (Moses 1: 40). Nephi records, "For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God" (2 Ne. 25: 23); again, "Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do" (2 Ne. 32: 3). Nephi was shown the things that John would write and told that "the things which he shall write are just and true" (1 Ne. 14: 23). He was told that there were "also others who have been, to him hath he shown all things, and they have written them, and they are sealed up to come forth in their purity." (1 Ne. 14: 26). An angel of the Lord even instructed Nephi to murder that the people might have the written records of God's words to his prophets (1 Ne. 4: 10-13). With the knowledge that by the power of God's word all things were created and that this word is Jesus Christ, the purpose for that language becomes even more potent (Moses 1: 32).

The Native Speaker and His Language

Some linguists have advanced the theory that a man's language shapes and limits his view of the cosmos and that he is incapable of experiencing anything his language precludes his easily describing. All admit that some languages have both content and structure words which more clearly and succinctly indicate a particular experience or a desired meaning (one of the reasons for the many "borrowed" words in English and other languages). However, many fail to realize that an educated native speaker of any language can generally put across his message to another native speaker of that language. He may use voice inflection or a gesture--often too subtle for a non-native speaker to interpret--but the message is delivered. Moroni wrote in reformed Egyptian although he lamented the fact that he didn't have room on the plates to write in his native tongue, Hebrew, as then there would be no "imperfection" (Morm. 9: 32-33).

Linguists and educators often form rash conclusions about other cultures because they rely on their own language intuition and fail to perceive subsurface differences.

May I digress for a moment to tell you of my first experience in conducting a TESL workshop in the Pacific. In Samoa, three top educators instructed my partner and I that we were to entirely eliminate any theory or reason from our instruction. In fact, we were told we must only show Samoan teachers how to do and then let them imitate. Solemnly given as a reason for this strange dictum was the fact that "Samoans were incapable of thinking." (This doctrine was not new to me--I'd heard it before in Laie, but had dismissed it on the basis of who had said it.) When asked how these educators had come by this "truism," we were informed that there were no abstract terms in the Samoan language, ergo, Samoans couldn't think. This line of reasoning would lead one to believe that English speakers are incapable of understanding family relationships and distinguishing between their father's mother and their mother's mother as both are called grandmother, and that Japanese are incapable of conceiving plurality because they do not indicate this with nouns.

English texts and teachers frequently state, in all sincerity, that a person is absolutely unable to think clearly unless he can express his thoughts--in English! Readily admissible is the fact that no one else will know that a person is able to think unless he can express his thought in understandable language, but an Einstein might clearly have an idea that he could not express so that anyone else could follow.

In no other period of history has there been such a proliferation of language. One has only to turn a knob to select from a variety of language offerings. The more powerful the set, the wider the range of topics and languages. Thousands and thousands of books and magazines are printed every year. Microfilm and microfiche make hitherto inaccessible information available in even modest libraries.

In no other period of history has man been so aware of the multiplicity of languages and dialects. Linguists no longer try to estimate the number of tongues used throughout the world. In Africa, over 800 languages have been identified and President Dan Andersen, in a recent forum, mentioned that there are currently 225 languages and dialects used in Indonesia alone.

Today's prophets, like those of old, cognizant of their responsibility and aware of the purpose and power of the word, are attempting to bring that knowledge to the world. They realize that this proliferation of tongues complicates, but must not deter, the spread of the word of the Lord. Man must still be given the opportunity of exercising his free agency by being exposed to the truth.

Language and Prejudice

Most people, understandably, feel that their language is superior to any other and that somehow words in themselves are the things they represent. Charles V, King of Spain, observed that one "ought to speak Spanish to the Deity, French to one's friends, German to one's enemies, and Italian to the fair sex," while Lomonosov, a Russian, replied that if Charles had known Russian he would have realized that that language would have sufficed for all (qtd. in Pei 195). One should have no difficulty identifying the native language of Andreas Kemke, who made the statement that in the Garden of Eden, Adam spoke Danish, the serpent spoke French, and God spoke Swedish.3 Unfortunately, many native English speakers, like Charles V, Lomonosov, and the Swede, Kemke, feel that, somehow, their language is God's language.

Again, I'd like to illustrate with a personal experience. When we first came to Hawaii, my husband and I, wanting to understand many of the prayers, talks, and testimonies given in Polynesian tongues, enrolled in a Samoan language class--Samoan, because it was the only Polynesian language taught here at that time. A neighbor indicated our stupidity in no uncertain terms by stating that it was absolute nonsense to learn their language--they should learn ours, and an English professor asked us why we were wasting our time learning a language that had no literature to read.

