LINGUIST List 11.1596

Fri Jul 21 2000

Disc: New: Writing and Speech

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Writing & Speech Re: 11.1586, Sum: Postmodernism and Lx

Message 1: Writing & Speech Re: 11.1586, Sum: Postmodernism and Lx

Date: Thu, 20 Jul 2000 18:42:13 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Writing & Speech Re: 11.1586, Sum: Postmodernism and Lx

On Thu, 20 Jul 2000, Frederick Newmeyer wrote:

Discussing Christina Howells. 1999. Derrida. Polity:

> This book, and two others, both picture-book idiot's guides, make the
> following points about JD's linguistic contributions. Derrida makes a
> great song and dance about writing. He argues that the *entire*
> western intellectual tradition, from Socrates to the present,
> including the entire linguistic tradition, 'privileges' speech at the
> expense of writing. That is, he maintains that everybody before his
> good self has regarded speech as primary and writing as merely
> secondary, and therefore of subordinate status. Of course, he
> includes Saussure in this blanket condemnation, though he admits that
> Saussure was right to take the line he did "for his own purposes". JD
> doesn't like this, and he wants writing to be regarded as just as
> central as speech -- apparently for all purposes. In fact, he goes so
> far as to assert that writing and speech are too dissimilar for
> writing to "derive" from speech.

Though there is little disagreement by linguists regarding the
primary/secondary issue (all normal humans speak but not all normal humans
write), that last sentence is quite provocative. 

As developer of a writing system for Northern Cheyenne decades ago, I know
that the ideal I was shooting for was a delicate mix of mostly phonemic
but some phonetic cues; the goal was one of "if you can say it, you can
spell it".

English, we know, got thrust into the media while it was still undergoing
dramatic sound shifts; thus, what was a fairly "tight" system loosened
very quickly; I don't know enough about French linguistic history to know
what happened there.

But there's a more important point beyond mere sound change, perpetually
vexing though that is in English and French, and that's what gets recorded
in the first place and how that usually gets edited when reduced to
print. I say 'reduced' because we always *mean* more than we express, and
the meanings expressed by the "paralinguistic" cues of emotional
tunes/tones, body posture, gestures, facial expressions (one part of the
brain is devoted to that) are always stripped away in writing -- and some
of these, a sarcastic tune or an exaggerated wink, are meant to instruct
the listener to understand the exact opposite of what was stated.

Even more than that, writers transcribing normal speech, as when just
normally hearing it, tend to repair forms heard ("ahmana", "wyoncha") into
something more morphemically distinct ("I am going to", "why don't you")
unless specifically instructed not to (and lots of times even then). There
are lots of "exclamatory noises" which are meaningful, but can't be
written. My students, like Derrida, find spoken and written to be quite
dissimilar when they are forced to write the speech stream accurately,
even before we hit phonetics. 

For me, therefore, spoken and written for English are more like nearly
parallel (long ago intersecting) tracks, where the "derived" notion
becomes less noticeable, something in the realm of specialists. Instead,
we work by rules and memorized exceptions in English literacy, which has
gained a virtual life of its own apart from sound, to the eternal vexation
of ESL students.

American Indian language studies and sociolinguistics (the development of
which ushered more women into our discipline) are two major traditions
that emphasize actual fieldwork and transcription; they are important
counterweights to theoretic introspection and "see if you can say"

Still, nothing seems "real" in linguistics unless we put it in writing. We
privilege speaking in one way and writing in another. They're like
separate, nearly parallel lives of language. Maybe Derrida took "derived"
to mean "less important".

warm regards, moonhawk

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