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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

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.


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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