It can be difficult for us anglophones to imagine that speech and writing could have little or nothing to do with each other. After all, our writing system more or less corresponds with our pronunciation. But to illustrate the possibilities, let’s consider three historical cases: Latin around the year 800 AD, modern Arabic, and Chinese.
Because of the grand expanse of the Roman Empire (and the lack of universal education), it was inevitable that regional versions of Latin would emerge. These dialects didn’t have their own written versions; instead, scribes conserved the Classical way of writing. This created a split in what Latin was: a high Latin, which was primarily written (especially championed by the Church), and a low Latin, which was primarily spoken. In fact, the low variety had no written form. Everyday people spoke the low variety, and educated people could read and write in the high variety. Though these budding Romance languages were linguistically distinct from Classical Latin, they were all considered the same catholic Latin. The people were little bothered (at first anyway) that written Latin had little to do with spoken Latin; that’s just the way it was. As we know, the multiple versions of Latin eventually gave rise to what we know today as the Romance languages. Written Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian are nothing more than validated dialects of Latin.
There are more varieties of Arabic than there are Arab nations. Moreover, not all speakers of Arabic dialects can understand each other. Notwithstanding, there’s only one way to write in Arabic: Egyptian Standard, the form used in the Koran.
Every Chinese character represents a word or idea. What many people don’t realize is that there are many Chinese dialects, and some of them are not even linguistically related. This means that the character 耳, which means “ear,” is pronounced differently in different dialects. To take this further, consider that a sentence in written Chinese may be pronounced differently—and with a completely different grammatical system—depending on the dialect. Moreover, Korean and Japanese, which linguistically have nothing to do with Chinese, both have adopted some Chinese characters to represent their own languages.
In literate societies like ours, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that writing equals language. When we talk about “knowing a language,” for example, we generally assume that the person can read and write—not just speak.
Even so, writing is not language—it’s just a representation of language. And moreover, it’s imperfect, which is why we often talk about “reducing” a language according to orthographic rules. English is a shining example of this: Each written vowel and many consonants can be pronounced in several ways, and some letters sound the same, depending on their context. Despite how we talk about the whimsy and nonsensicality of English spelling, it is a system—it’s just a bit distinct from the system of spoken English. Other writing systems are even more distinct from their spoken counterparts.
Writing and speaking are also distinct for another reason: Writing has to be taught, but speaking is learned naturally. In other words, the primary manifestation of language is spoken, not written. After all, the written word only has a voice for those who can decode it. Moreover, literacy has been anything but widespread over the course of history. According to Mateo Maciá in his book El bálsamo de la memoria, of the thousands of languages that have existed in all of humanity, only 106 have been written. Of today’s three thousand spoken languages, only 78 have produced written texts.
Linguistics, therefore, would be too narrowly defined if it focused only on written language. And because writing is a symbolic representation of language—not language itself—it would be limited in the conclusions it could draw. Because of this, some linguists have rejected the idea of analyzing writing at all. Ferdinand de Saussure comes to mind.
But if linguistics were to reject writing entirely, it’d be missing out big time:
- First, languages that predate sound recording have come to us only through texts, and they’re certainly worth studying from a linguistic perspective.
- Second, writing and language mutually influence each other. For example, think about the word “comfortable.” If you’re like most speakers (at least in America), you pronounce it something like comf-ter-bl. Every once in a while you’ll hear someone pronounce it com-for-ta-bl, and it may strike you as a bit weird, even if you’re not sure why. Judgments aside, we can be sure that this pronunciation comes from the way the word is spelled.
We should study writing from a linguistic perspective because it can show us things that we’d miss out on otherwise. But we must be careful, because it’s not the same as language.