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Subject: 'Correct' language in pre-literate societies
Question: Is there any concept of ''correct'' language in pre-literate societies where spoken communication must be understood as a series of sounds rather than words? Is there any concept of grammar, even if only on an instinctive level?
Reply: Hi, Richard, First, there is no reason to suppose that having a notion of 'word' in one's language is a result of literacy, and I know of no linguist who would espouse the notion that illiteracy dooms one to simply mumble 'a series of sounds rather than words'. For example, in German and many other languages, if a voiced consonant occurs at the end of the *word* it is pronounced voiceless. This is true independently of whether or not the speaker is literate, so there must be some means independent of literacy that permits speakers to 'know' in some sense where the end of the word is. By the way, this is not always where we would write a space, as the notion of word in the written and spoken language is not always the same. Likewise with the notion of grammar: a linguist might specify grammatical 'rules' for a language spoken by a group which has no written form of their language, and this would be based on how such speakers use their unwritten language, obviously not on how they write it. In the same way, many kids have an excellent control of their native language well before they know how to read or write, and there are many indications that kids clearly have a grammar (sometimes somewhat different from the grammar of the adults around them) well before the normal age of learning to read and write (which it has been shown *can* be as soon as they are speaking the language, however rudimentarily, and have the necessary motor skills to write). So the speakers you mention certainly would have notions of grammar (not necessarily conscious ones). In the same vein, even in illiterate societies, some people are known as excellent speakers, or users of the language. On the opposite side of the coin, we all know totally literate persons who can't tell a decent joke, or a story, to save themselves. The bottom line is that what we linguists try to describe and explain is how the mind organizes our language (or languages), *not* specifically how it is written, and this is true for languages which in fact are written, as well as for those which are not. All known languages are organized on grammatical, phonological and pragmatic principles, among others. Linguists sometimes disagree as to exactly what those principles are and how exactly to describe them, but no known linguist would disagree with the statement that they exist. Jim [PS: you should get a good Introduction to Linguistics and read it. There are many good ones nowadays (even an old one would give you a decent basis for understanding what language is and the issues which we try to explain). You can google this, but some recommendable ones might be _An intro. to language_, Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman & others (now in its umpteenth edition and still going strong; readable); _Linguistics: an intro. to linguistic theory_, Bruce Hayes, Susan Curtiss & others (a little newer, but also popular); _Language files_ (11th ed., from the Department of Linguistics at Ohio State U.); _Language_, by Edward Sapir (nearly 100 years old & still pretty good); and lots more possibilities.] James L. Fidelholtz Graduate Program in Language Sciences Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades Benem'erita Universidad Aut'onoma de Puebla, M'EXICO
Reply From: James L Fidelholtz      click here to access email
Date: 07-Oct-2012
Other Replies:
  1. Re: 'Correct' language in pre-literate societies    Henrik Joergensen     (08-Oct-2012)
  2. Re: 'Correct' language in pre-literate societies    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (13-Oct-2012)
  3. Re: 'Correct' language in pre-literate societies    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (15-Oct-2012)

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