Elizabeth Peterson – University of Copenhagen

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Discourse about coffee (and other Mormon taboos) and the demise of Danish in Utah

Elizabeth Peterson (University of Helsinki)

At WILA 6 in Uppsala, Sweden, Professor Christopher Hale noted a key finding in a student’s work on a heritage Danish and Mormon community in Alberta, Canada: when the people in the community stopped drinking coffee, they also stopped speaking Danish (personal communication, September 25, 2015).[1]

Until 1921, coffee was advised against as part the “Word of Wisdom,” a set of health guidelines proposed by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church, commonly known as “the Mormons”). Along with drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, and eating excessive amounts of meat, faithful members of the LDS Church were advised to not drink “hot drinks,” which included coffee.

In 1921, the strength of the Word of Wisdom increased from advice to become a “commandment,” meaning that it became a basic tenet of the Mormon lifestyle. From this point, faithful Mormons who did not comply with the Word of Wisdom risked sanctions such as not being allowed to participate in ceremonies at LDS temples. This is still the case today.

Early Mormon settlements in the American West, such as those in Utah--and, later in Alberta, Canada--comprised thousands of immigrants from Scandinavia, especially Denmark. The Danish immigrants are the focus of this paper. The ritual of drinking coffee has been an integral aspect of Danish social life, first in the upper classes and then expanding to the lower classes, for a few hundred years. Naturally, the coffee ritual came with the Danish Mormon immigrants to the American West. Like the use of their native language, social rituals were not easily abandoned, as there was no immediate replacement: an immigrant does not immediately shed a native language, nor does one immediately lose the norms and rituals that create the blueprint for day-to-day life.

For these immigrants, however, assimilation was mandated by the new territory and also by the Mormon Church (Henrichsen et al, 2006). In their new surroundings, there were relatively few domains, especially public domains, where Danish immigrants and subsequent generations could speak Danish with each other. The home domain, especially in instances of endogenous marriage, created such an opportunity, and, as argued in this paper, so did cultural rituals that took place in the home, such as drinking coffee together.

It is well known in studies on language death (e.g., classic works such as Dorian, 1980; Fishman, 1991) that cultural ritual is often linked to the preservation of the dying language within the context of those specific rituals. In the case of Danish in Utah, it is argued that the coffee ritual was one of the final rituals in which Danishness - and therefore the use of the Danish language - was preserved.

The data presented as evidence to support this claim come from interviews which took place in Sanpete County, Utah--a Danish stronghold in the Mormon context--with “rememberers” of Danish and Danish customs. In other words, the data consists of meta-language about language and customs. In most of the interviews, elderly members of the Sanpete County community offer recollections of their parents and grandparents. Thus, the interview data comprises first-hand recollections of rituals and language use that took place in the interviewees’ childhood. To date, there have been 15 interviews, totaling approximately 18 hours of audio-recorded material. The interview data is supplemented by historical written records, including personal written histories. The method employed for the investigation of the data is content analysis, with a presentation of passages of the interviews that highlight the connection of cultural rituals such as drinking coffee (with some mention of other Mormon taboos such as alcohol consumption and swearing) with the use of Danish as a heritage language.


  • Dorian, Nancy, 1981. Language Death: The Life Cycle of a Scottish Gaelic Dialect. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Fishman, J. A., 1991. Reversing language shift. Clevedon, UK, Multilingual Matters Ltd.
  • Henrichsen, Lynn, George Bailey, and Jacob Huckaby. 2006. English-Language Learning and Native-Language Maintenance among Danish Immigrants to Utah, 1850-1930. In Birgit F. Larsen and Linda M. Chimenti (eds.) Danish Culture, Past and Present: The Last Two Hundred Years, 62-91. Decorah, Iowa: Anundsen Publishing.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 2017. “The Word of Wisdom.” Church History. https://history.lds.org/article/doctrine-and-covenants-word-of-wisdom?lang=eng. Retrieved June 9, 2017.

[1] Unfortunately, I have not been able to obtain a copy of the thesis on the topic.