In her book Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, the linguist Gretchen McCulloch astutely observes that the way people in a given locality speak doesn't often change much, even in the face of many technological advances:
...people were still talking like their neighbors rather than like TV and radio broadcasters...regional dialects persisted even after centuries of print standardization...we often keep our local ways of speaking when we use social media. Our deep well of enthusiasm for internet dialect quizzes give us a clue why: talking in particular ways reinforces our networks, our sense of belonging and community.
This made me think about some of the linguistic peculiarities of Quakers. One of the things I admire about George Fox is that he never operated on auto-pilot. He thought about the significance of everything, from the clothes we wear, to the gestures we make, to the words we use. The "plain language" of early Friends involved addressing all people with the singular familiar thee and thou rather than the plural deferential you when speaking to someone of higher social status. It involved refusing to use a title before a person's name, and enumerating the days of the week and months of the year (First Day, Second Month) instead of commemorating heathen gods and goddesses. All these practices rose out of early Friends' desire to outwardly, verbally demonstrate their commitment to the equality of all people in the eyes of God, and to acknowledge how much our language—and therefore our perspective—is influenced by our culture. These linguistic practices also demarcated our faith community. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, you could always tell when you were talking with a Quaker by the language they used.
Today, we have left many of these verbal traditions behind. Like the rest of the English-speaking world (with the exception of Conservative Friends), we use you universally. We typically don't think twice about addressing someone with Mr. (a derivation of master and all its implications), and we enumerate the days of the week and months of the year only in our bulletins, our monthly meeting minutes, and the name we use for the religious education of our youth (First Day School).
And yet there are still some unique terms and phrases that distinguish Friends. We go to meeting in a meetinghouse rather than to church because for George Fox, church referred to the entire body of the faithful rather than to a single congregation or building, and because we want to remind ourselves that in worship, we hope to meet with God directly, without any intermediary. We center down to still our bodies and minds to make ourselves open to the divine presence. And we recognize that God did not stop speaking to us when the Biblical canon was closed, but rather that continuing revelation is an ongoing process of understanding God's desires for us and our world. And when we all feel the presence of the Spirit moving among us, we have experienced a gathered meeting.
Individually and as a community, we try to be sensitive to leadings—those gentle nudges that God wishes us to act upon a particular concern. When we are uncertain about what action to take, we gather together to seek clearness. And we strive to live our daily lives in a way reflects our testimonies—our fundamental recognition that there is that of God in everyone, and that it shows in how we conduct ourselves and treat others.
We use the lowly word clerk for our positions of leadership, remembering that every leader is in fact a servant. And the function of a clerk is not to tally a vote or impose a decision, but to discern the sense of the meeting—a feeling of unity that a particular choice is in accordance with the divine will. We do not ordain our ministers because only God can call someone to ministry; we simply record that such a call has been made and such a gift has been demonstrated. And a recorded minister is not the only person who can speak during worship; any one of us can be led to break the silence and share vocal ministry. Those who show a particular depth of spiritual wisdom are often referred to as weighty Friends.
It is not simply a common vocabulary that defines Friends, but it is through our choice of words that we reflect our values, and it is in those values that we build community.