Many educators dismiss Hawaii pidgin as a non-language although it is the native and only tongue spoken by many families and their peer groups. Granted, a person will not succeed academically or probably economically without additional language competence, but pidgin must be accepted as the language of communication in many places and in many situations, as must all languages and dialects used throughout the world. Many people still feel that Eskimo, Indian and some African languages are merely a mixture of gestures and grunts; a linguistic analysis of some of these languages reveals a formidable structure known as polysynthetic, meaning that "entire sentences are incorporated into a single word. Each element of the word carries meaning but does not have an independent existence" (Ornstein and Gage 12).

When President Lee advocated that the saints assembled in the European Area Conference learn English, he was not prophetically announcing that English was a superior, prestigious language. He explained that it would be far easier for all saints to learn one additional language than for the General Authorities to learn all the languages spoken by the members of the Church (Heslop 3).

Languages and Nationalism

The General Authorities are concerned with languages. The Translation Department, the Language and Intercultural Research Center, the Language Training Center for missionaries, the Korea/Japanese TESL program, and other Church-sponsored educational agencies attest to this. They are concerned with all languages, but particularly English, as English has been and still is the central language of the Church. They are also concerned with literacy and the Prophet Joseph Smith's declaration that "a man is saved no faster than he [gains] knowledge" (Smith 588).

In an early (probably premature) language experiment--an almost forgotten achievement in LDS history, an attempt was made to aid Church members' literacy with the 1868 publication of one sound-one symbol reading texts (elementary readers and the Book of Mormon) printed in the newly devised Deseret Alphabet (Regents 3). (As far as I can ascertain--and I have researched quite extensively --this was the first of many systems of shorthand, reformed spelling, etc., in the United States, although the Pitman brothers and others had previously devised and advocated the use of phonography--a one symbol-one sound alphabet--in England [Widtsoe 261].) Today, many linguists are still advocating a phonetic spelling for English to help eradicate illiteracy.

The wide use of English as a trade language by non-native English speaking nations and its prestige as one of the three official languages of the United Nations makes it almost universally accepted throughout the world. India and the Philippines, although officially adopting English as a trade language, have recently continued this only as a last resort. English has continued to be used because of the intense rivalry of the leading national languages. (First Hindustani and Urdu ["India" Encyclopedia 934]--now Hindi and the Dravidian dialects ["India" International 183-184] in India [Indian languages have religious affiliation connotation also], and Tagalog, Ilocano, Cebuano, and Filipino in the Philippines [Moss 11.4)].)

Because language is such a personal thing, and because it has been almost inseparable from the culture that speaks it, it is often identified as the culture itself. You will recall how Peter was recognized as a Galilean by his speech (Matt. 26: 73) and how the Ephraimites were detected and slain when they were trapped by Jephthah and the Gileadites, where in spite of a denial of nationality, the failure to make a distinction between the voiceless aveopalatal fricative (s) and the voiceless alveolar fricative (s) -- Shibboath versus Sibboleth -- signed a man's death warrant. (Judg. 12: 5-6).

Many countries, in waves of intense nationalism, are turning against the use of English in country because they feel that somehow they will become socially and/or politically allied with the countries in which English is the native tongue. France has recently outlawed foreign terms in speech and print, and Mexico has forbidden all advertising and store signs in foreign languages--especially English. Minority groups within a country resist pressures to conform to the native tongue, so bilingualism is presently the prescription for minority group education.

The Church used English almost exclusively as the medium of instruction in its earlier sponsored foreign schools and many native speakers of English were hired to teach in these schools. Now the trend is for English to be taught as one subject in the curriculum with an almost exclusive native faculty for all subjects.

A move to eliminate the many acronyms used in English education, such as EFL (English as a Foreign Language), ESL (English as a Second Language), and ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), and replace them with a new one, EIAL (English as an International Auxiliary Language), is a step toward divorcing language and culture. Larry Smith of the East-West Center Culture Institute, in a speech last year to educators in Singapore, stated what I perceive was President Lee's approach to the Church's use of English worldwide:

We in ELE [English Language Education] need to find redundant ways to point out that English belongs to the world and every nation which uses it does so with a different tone, color, and quality. . . . [Many nationalities] speak with accents when they speak English, but so do Canadians, Australians, and all the rest. English is an international language. It is yours (no matter who you are) as much as it is mine (no matter who I am). We may use it for different purposes and for different lengths of time on different occasions, but nonetheless it belongs to all of us. English is one of the languages of. . . the Republic of China, Thailand, and the States. No one needs to become more like the Americans, the British, the Australians, the Canadians or any other native English speaker in order to lay claim on the language. To take the argument a step further, it isn't even necessary to appreciate the culture of a country whose principal language is English in order for one to use it effectively. (2)

Linguistic intolerance is manifested in the aversion to other languages than one's own, and pride in language is probably the most distinctive mark of national intolerance. Mario Pei suggests that

Language, intrinsically useful, may also serve to create and foster intolerance and hatred and to diffuse these wretched human qualities by acting as their vehicle. In the latter capacity, the effectiveness of language is more subtle and destructive than in the former, because the intolerance that language serves may be social, religious, racial, and national as well as purely linguistic. (259)


The Lord, in His preface to His book of modern commandments, states that His revelations were given "unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding" (D&C 1:24). We, too must communicate with those we seek to teach "after the manner of their language" so they can understand His truths.

