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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.


[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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