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




In any society, but particularly so in a modern industrialized society with a lot of professional specialization, there is a great deal of linguistic variation. First of all, there are of course the overall differences between written and spoken language. In addition, however, there are many kinds of variations within the range of written language and, in particular, within the range of spoken varieties. The written language bias in linguistics has several kinds of repercussions on the linguists' ways of handling this variation. On the one hand, the fundamental attitude was for a very long time one of ignoring the variations (11.1). On the other hand, to the extent that different varieties are indeed attended to, one finds certain characteristic evaluations of them that are clearly reminiscent of the long tradition of considering standard written language as the only proper, correct language (11.2).


11.1. The neglect of linguistic variation

After all, linguists have most often worked with made-up linguistic examples (usually written word forms and sentences) applying their linguistic intuition for grammaticality etc to them. To the extent that the analyses have been based on corpuses of language actually used for communication, the data have until rather recently been drawn almost exclusively from written texts. Most of the linguistic variation of spoken language was therefore never attended to in any systematic fashion. The prevailing attitudes were neglect and ignorance.

One common attitude among linguists is, or was until recently, to regard the linguistic variation in speech as more or less chaotic and devoid of any interesting and "linguistically significant" regularities. After all, language was conceived of as the system of underlying context-independent invariants, and the norms underlying invariants are based mainly on written language. The linguists' attitudes towards variation are (or were) characterized by a lack of attention and interest; all variation, at least if it is not derivable from structural factors (so-called combinatory variation), is (or was) termed "free" and described, if at all, by "optional rules", which are assumed to apply in an essentially random fashion; hence, no regular patterns are generated.

Moreover, it is customary to ascribe variations in speech to "linguistically irrelevant" factors such as lack of knowledge (on the part of speakers and listeners), shifts of attention, fatigue, memory limitations and other disturbing factors in face-to-face interaction. Accordingly, one arrives at a prejudiced view of what normal spoken language is like. Research into child language and "baby talk" (the speech of adults directed towards children) has shown in recent years that Chomsky's description of the child's predicament is highly inaccurate:

"Thus, it is clear that the language each person acquires is a rich and complex construction hopelessly underdetermined by the fragmentary evidence available". (Chomsky 1975:10)
"Knowledge arises on the basis of very scattered and inadequate data and ... there are uniformities in what is learned that are in no way uniquely determined by the data itself.." (Chomsky 1966:65)
"A consideration of the character of the grammar that is acquired, the degenerate quality and narrowly limited extent of the available data, the striking uniformity of the resulting grammars, and their independence of intelligence, motivation, and emotional state, over wide ranges of variation, leave little hope that much of the structure of the language can be learned by an organism initially uninformed as to its general character." (Chomsky 1965:58)1) 

It is true that language use is heterogeneous in many ways. But it is still orderly and structured, and a considerable amount of the regularities are conventional and specific for the language involved and its varieties. Linguistic "performance" may seem chaotic, but most aspects of reality do so as long as they have not been systematically investigated. In fact, a great deal of variation in speech performance is regular and patterned; the different variants are systematically favored or disfavored by various contextual factors (linguistic-structural, psychological, social, cultural etc.). In recent years such facts have been unearthed by proponents of so-called variational linguistics, who have analyzed phenomena as different as normal dialectal variation (Labov 1969, Cedergren & Sankoff 1974), pidgins and creole languages (DeCamp 1971), and variation in the interlanguages of second-language learners (Bickerton 1971, Hyltenstam 1978).

The fact that variations in linguistic performance are usually ignored by linguists and psychologists may also lead to an implicit assumption that the existing variations are not too extensive after all; one assumes that speakers, listeners and readers are very much alike as regards what they can produce, perceive and understand, and what strategies and linguistic operations they apply in performance. In the psychology of language use and reading we find many models of utterance production, utterance comprehension, and reading with universalistic pretensions. It is hoped that one can construct models of utterance planning, reading etc that are more or less independent of all the varying goals and expectations of different communication situations. Contrary to what such general models suggest, it seems likely that a great deal of our use of language and linguistic knowledge is task-oriented; looking for a number in the phone book and reading a poem by Wordsworth are, after all, quite different activities. Everyday small talk and academic discussions on complicated topics are in many ways rather different in character. Therefore, it remains to be seen what the common components of linguistic processing, if any, are.

