Re: Writing, language, & consciousness

Jesse S. Cook III (jcook@AWOD.COM)
Thu, 3 Oct 1996 10:43:57 -0400

On 2 October 1996, Ronald Kephart, after four replies to my two postings and
four replies to him, wants to know what the point is:

>What exactly IS the point, then? Help me out, here. Interact!!
>>Be that as
>>it might, the only way that one can "interact with people thr[ough] their
>>writing" is on the Internet, which comes last in the series.
>I dunno. If I read something by, say, Mark Twain, I feel we have interacted.
>Of course, the interaction is one-way, and I can't provide him with feedback,
>nor can he respond. But isn't the initial act of reading at least the
>start of an interaction?

Ron, you must be working too hard. Your logic is in disarray here. Reading
is the start of an interaction only on the Internet, unless you have access
to the author of a book or other work of literature. If the author is dead,
as I think Samuel Langhorne Clemens is, access is pretty hard to come by. I

>>None of the items in the series have disappeared. We have people
>>who live in a predominantly oral culture to this day. We have people who
>>use ideographic, consonantal, logographic, and/or syllabic scripts to
>>this day.
>All humans still live in "predominantly oral" cultures. This fact lies at the
>core of what it means for us to be Homo sapiens, and, as a preemptive
>strike, I will add that it is not trivial.

Ron, in calmer times you will come to regret the hostility that has
interferred with your scholarly habits. The US is a predominantly literate
culture; Belize, on the other hand, is a predominantely oral culture. (This
is in spite of having compulsory education through the primary grades.)

That human beings have orality is trivially true but irrelevant.

>>Please note that the word "alphabet" is composed of the names of the first
>>two letters of the *Greek* alphabet (less the final "a" of "beta"), the
>>first of which is a vowel. A consonantal script has no vowels and,
>>therefore cannot be an alphabet. It could be an "alephbeth", however.

You left something out here. It would be good scholarship to indicate that

>> Phonemic and alphabetic are not synonyms.
>As far as I know, the term "alphabetic" writing is used by linguists to
refer to
>phonemically based writing sytems, whether those systems represent only
>consonants or both consonants and vowels (and I'm gonna be real embarassed if
>I'm wrong on this one!).

You are not wrong, so you needn't feel embarassed. Many people, many
linguist among them, use the term "alphabetic" in an imprecise, analogous
manner. Some people, more clear sighted, do not.

>In either case, the targets for representation are
>phonemes, which is why I (loosely, I admit) equated alphabetic with >phonemic.

*The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language* has this to say: "In a perfectly
regular system...there is one grapheme for each phoneme...Languages vary
greatly in their graphemic/phonemic regularity. At one extreme, we find
such languages as Spanish and Finnish, which have very...regular system[s];
at the other [extreme], we find such [languages] as English and Gaelic,
[which have] a marked degree of irregularity." (p. 202)

(Interestingly enough, no consonantal system is mentioned as being in the
extreme of "a marked degree of irregularity" yet, by no stretch of the
imagination, could such systems be included anywhere else.)

Thus, an alphabet is made up of graphemes, which *represent* phonemes but
are by no means identical ("equated") with them, loosely or otherwise.

>> It is "important to point out" that even a bush has a stem. In this case
>> the stem is orality, which gave off shoots that became all of the other
>> ways that language is manifested.
>I would put it differently, and refine my original post in the process. I
>think orality (and I would include signing with orality) is on this bush at
>The bush consists of different ways in which language has been represented:
>logographic, syllabic, alphabetic, and so on.

That's not a bush; it's only one branch of the bush! The bush is called
language. Language is manifested (not "represented") in signing, in speech
(orality), in writing: by hand, by printing, and electronically. Each is a
distinct branch of the bush.

And they, in turn, have branches. There are many different sign and oral
languages. There are many different systems of writing. There are many
different type fonts and methods of printing, both mechanical and electronic.

>I'm not even sure that "printing"
>and "electronic" are on the bush. They are not different ways of representing
>language, they are different ways of TRANSMITTING language which is already
>represented alphabetically (as I am doing now).

They are not different ways of *representing* language; they are different
ways of *manifesting* language. I would suggest that you look up
"represent" in your dictionary, but what's the use: you are sure to come up
with some way of justifying your choice over mine.

>Is there any evidence that
>human language itself has evolved IN RESPONSE TO THESE DIFFERENT MEANS OF

Oh, if you only had eyes to see with. It's all around you, Ron! How can
you call yourself a linguist and not be aware of the evidence?

>To put it the other way: the various forms of writing and transmitting language
>are not evolutions of language itself.

Nobody said they were. Marshall McLuhan apparently said that they were
stages in the evolution of consciousness. That's the point, Ron, which you
seem to have lost sight of in your hostility to anything I say.

>The equation of "language" with
>"writing" is one of the very first myths about language that I debunk in my
>beginning linguistics classes, every semester. (And, every semester, another
>set of students comes in needing to be debunked...)

If the need to debunk is there, by all means carry on old boy. But only
ignorant undergrads would need such debunking.

Jesse S. Cook III E-Mail:
Post Office Box 40984 or
Charleston, SC 29485 USA

" is not for our faults that we are disliked and even hated,
but for our qualities."--Bernard Berenson (1865-1959)