Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PROVO — Talk about a body of work about talks.
Mark Davies' "Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks" — found at corpus.byu.edu/gc — contains the 10,000-plus addresses given and more than 24 million words spoken during the past 160 years of semi-annual general conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The BYU professor of corpus linguistics has created the free-access, web-based database allowing users to quickly search conference talks from 1851 to the present day.
For example, Mormons didn't hear the word "pornography" uttered in a conference talk until 1959, when it was spoken four times total in talks by Elder Ezra Taft Benson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Elder John Longden, an assistant member to that quorum.
Davies' LDS general conference corpus shows the word used four more times in the 1960s, 74 times in the '70s, 43 and 62 times in the next two decades before being mentioned 184 times since 2000 —more times in the past decade than in all of the preceding half-century combined.
The corpus is "the intersection of language and LDS practices," said Davies, who began a limited version a half-dozen years ago thinking general conference addresses might provide an interesting test case to see how conference discourses and their language changed over the years.
Linguistics is the study of the how and why languages change, with corpus linguistics one of the fastest-growing methodologies in the field.
The LDS general conference corpus is actually one of Davies' smaller ones — he has a corpus on historical English and another on contemporary English that each easily exceed 400 million words. All together, his corpora total more than 1 billion words and are used by scholars and researchers worldwide.
Conference corpus searches provide more than just use frequency —the aforementioned "pornography" example — which is the basic service available. By searching a specific word or phrase, one can also see how it is used in context.
Also, corpus users can compare word frequency of two different time periods, view or search by specific decades, view word meanings and usage, changes in word meanings and word synonyms.
Over the past 16 decades, words and phrases from conference addresses that have increased include the likes – or variations – of "family," "temple," "eternal marriage," "sacrament," "atonement" and "Savior," Davies said.
Meanwhile, words such as "tobacco" and "alcohol" and harsher labels of "gentile" and "apostate" have decreased.
Some words and phrases in conference talks have a certain high-frequency spikes in a given decade or two — "United Order" in the 1870s, "tithing" in the 1890s and 1900s, "liquor" in the 1930s, "communism" in the 1960s and "Book of Mormon" in the 1980s.
Also, the data can show how new labels or phrases change over the years — the technological-like "genealogy" has given way to the more personal "family history," while the use of "free agency" has nosedived since the 1980s and been replaced by "moral agency" or just simply "agency."
And in the second half of the 19th century, the term "celestial marriage" was often used in conference talks to describe plural marriage until the LDS Church dropped the practice at the turn of the century. Davies said "celestial marriage" starts to reoccur in conference talks beginning in the 1930s and 1940s — a generation later after the previous meaning was lost or forgotten, with the current meaning equating to "eternal marriage."
"It really does open up in a nice way as to what can be done with the data," he said.
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