However, linguistic performance does not only vary with the different communicative tasks. It also depends on the linguistic habits and knowledge of the persons involved. Here again a common attitude among psycholinguists and phoneticians is that all speakers and listeners behave in roughly the same way. Therefore, linguists and phoneticians are very often satisfied with using only a few subjects in their experiments. It seems to me that we are encouraged to consider this a safe strategy, because as linguists we entertain certain views of language and language users. Language is assumed to be a monolithic, stable and homogeneous system, and normal language users are assumed to share this system to a great extent (V:5). However, we would need a lot more of differential phonetics and psycholinguistics before we can safely state that native language users are indeed alike in their speaking, listening and reading strategies.


11.2. The depreciation of spoken vernaculars

"After some time the idealized speaker-hearer of generative grammar was recognized as a well-known but rather special kind of citizen: the academic professional, writing (and thinking) in a highly standardized monological prestige language" (Teleman 1980:335)

The next point concerns the ways in which spoken and written varieties are evaluated with regard to correctness and social status. Therefore we shall return to the theme of Û III.3, the traditionally high status of written standards in most societal contexts, and the ways in which this has influenced scientific thinking in linguistics.

The linguistic situation of many societies is best characterized in terms of diglossia (Ferguson 1959), the existence of two languages or linguistic varieties having different status. There is a high status language used in official contexts, such as legislation and jurisdiction, administration, higher education, religious services. This language is primarily used in writing, and if or when it is used in speaking, it is typically in situations where one reads aloud messages which exist beforehand in written form. This language is sometimes quite remote from the living spoken language of everyday life (different grammar and vocabulary, different functions). The latter everyday language is typically a low status language. It may be used in writing too, but, if so, primarily in non-official and non-formal contexts, such as personal letters, folk literature, popular newspapers etc. In some cases the written high status language is partly archaic and based on features which are considered part of an ancient cultural heritage. A good example would be Greek katharevusa, the literary and constitutional language of Greece, largely based on previous forms of literary Greek. Until recently (1976), this was the official language of Greece, in spite of the fact that for a long time dhimotiki was the only language naturally used by the majority of the people. Incidentally, one may note that the literal translation of katharevusa would be "pure language", while dhimotiki is "the people's language".

Even in societies where diglossia is not so salient at a first glance, most people usually regard spoken vernaculars as worth less, as being less correct and less efficient than written language. What is characteristic of spoken language is often regarded as deviations from "proper language", and proper usage is again that which is prescribed by written standards. A typical statement (about Swedish) would be:

"Man sÉger lÉngre Én mig, men egentliqen heter det lÉnqre Én jaq" (trans.: We say taller than me, but actually it should be taller than I)

Thus, the implicit norms of spoken language are often simply incorrect in the ears of the public. Similarly, variants which deviate grossly from national standard languages, e.g. very strong "accents" (highly "deviant" geographical and/or social dialects) and child language, are simply considered downright wrong. These variants almost always lack written counterparts.2)

An interesting case in point is the interpretations given to Basil Bernstein's concepts of "elaborate code" and "restricted code". I am not going to discuss all the interpretations which have been made, justifiably or (most often) unjustifiably, in the debate initiated by Bernstein, but there are certain recurrent features which deserves mention. First of all, the choice of terms, i.e. "elaborated" vs. "restricted", carries with it certain obligatory connotations. The formal elaboration typical of written language is regarded as better, more adequate, more logical, and less limited than the structure of the language of everyday experience and everyday tasks, i.e. linguistic varieties that are most typical of communicative interaction in everyday non-official private situations. Accordingly, some commentators have associated Bernstein's notion of elaborated and restricted codes with the decontextualized vs. context-bound forms of written and oral discourse, respectively (cf. Kay 1977).

Furthermore, a decade ago, some of Bernstein's commentators and eclectics, as well as other educators, particularly perhaps in the U.S.A. (e.g. Bereiter & Engelmann 1966), argued quite strongly that many colloquial dialects, e.g. Black English, were somehow deficient and lacking in grammatical structure, and that they reflected an unsystematic thinking, thus impeding further cognitive and cultural development on the part of the "linguistically deprived" children and youths. Of course, these preconceptions should by now be disproved (e.g. Labov's (1969) forceful arguments), but they provided yet another example of the common attitudes towards colloquial dialects as compared with standard (written) languages.

