Table Of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Speech & Writing

3. Sources of the Written Language Bias in Linguistics

4. On the Scope of our Claims

5. Linguistics & the Overall Theory of Language

6. Grammar

7. Semantics

8. Phonology

9. Linguistic Communication

10.Language Acquisition

11 Linguistic Variation

12 Epilogue




I am going to argue that contemporary linguistics is rather heavily biased due to the tradition of studying mainly written language. Since it is quite obvious that my claims can easily be misunderstood and misrepresented, I would like to try in the next few pages to define more precisely the scope of my claims and to express a few provisos before starting on the real subject matter.

First, I would certainly not claim that spoken language and written language are completely different in nature. In many respects the differences are clearly gradual rather than absolute. The structure and use of written language is of course largely derived from the properties of spoken language. This holds at two levels, both that which consists of the whole culture (and here we must again discern several layers, e.g. the national culture defined by the existence of a certain national standard language, and the whole civilization of the Western world (1) ), and that which is constituted by the evolution of the single individual who first acquires speech and later on learns to read and write. Hence written language may partly be characterized in terms of the same fundamental properties of natural language and the same conditions on human communication, perception, cognition etc. as spoken language. Most of what occurs in standard written languages may be said to represent a rectification of linguistic structures which show up in similar forms in spoken language.

But, on the other hand, I do mean that the differences between the two media have important consequences. If the structure of written language is a rectification of that of spoken language, then this rectification involves some important changes; some aspects of language are enhanced and emphasized, whereas others are attenuated or eliminated. Communication by means of written texts, pictures, diagrams etc. are subject to other conditions than speech communication (cf. II). Thus, for example, we can organize and survey much more material in an orderly manner. Writing provides the user, the individual as well as the collective, with new means of communicating, thinking, performing cognitive operations, and executing social control, and it changes the attitudes towards social groups, towards knowledge of different kinds, and towards language itself. The importance of all this must not be belittled (III.1).

Second, I will certainly not claim that all those concepts which have been developed by linguists in their analyses of written language are inadequate when applied to the structure of spoken language. Again we are often faced with matters of degree. Many concepts are more adequate and suitable for the analysis of written language, because they emphasize aspects which are most evident in (certain variants of) written language. A modest claim would be to say simply that many of the views and concepts to be discussed in this book are naturally at hand for someone who has been accustomed to analyzing written texts rather than speech. But even that is not uninteresting.

On the other hand, some of the concepts derived from written language are indeed thoroughly misconceived as applied to spoken language. (Some of these are in fact rather inadequate for written language too, but they are at least not as counterintuitive there). The moral is therefore that we have to discuss the consequences of the theoretical proposals, whether to abandon them or not, in the specific cases one at a time.

Furthermore, I am not going to claim that the tradition of analyzing written texts is the only reason why linguistic theory is the way it is. In some cases the ultimate or original causes and reasons should be sought elsewhere. Some of the features which are in general associated with written texts, may occasionally occur in specialized variants of spoken language. For example, this applied to the high degree of conventionality which applies to form and content in certain ritualized forms of speech (e.g. verse, orations, proverbs etc.). Such phenomena occur also in illiterate cultures; in fact they were among the first things to be written down, when writing was invented (c.f. III.1). Thus, we must of course admit that the specific features of written language did not arise out of nothing. They are developed out of specific ways of speaking. On the other hand, it must be reemphasized that writing, once it exists, will necessarily be further developed, and it will then enhance certain aspects of language while others will be tuned down.

A more general point related to the one just raised should be made in this context. In this book I frequently stress the fact that the written medium makes a focus on the products of behavior natural and indeed necessary, while speech should require an analysis that accounts for its character of a dynamic, interactive and time-distributed stream of activities. However, there is some natural basis for a focus on products also with regard to spoken communication as such. It is generally agreed that no one can become aware of the biological or mental machinery involved in complex motoric or cognitive processes, thinking as well as production and perception of utterances (e.g. Nisbett & Decamp Wilson 1977). Awareness, whether based on introspection or on observation of overt behavior, seems to be restricted to the outcome or results of the mental processes. Therefore, we find here a basis for our tendency to analyze and explain thinking with regard to its intentional objects rather than the thought processes themselves (cf. VII:9). Furthermore, it may be that the visual mode is generally stronger in imagery than any other sense modality, including the auditive one. All this seems to make provisions for a deep-seated focus on visually encoded products of mental processes. Nevertheless, I would reiterate what I stated above; writing promotes a strong cultural reinforcement and consolidation of those tendencies, despite the possibility that the same tendencies may have a certain natural basis in the human constitution.

Finally, a secondary remark; some commentators seem to assume a negative attitude on my part towards written language and its linguistic analysis. Nothing could be further from the truth! No one can deny that writing is a wonderful resource which enables cultural man to perform innumerable new and extraordinarily important things. Therefore, the study of written language, and the production and development of written language as well as the reading, comprehension and interpretation of written texts, is very much motivated, necessary and interesting. At the same time, however, it must be said that linguists (and other scholars) have worked much too little with spoken language (much less than we think we have), and have not sufficiently probed the question of what it really means to analyze speech in its own terms, i.e. as a temporally distributed, dynamic behavior. It seems to me that it may be useful - as part of an attempt to remedy this - to explore the extent to which our current conceptions of language can be explained and understood within the perspective that I will sketch, i.e. the written language bias.






1. I have nothing to say here about languages and linguistics in other cultures, e.g. in the Far East.