Writing and the nature of language

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Sun, 6 Oct 1996 13:47:52 -0400

Thanks to the people who have responded so far to my query, repeated here for
your convenience:

"Languages such as Proto-Indoeuropean, which we reconstruct from historical and
contemporary evidence and which existed prior to written representation, were
just like contemporary languages; they were not on a different level of
language-ness. Contemporary languages that have little or no written tradition,
such as Yanomami, Creole English (which I am working on), etc. are, likewise, as
far as language-ness goes, on the same level as English or Japanese or any

In general, based on your responses, there seems to be a consensus that the
presence of a writing system does not alter the NATURE of a language. Of
course, it will affect the social use of the language, etc., but not the
structure of the language as a realization of Language. I want to make a couple
of comments on some of your specific responses, and I'm going to try to combine
them into one post, to keep from cluttering up cyberspace too much.

John McCreery wrote: "In thinking about these things, I often fall back on
experience learning various programming languages. These are admittedly
artificial and not "natural" languages. Still, I believe, the analogy has some

I don't know enough about programming "languages" to make a fully informed
comment, except to say that I am suspicious at some sort of gut level of the use
of the word "language" to describe them, which is why I put the word in quotes.
I wish someone who knows more about both programming and natural language would

Celso Alvarez Caccamo writes: "Since we don't know whether we know of all
existing languages or whether there exist languages we don't know about, the
hypothesis is unprovable at this point."

This is true, and perhaps I should have said "known human languages" or
something of that sort.

Celso goes on to say that "... some languages (due to cultivation, planning,
etc.) seem now better suited to express abstract notions synthetically, but
synthetic expressivity does not define "language-ness"."

I have another nagging gut reaction here. All notions are "abstract", it seems
to me. What exactly would a non-abstract notion be? I understand that I'm
going against the "abstract - concrete" dichotomy here, but I think it can be
demonstrated, very easily in fact, that all notions expressed by language are

And finally, Adi Hastings says "Whether or not anyone ever spoke a language even
remotely resembling PIE is something we'll never know..."

Of course, this is exactly true. However, the point, from the perspective of my
query, is that when we do the reconstruction, we do not find, at the other end,
something which can be called a "primitive" language. If we found a bunch of
people in some isolated place actually speaking PIE, there would be no
linguistic reason to label them cognitively deficient and place their children
in special ed classes (as is still done, sometimes, with Black English speakers,
by the way).

Again, thanks for your responses. More later, perhaps...

Ron Kephart
University of North Florida