When most people hear the term plain people, they generally envision the Amish or conservative Mennonites. But other plain groups (those who dress modestly and with no unnecessary adornments) also exist. Historically, Friends (Quakers) were also plain, although their outward expression of plainness tended to vary, unlike in Amish and conservative Mennonite communities, where dress is usually prescribed.
In addition to manner of dress, plainness has also involved speech. While the Amish and many Mennonite groups speak Pennsylvania Dutch (a dialect of German), Friends have used what they call “plain speech.” Some sources claim that plain speech is now nearly extinct, but I’ve heard it used in Friends Meetings in southeastern Pennsylvania and in Ohio.
So what is plain speech? Unlike Pennsylvania Dutch, it’s not an actual language, but a refusal to employ speech that would be dishonest in any way, would capitulate to the vanity of the world, or would utilize words with a pagan origin.
The Honesty Factor
Years ago, an older Friend told me a story from his childhood. He and his father passed a herd of sheep in a field, and he pointed out that one sheep was black. His father responded that he shouldn’t call the sheep black (which would imply that the entire sheep was black) because they could only see the half of the sheep that was facing the road. Therefore, calling the sheep black could be untruthful, as the unseen side might be white (not likely, but possible). Now that’s taking honesty to an all new level.
The Vanity Factor
Traditionally, Friends refused to use titles with personal names. Instead they would use the person’s first and last name only; for example, Reverend Smith would become simply John Smith. This historically caused discord with nobility and other higher-ups in society who enjoyed lip service, as did Friends’ continued use of some aspects of seventeenth-century English (think King James Bible) long after it became antiquated. Old English used singular and plural forms of second-person pronouns (thee/thou and you), while modern English now employs you as both the singular and plural. Friends continued to use the singular forms (considered intimate) instead of the plural form (considered formal), unless addressing more than one person:
– Thee (used in place of objective you): May I help thee?
– Thou (used in place of subjective you): Thou should not do that.
– Thy (used for your when the word following it started with a consonant): Where is thy hat?
– Thine (used for your when it was the last word of the sentence or the word following it began with a vowel): Is this thine? Did thou see it with thine own eyes?
– You (used when speaking to more than one person): I will come with you.
Sometime in the eighteenth century, Friends’ use of thou died out, at least in speech (letters and other historical documents show it was still used in writing). Thee became the norm for both objective you as well. For example, Thou should not do that became Thee should not do that.
The Anti-Pagan Factor
Many people don’t realize it, but the English names for days of the week and months of the year have pagan origins. For example, Sunday was in honor of the sun god, Monday was in honor of the moon god, and Saturday was in honor of the Roman god Saturn, while January was in honor of the Roman god Janus, March was in honor of the Roman god Mars, and May was in honor of the Greek god Maia. With this in mind, Friends have historically refused to use these names. In plain speech, days and months are numbered. Sunday is First Day, Monday is Second Day, Tuesday is Third Day, and so on. Months follow the same convention: January is First Month, February is Second Month, March is Third Month, and so on. While many Friends now use the typical names for days and months, the sign in front of every Friends Meeting I’ve passed by (both in Pennsylvania and Ohio) gives the times for First Day Meeting for Worship and First Day School (Sunday school). I don’t expect that will change anytime soon.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this primer in Quaker plain speech.
Christy Distler writes cross-cultural contemporary and historical fiction about faith that overcomes and grace that restores. When not penning novels, she provides editorial services to publishing houses and independent authors through Aspire Editing Services. She lives with her husband and children in southeastern Pennsylvania, where her family has lived for over three hundred years.