Friends,

I'd like to hear your thoughts about plain speech, if you would be willing to write in about it. It has been on my mind quite a bit lately, and I think I am being asked to learn more about it and work to practice it. From reading a little of early Friends' writings and about them, I gather that originally there were several elements to it. One was to follow Jesus's command not to swear oaths, but rather to make everything that comes out of one's mouth conform to the truth: to speak with perfect honesty and to keep any promises one made. Another aspect was to give up using pronouns and other forms of speech which exalted some and demeaned others on the basis of class (which led to Friends' use of "thee," of course.) But it appears to have developed into a much larger practice, something that had an effect on every aspect of life and was highly distinctive of Quakers. I would like to learn more about what it was and how these practices developed if anyone feels led to write in about that or suggest good reading about it.

I'd also like to know how anyone who practices plain speech today thinks of it. When I first began attending my meeting, I noticed that a few elders there responded to conversation with me by appearing to think carefully before they spoke. This practice was so alien to me that I felt intimidated by it. I had the impression that they thought I was such a trial to talk to, they had to work hard at it. (Maybe they did!) I realized recently that I've come far enough now that I appreciate the practice of taking care over one's speech and would like to do more of it myself.

Thank you for your help,
Rosemary

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I think one of the best examples of plain speech is the story, possibly "mythical," of how much Henry Cadbury(?) lived by what he said that plain "truthfulness" was part of what he did automatically.

2 young people were determined to catch him in an untruth. One went to his house and engaged him in conversation in his house. The other came to the door and knocked. When Henry came to the door he was asked if the first person was there. Meanwhile the first person had crawled out the window so he would no longer "be there." Henry's response was "He was with me when I left the room."
About a year ago, I observed some high school Friends using lots of vulgarity on facebook. I have an ongoing relationship with a number of high scho0l Friends besides being the father of one: I have been a Friendly adult presence at a number of Midwestern Quakes and have loved spending time with them at Illinois Yearly Meeting annual sessions. I felt embarrassed that others would see their behavior as a reflection on them and Quakerism. After holding this matter in the light for some time, I wrote to them privately via facebook that I valued hearing from them and understanding them. It was hard to listen sometimes when the language becomes full of unnecessary intensifiers. I said to them that I chose not to say they were using "very vulgar" intensifiers, or even "f-----g (I spelled this out) annoying" intensifiers, just that they were using them and that this was not plain speech. They responded within a day, saying that no one had ever put it to them that way before, and they'd become more aware. I have not observed this from them on facebook since then.
Hi Rosemary,

Good question. I've wondered about this myself--what plain speech looks like today. I think you're right that it includes always speaking truthfully and choosing words carefully.

Another Friends practice of plain speech (besides "thee" and "thou") was referring to the days of the week/months by numbers rather than calling on the names of the pagan gods the day-names use--sun, moon, Thor, etc. For me, I think it's simpler and more understandable to just use the names of the days of the week and months. No one in our culture thinks of them as referring to gods. They are simply the way we name the days. For simplicity's sake, for plainness' sake, I think we can use the common names because they communicate what we mean without drawing attention to ourselves.

I guess that's what I find unnecessary about plain speech when people actually use the common language of seventeenth century England. It draws attention to the fact that they're different, but not in a way that really says anything significant to the modern hearer. At the time it was started, it was a testimony against speaking falsely or speaking differently to different people. We can do that without using the (what now seems) formal plain speech.

Plain dress, on the other hand...we might want to look into that more.
One of the more helpful resources for this is Thomas Clarkson, the Anglican who described Friends customs circa 1800. I talked about this in Sorting Quaker Peculiarities in the Modern World. When I look at old customs I ask two questions:

  • The Elevator rule: could I explain to my peculiarity to a non-Quaker “average Joe” in under two minutes?
  • The Christian rule: could I make the argument that this practice is not just a Quaker oddity but something that every faithful and earnest Christian should consider adopting?

Following these queries, I'm not led to thee/thy, which was important in the days of early Friends but needs lessons in the evolution of grammer to explain today (I often slip into it among plain Friends, but this is more just a sign of love).

The names of the days and months are different. They're still representing false deities and it only takes a moment to run down the "gods" they're referring to in explanation. Every Christian is charged with loving just one God so it's a change of habit I can recommend to any of our brethren. Plainness as witness is not meant to be effective in a social change sense, but to remind us and others of the different Lord we follow and the seriousness of His call to obedience and change. Peculiarity is okay as long as we can explain and recommend it.
Thank you for the link and the book suggestion. I do notice that "thee" and "thy" makes what Friends write here sound much more affectionate to my ear.

I also notice that I have trouble using Friendly speech customs even when I'm supposed to, as when I ought to say, "Clerk, please," before speaking in business meeting. I respect it in others and yet when I try to use it, I feel as if I'm "putting on airs." I wonder if others have experienced that sensation?
Did you see Brent Bill and Marcy Jean Stacey's hilarious piece in last month's New York YM Newsletter? Quaker types are compared to birds. The first one is the "Announcing Caw—a.k.a. Repeating Caw":

This often small bird, usually with drab coloring, is recognizable by its particular call. It announces its presence with an opening trill of “Clerk, please…” and then, usually without waiting for an answering call, begins to deliver announcement after announcement after announcement, often filling the air with many extraneous chirps and cheeps.

I find the whole "Clerk, please" habit annoying. It's not universal among Friends.
That was wonderful! I especially like the backward looking dodo that keeps saying, "We tried that once."
I really enjoyed a good laugh!
Plain speech has become important to me in a number of ways.

Specifically I use thee with friends (not only Friends) with whom I am close.

Secondly, I feel the need, and have felt the need, to speak truth. This led me to seek membership after I found I needed to qualify my declarations to people that I was a Friend...attender. This is a real challenge for me, and very important for my own healing because I am very good at hiding my feelings, my struggles, etc. So speaking the truth means saying how I feel, asking for help, trying to discern my own emotional status before the resulting freak-out. I'm learning to practice this kind of personal discernment and benefit from it.

Third, and most amusing, I'm trying to get away from handles. This is tough in academia because we train people to recognize hierarchy. My students call me professor, and if I ask them to call me Paula they confess it makes them very uncomfortable. In light of their discomfort I am not sure whether I should insist.

Paula
Interestingly one of the ways I dealt with the uncomfortableness of some students in using first names was to ask them to call me Dr. Tom if they didn't feel comfortable in calling me by my preferred, Tom.

I prefaced this in class with the reasons I preferred to be known by my first name with no titles.
I do explain my thought process as well. They are game, they try, but it so goes against their programming! I like your approach.
Paula,
Your point about speaking the truth is what is most important to me. But then the discernment of that is what is most difficult. Is the truth whatever my emotional reality or the thoughts that have just come into my head are at the moment? Probably not, right? Is the truth what God wants me to say in every moment? What do I do if I'm not very good at discerning what that is? And, as you say, if I completely leave out all those struggles and needs, because I assume God doesn't want me to share that, I may give a very false impression about who I really am and my inner condition may worsen.

I think my own discernment is improving if only because I am focusing on asking for it much more. The result of that right now seems to be that I'm constantly aware of not speaking the truth in whatever I just said. It doesn't feel like progress! But maybe it is.
Rosemary

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