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Subject: Written Language as a Cultural Artefact
Question: In The History of Britain Revealed, M J Harper states ''There are good reasons to believe that possession of a written language (and more especially the development of artificial languages for purposes of writing) is the key to understanding the whole of Ancient History. Hebrew and Latin will in time be recognised alongside Old Norse, Classical Greek, Sanskrit, Punic, Sumerian Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs and other 'non-demotic' languages as being essentially cultural artefacts adopted for a purpose, and not, as linguists insist, merely the surviving record of what ordinary people spoke''. To what extent would the panel members agree/disagree with this statement?
Reply: Hi, Richard, From what Drs. Sampson & Pyatt have said (& with which I substantially agree), you can see that Harper is indeed a historian and definitively *not* a linguist. While my colleagues have been kind and gentle with the statement, I really doubt you could find any linguist who would wholly agree with it. Although it is true and well-known that there are differences between *anyone's* spoken and written languages (the vocabulary is smaller and therefore the words tend to be commoner, some constructions are used in written but not spoken and vice versa), this is not generally due to a conscious attempt to provide (or, usually, even follow) an 'elegant norm', but simply to the fact that written language seems to us to be more permanent in some way (as in fact it is -- note even the seemingly ephemeral Internet, where we are constantly being subjected to some embarrassing thing a politician said on July |7, 2003, or the like), and thus we spend more time and care composing what we write than we have the time (& than our interlocutors have the patience) to do for oral language. Of course, there are 'leftover bits' of 'serious' writing which have been institutionalized (the 'high' variety of Modern Greek, the Bible or the Coran, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, just to name a few) which often get repeated or quoted, but have very little influence on the development of the spoken language. From another point of view, the sociolinguist William Labov has shown beyond any reasonable doubt that, once we 'clean up' some obvious oral errors or hesitations, the vernacular (spoken) language is actually far more regular structurally than the written language. (On a related but almost irrelevant note, mathematicians have shown that no structured theory of any complexity can exist without giving rise to contradictions; so much for 'constructed, perfectly logical' language.) Btw, linguists have always known that it is impossible to eliminate all ambiguity from language, try as one may. It just turns out to be even worse than we thought, although even so it is no practial impediment to communication, except very rarely. Jim 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: 26-Apr-2013
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Written Language as a Cultural Artefact    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (26-Apr-2013)
  2. Re: Written Language as a Cultural Artefact    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (26-Apr-2013)
  3. Re: Written Language as a Cultural Artefact    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (27-Apr-2013)

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