Religious Language

The way that we think about the world and our own place in it is often revealed in the language we use to speak about those worldviews. Inspecting language thus provides a window into the cognitive processes and connections involved in forming belief systems. It is generally acknowledged that setting changes speech – but when and where do we modify our language? Or, more importantly, why? What is the payoff of these subtle differences in communication?

The Religious Language Project investigates those questions by analyzing different patterns of speech involved in the practice of religion versus in secular environments.


To understand how people contemplate and showcase their religious behavior, the Religious Language team inspected a number of rituals – both secular and religious. These ranged from Olympic medal ceremonies to Orthodox Greek weddings to see the range of communication that happens in an event that is considered important.

Researchers created an instrument specifically designed to parse out the differences in speech by first establishing an inventory of thirty linguistic tokens (such as the speech act demonstrative “I now pronounce you man and wife” or the speech act commissive “I promise and commit to pray for the souls of the martyrs”) and then using that inventory to score samples from a variety of contexts.

The Religious Language team also looked at sacred and non-sacred texts in an effort to further fathom how speech acts differ. These analyses allowed the researchers to examine the way we convey meaning in both secular and religious settings, and to pinpoint the unique differences that sets religious communication – and so, thought – apart.



Researchers are currently examining their findings to better understand the types of language that accompanies religious circumstances and to glean from that quantitative analysis a sense of the desired effect of such language – that is, to move from recognizing that we speak in certain ways in certain contexts to comprehending how we tailor our speech to attain certain ends and what those goals may be.

The ultimate aim of this research is to identify how distinctively religious language facilitates and supports commitment to what the speaker considers his or her ultimate values.

Publications are forthcoming.