The belief that formal elaboration, which is the ideal of certain written genres, would in itself lead to a more correct and communicatively more forceful language is of course a myth, but it is a myth which is very deeply rooted in our entire culture. That everyday spoken language is plain and poor, deficient, illogical, incoherent and ungrammatical is something which has been part and parcel of school education for millennia. Children should for this reason receive a correct and decent language at school. For many centuries it was thought that this activity of cultivating and refining the pupil's language was naturally related to the civilizing correction of his crude and evil morals. Martin Luther is one of those who have expressed this explicitly:

"Des lasst uns das elend greulich Exempel zur Beweisung und Warnung nehmen in den hohen Schulen und Klostern, darin man nicht allein das Evangelium verlernet, sondern auch lateinische und deutsche Sprache verderbet hat, dass die elenden Leute schier zu lauter Bestien worden sind, weder deutsch noch lateinisch recht zu reden oder schreiben kûnnen; und beinahe auch die nat~rliche Vernunft verloren haben.Ó (Martin Luther quoted by Diderichsen 1968:19)


Here is a translation from a regulation for the Swedish school system edited in 1649 (cf. Thavenius 1981:138):

"It is true that the boys carry their mother tongue with them from home but it is most often crude and uncultivated, sometimes even filthy and spoilt. Therefore it needs to be cultivated and refined at school, and teachers should take pains to teach the pupils, each according to his age, how to speak and write his mother tongue in a good and cultivated way. Teachers will find opportunities for this in several ways but particularly much in translating and reproducing the Latin authors and in correcting the boys' own translations."

As we have noted earlier (3.3), school education served to emphasize the social barriers between the very few, who had access to the written language, and the vast majority of the people, those who were living in their everyday oral culture:

"The grammatical distinctness and the formulaic nature of literary styles along with the many highly artificial calligraphic conventions such as those illustrated in W.J. Ong's "Latin Language Study as a Renaissance Puberty Rite" (1959), tend to function as access barriers which kept schooling and hence command over literary skills confined to small groups where learning was more a matter of personal, tutorial type contact between students and teachers and informal socialization by small group process than of formal curriculum. For those not born as members of literate groups who succeeded in crossing these barriers, becoming literate meant loosening familial ties to taking on a new cultural identity." (Cook-Gumperz & Gumperz 1981:94)

Our views on education and schooling have undoubtedly changed considerably since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but there are certain features in the views on language which prevail from Luther down to Chomsky. Although Chomsky obviously belongs to quite another context, it remains true that he too argues that normal spoken discourse is faulty, deficient, and ungrammatical (112). It is indeed true that written standard language is constrained by more explicit norms and is therefore characterized by a more stable grammatical structure than most types of spoken language, but the most important difference clearly lies in the fact that spoken language is subject to other rules, and this in turn has at least partly to do with the fact that spoken language belongs to cultural contexts of use which are different from those of written language.


11.3 The concept of an ideal language

Due to the lack of an immediate context, most written messages have to be relatively explicit and relatively autonomous. In many genres it is clearly part of an ideal goal to write as explicitly as possible. The acquaintance with the impersonal, objective, and explicit written medium has encouraged several mathematicians, logicians, and some linguists to adopt a much higher goal, indeed the ultimate goal of inventing the absolutely explicit and autonomous language, a language in which every form and every grammatical operation has its absolutely fixed and stable interpretation. No additional intuition or imagination, no subsidiary knowledge on the part of the individual user would be needed in order to understand messages coded in this language. Thus, texts coded in this language would be absolutely autonomous, i.e. their interpretations would be entirely inherent in the texts. It would be a language of exact thinking, a universal language, immaculate and unfettered by all the historical accidentals that have produced the differences and idiosyncrasies of natural languages and the everyday use of them.

This is the dream of an ideal language entertained by Leibniz and other philosophers. It is interesting to see what kind of language was considered to be ideal: an absolute idealization of written language. However, such a language would be far from ideal in reality, in fact it would be entirely useless as a language in particular for spoken discourse and social interaction. There we need a language which is powerful and flexible enough to adjust to the infinite multitudes of situations and interpretations that human beings may encounter and invent. Such a language must not determine interpretations, it may only allude to them (VII.1 ff.).