Friday, 14 August 2015

Two modes of language


Spoken and Written Language

Speech and writing are two of the modes that language has always used for purposes of communication. Most languages exist in both these modes though there are some that exist only in the spoken mode.

The kind of relationship that was considered to have existed till recently between speech and writing is largely attributed to the debt of the traditional grammar to the kind of literary and linguistic research that ensured in Alexandria in the third and second centuries B.C. During this time, restoration of original texts that had come intolerably corrupt, attempt to decide between genuine and spurious works, admiration for the great literary works of the past encouraged the belief that the language in which they were written was itself inherently ‘purer’, more ‘correct’ than the colloquial speech of Alexandria and other Hellenistic centres. Thus the Hellenistic scholars combined the aim of establishing and explaining the language of the classical authors with a desire to preserve Greek from corruption by the ignorant and the unlettered. The Roman grammarians followed the Greek models in general assumptions about language and also in points of detail. A typical Latin grammar dealt with the art of correct speech, understanding of poets, treating of parts of speech in terms of tense, gender, number, case etc. and discussed good and bad style, warned against common ‘faults’ and ‘barmarisms’ and gave examples of the recommended ‘figures of speech’. The grammar of Priscian was used as teaching grammar through the Middle Ages and as late as the seventeenth century. And when English as a vernacular assessed itself, its grammar was fashioned after that of Latin which in turn had been fashioned after that of Greek.

Naturally, English grammar reflected the ‘classical fallacy in the study of language handed down to it from Greek times. Greek linguistic scholarship was concerned primarily with the written language because of the tendency to consider the spoken language as dependent on and derived from the written language. The second misconception was the assumption that the language of the fifth century Attic writers was more ‘correct’ than the colloquial speech of their own time and that the ‘purity’ of a language was maintained by the usage of the educated and ‘corrupted’ by the illiterate.

But the contemporary linguist maintains that the spoken language is primary and that writing is essentially a means of representing speech in another mode. Of course he’s not without his arguments. We know of no system of writing with a history of more than some six or seven thousand years. On the other hand, there is no group of people known to exist or to have existed without the capacity of speech; and many hundreds of languages have never been associated with a writing system until they were committed to writing by missionaries or linguists in our own day.

For more relevant to understanding the relation between speech and writing is the fact that all systems of writing are demonstrably based upon units of spoken language. In the description of spoken language, the linguist generally finds that he must recognise units like ‘sounds’, ‘syllables’ and ‘words’. Now all commonly-used systems of writing take one or other of these units as basic: alphabetic systems being used on ‘sound’, ‘syllabic’ on ‘syllables’ and ideogrpahic on words.

However, this argument cannot be carried too far. It may be said that homophones like ‘great’ and ‘grate’, ‘meat’ and ‘meet’ are not distinguished in their spoken form. Spelling ‘reforms’ is another instance.

However, it should not be forgotten that in the more advanced civilisations at least, where a highly developed written language is in daily use by millions of people, even purely passively, for example, in the reading of newspapers, there are likely to be developments in written language which are not preceded by or even paralleled by developments in the spoken language. Literature is the obvious and perhaps the most important category, scientific and legal writing are some others. Again there are likely to be circumstances in which independent developments in written language do have an influence on spoken language: expressions like ‘chortle’, ‘galumph’, ‘UNESCO, ‘POW’, ‘zap’ (Wallwork: language and linguistics 1969:15—16). Both the modes may in advanced societies cam to diverge from one another considerably in vocabulary and grammar. Modern French affords a particularly striking example of this. Written and spoken French (to a greater degree than written and spoken English) are learned and used by educated Frenchmen as partially independent languages (Lyons—Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics 1971:40—41). And societies have employed languages like Latin, Sanskrit in their written mode even when they have ceased to exist as spoken languages.

From another angle, considering the amount of printing that takes place (books, journal, newspapers) written language, more than the spoken one can be said to have been responsible for dissemination of information, sharing of views, spreading of concepts and philosophies. From yet another angle, that of ‘durability’, of themselves as it were sound-sequences died away and if they are not ‘decoded’ on the spot, were lost forever. But the availability of written mode ensures transmission of messages and their preservation for future reference. The differences in the conditions under which speech and writing are employed are such that it would be inaccurate to say of languages with a long history of literacy behind them that writing is merely the transference of speech to an alternative substance.


A word about teaching language—whether first, second or foreign—since both the modes  under discussion are as intimately related to teaching as to linguistics (Or rather to learning as curriculum is being thought of more learner-centred than linguistics-centred.) In ancient times, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the written mode had always followed the spoken mode. And between sixteenth and till the 1950’s the focus was on the written mode. During every period, there were dissenting voices (Comenius, Montaigne, Locke). Reaction to the Grammar-Translation led to the Direct Method. Palmer in Britain and Fries in America made teaching scientific, drawing respectively on Associationism and behaviourism. However, both insisted on teaching starting with oral training. And through efforts by several independent agencies moving towards the same goal of making teaching more meaningful than it was, there has been shift in emphasis from form to meaning through Communicative Language Teaching. This latest move recognises mutual interdependence of receptive and productive skills as reflected in spoken and written modes of language.