On the primacy of the spoken language

Aug 30, 2011 by

Many people hold written language to be the only form of language worthy of serious study. This has been true for many centuries among those in the scholarly community and is still true for many in the general public. This bias towards the written form of language is natural enough: “language in its written form can be collected, stored, examined, manipulated, and analyzed in ways that were until very recently impossible for spoken language” (Chafe & Tannen 1987: 383). But modern descriptive linguistics reversed the situation, making spoken language the primary object of its study. Already in the first half of the 20th century such “fathers of modern linguistics” as Ferdinand de Saussure, Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield “went out of their way to emphasize the primacy of spoken as opposed to written language, relegating the latter to a derived and secondary status” (ibid). But why?

First of all, many of the world’s language have only a spoken form. They lack an indigenous or an adopted writing system. These languages are as worthy of study — and indeed as crucial for modern descriptive linguistics, whose aim is to understand the boundaries of what is possible in a human language — as languages that possess a written form. Even languages which do have a writing system are written by fewer people than they are spoken by: some people are illiterate, whether due to age, lack of education or whatever.

Not only is it true that more people speak any given language than are able to write it down (or read it), but it is also the case that children acquire their native language first in its spoken form. In fact, most first language acquisition happens before a child starts to learn to read and write. While many of us will remember having to learn “grammar” of our first language as part of our schooling, it was rules of prescriptive grammar (which tell you what is good/appropriate to say and/or write) rather than rules of descriptive grammar (which describe how people actually talk). The latter type of rule we acquire in a natural process that is not subject to direct instruction by teachers, or even parents. Modern linguistics is interested in the descriptive sort of rule too.

Moreover, written language is derived from spoken language, not vice versa. Writing systems simply encode in one way or another how a language is spoken. Some writing systems, including alphabetic, consonantal and syllabic systems, try to represent the sounds of the spoken language; other systems, chiefly the logographic ones, represent not the sounds of a spoken language but its morphemes, yet they still represent spoken language, and not vice versa. Given that written language represents spoken language and not the other way around, if we linguists see a conflict between what is written and what is spoken, we will describe the language as actually being what is spoken.

Finally, another reason that many linguists care primarily about the spoken language is that written usage is usually the norm of a previous stage of the language. Therefore, if we want to describe any given language at any given point in time (say, present-day American English or French or Russian or whatever), it is useful for us to examine the spoken form, since the written form will almost invariably tell us more about how the language used to be rather than how it is.

Chafe, Wallace and Deborah Tannen (1987) The relation between written and spoken language. Annual Review of Anthropology 16: 383-407.

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