Re: Writing, language, & consciousness

Ronald Kephart (rkephart@OSPREY.UNF.EDU)
Thu, 3 Oct 1996 21:59:34 -0400

In message <> "Jesse S. Cook III" writes:

[Note that, to save cyberspace, I have deleted portions of the message I am not
responding to.]

> 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.

I doubt that anyone who has studied the reading process would agree with this.
Reading itself IS an interactive process. Readers interact with what is written
to construct meaning. See any treatment of reading as a psycholinguistic

> 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.)

Hey, these ARE my calmer times! But seriously, I think we can safely say that
the US has a very high proportion of people who are literate at at least the 6th
grade level (higher than Haiti; not as high as either Cuba or Barbados). That
does not mean that the predominant mode of linguistic interaction for any of
these people is thru writing. Except for really weird people like myself, who
spend far too much time on this computer, most people use orality far more than
literacy, I am sure.

> 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.

Thanks, but our (linguists') use of the term "alphabetic" is not imprecise. We
use the term to refer to writing systems that use symbols (graphemes, as you
correctly point out) to represent phonemes. This is in contrast with systems
that use symbols to represent morphemes (logographic); it is also in contrast
with systems that use symbols to represent syllables (syllabic).

"Consonantal" systems, such as Hebrew, are essentially alphabetic, since they
use graphemes to represent (consonantal) phonemes. They are similar to syllabic
systems, but in syllabic systems the vowels are completely predictable, because
each symbol represents a consonant plus a vowel. In consonantal systems the
vowels are sometimes, but not always, predictable and must often be filled in
from context.

> *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)

Actually, Spanish is not all that regular, altho it is more regular than
English. The most regularly phonemic orthography for a major language is
probably Korean Hangul. Less well known but at least as elegant are Aymara
(designed by Juan de Dios Yapita Moya after studying linguistics at Florida) and
Haitian Kreyol (the official IPN system).

> (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.)

Th s f nly cnsnnts n wrtng ds nt cmpltly prvnt cmmnctn, vn n nglsh.

e ue o o oe i a ea ue, o.*

> 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.

Absolutely not. You are conflating ways of representing and transmitting
language with language itself.

> 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,[...]

I looked up "represent" and I got this as the first definition (American
Heritage Dictionary 3rd ed): 1.a. To stand for; symbolize. b. To indicate or
communicate by signs or symbols. I think we are safe to claim that both oral
language(s) and sign language(s) are manifestations of Human Language. Writing
systems are representations of particular languages, not manifestations of

Language can be represented by written symbols (graphemes) and that
representation of language can be transmitted in a number of ways, including
print and electronically.

> How can
> you call yourself a linguist and not be aware of the evidence [that language

Sorry, I know of no evidence that the nature of human language has changed in
any way as a result of these things. 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 other. If you have evidence to the
contrary, I'd really like to know about it.

Ron Kephart
University of North Florida

* The use of only vowels is a real bummer, tho.