The time will probably come, as Orson Pratt eloquently suggested in 1868, when men will again speak one language--the pure Adamic tongue--or further be able to communicate by light or spirit, (JD 3: 98-100), but that time is not now or in the foreseeable future. Truth must currently be spread by the power of the written and spoken word--language.

May we make it more readily available by our competence in, and tolerance for, all languages, I sincerely pray in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


1Ed. Note. In the mid-1960s, Beatrice and Robert Gardner and R. Allen began long-range effort, "Project Washoe," to communicate with chimpanzees, the first of whom was appropriately named Washoe. Meanwhile, David Premack worked with Sarah, another chimp, while Herbert Terrace made astonishing progress with Nim. Sign language played an important r™le in all of these studies (Sagan and Druyan 77, 79, 84).Back to Top

2Ed. Note. Lou Budd, one of the most knowledgeable scholars on matters relating to Twain, observes, "as for the little children speaking French. . . it doesn't seem to me at all plausible [that Twain said it]" (Louis J. Budd to Jesse S. Crisler, 14 December 1992); similarly, Tom Tenney, himself a noted expert on Twain, declares, "The [statement] on the little children speaking French is in fairly wide circulation, but I've never heard it attributed to Twain before" (Tom Tenney to Jesse S. Crisler, 18 January 1993). Thus, like other remarks supposedly by Twain, this one has perhaps been misattributed. Back to Top

3Ed. Note. Pack's reference to Kemke has not been located; unfortunately, it does not appear in Pei, the most likely source, nor is Kemke indexed in standard sources on Swedish or Scandinavian language, history, or biography.Back to Top

Works Cited

Andersen, Dan W. "Church Education and Cross-cultural Currents." Forum. Brigham Young University-Hawaii, Laie, 20 January 1977.

The Bible.

The Book of Mormon.

Chase, Stuart. "How Language Shapes our Thought." Language" An Introductory Reader. Eds. J. Burl Hogins and Robert E. Yarber. New York: Harper and Row, 1969. 97-107.

The Doctrine and Covenants.

Heslop, J. M. "'Be True, Faithful' -- Pres. Lee." Church News. 1 September 1973: 3, 11.

"India." Encyclopedia Americana. 1974 ed.

"India." International Encyclopedia. 1976 ed.

Journal of Discourses. 26 vols. London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1855-1866. 3: 97-105.

Langer, Susanne. Philosophy in a New Key. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1942.

Law, Reuben D. The Founding and Early Development of the Church College of Hawaii. St. George, UT: Dixie College P, 1972.

Maxwell, Neal A. "Some Thoughts on the Gospel and the Behavioral Sciences." Brigham Young University Studies 16.4 (Summer 1976): 589-602.

Moss, Kenyon L. "Language/Communication Problems for the Church in the Philippines." Proc. of the Languages and Linguistics Symposium. 22-23 March 1976. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Language Research Center, [1976]. 11.1-11.5.

Mowrer, O. Hobart. "The Psychologist Looks at Language." Readings in the Psychology of Language. Eds. Leon A. Jakobovits and Murray S. Miron. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967. 6-50.

Ornstein, Jacob and William Gage. "Language and Myths about Language." Language: An Introductory Reader. Eds. J. Burl Hogins and Robert E. Yarber. New York: Harper and Row, 1969. 8-17.

The Pearl of Great Price.

Pei, Mario. The Story of Language. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1965.

Regents of the Deseret University. The Deseret First Book. Salt Lake City: Deseret U, 1868

Sagan, Carl and Ann Druyan. "Can Chimps Use Language." Sky. October, 1992: 77-85.

Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Ed. B. H. Roberts. 7 vols. 2nd. ed. rev. Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1932-1951. Vol 4.

Smith, Larry E. "A Position Paper on the Teaching/Learning of English as a Native Auxiliary Language." TESL Reporter 10.1 (Fall 1976): 1-3, 14-16.

Widtsoe, John A. Gospel Interpretations. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1947.

Other Works Consulted

De Vito, Joseph. The Psychology of Speech and Language. New York: Random House, 1970.

Wardlaugh, Ronald. Introduction to Linguistics. New York: McGraw- Hill, 1972.