Category Archives: Linguistics

The power of language

Words don’t just say; they also do. This is the basis of a field called pragmatics. In other words, there’s meaning beyond the dictionary definition of the words we use. In speech, things like gesture, intonation and speed come into play.

In writing, these paralinguistic features can’t be encoded very easily. Sure, we can get somewhere with the help of punctuation, but in formal writing we don’t have much leeway. This is why formal writing should be straightforward—and why sarcasm doesn’t work so well in the written word.

But when we’re in what Mark Sebba calls the unregulated spaces of the Internet, we have a lot more liberty for adding paralinguistic nuances to our messages. We can use CAPS, bold and underline. We can go crazy with exclamation marks!!!! And then there’s our old friend the emoticon :), which is essentially the creative use of symbols to draw pictures. The possibilities are surprisingly wide. (◎ヮ◎)

All of these things are the bread and butter of cyberpragmatics. If you’d like to learn more about it, the book Cyberpragmatics by Francisco Yus is an excellent place to start. (If you know Spanish, the original Spanish version is much cheaper.)

Why write?

It’s safe to say that we take writing for granted these days, so I thought it’d be prudent to take a few moments to reflect on why writing is so special.

Like all inventions, writing evolved to fulfill a need—in this case, it was an answer to the limitations of spoken language: Before writing, communication could only happen if two people coincided in time and space. Speech was ephemeral, disappearing as soon as it was muttered. And the speed of its interpretation was limited by the speed of the speaker. Perhaps most importantly, the speaker had to keep everything he wanted to say in his head—this took an enormous dedication of memory.

With writing, everything changed:

  • We can communicate with people far away.
  • We can communicate with posterity.
  • Our thoughts, once recorded, can last forever.
  • We can read much faster than we can listen or speak.
  • We can write things down to relieve our memories.

Miraculous, isn’t it?

Why should linguists study writing?

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.

writing for nerds

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.