LINGUIST List 11.1620

Tue Jul 25 2000

Disc: Writing and Speech

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Glynis Baguley, Re: 11.1614, Disc: Writing and Speech
  2. Charles Jannuzi, Re: 11.1614, Disc: Writing and Speech
  3. bwald, Re: 11.1606, Disc: Writing and Speech
  4. dwilmsen, RE: 11.1606, Disc: Writing and Speech

Message 1: Re: 11.1614, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Tue, 25 Jul 2000 17:38:24 +0100
From: Glynis Baguley <>
Subject: Re: 11.1614, Disc: Writing and Speech

> This doesn't really bear on Moonhawk's point about how 
long ago written
> language diverged (evolved? declared independence?) from speech, except to
> emphasise that -- until the development of radio -- there was no vehicle for
> standardisation of spoken language. 
> Michael Lewis

This doesn't really contradict your point, but I think 
it would be more accurate to say that radio was the first 
powerful and widely received vehicle for the 
standardisation of spoken language. Before this, in a 
British context, there were pronouncing dictionaries, the 
public schools, the Education Act of 1870 (making 
education compulsory), and Professor Higgins.

Glynis Baguley
Chemical Engineering Journal
Dept of Engineering Science
University of Oxford
Tel. +44 (0)1865 283305
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Message 2: Re: 11.1614, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Wed, 26 Jul 2000 12:30:05 +0900
From: Charles Jannuzi <>
Subject: Re: 11.1614, Disc: Writing and Speech

Michael Lewis <> in part writes:

> Surely the genesis of spelling anomalies in English arises, above all,
> its "rich and varied" parenthood. At the time printing (with its potential
> for the propagation of "standard" forms) developed, there were many
> different varieties of spoken English (as, indeed, there still are). Who
> doesn't recall Caxton's plaintive question about whether to use "eigies"
> "eyren" for what we now call "eggs"?

A very good point. To a large extent English spelling could be called
"etymological". The variety of spelling conventions comes not just from
different spoken dialects of English (or an attempt to bridge them), but the
significant conservatism toward French and Latin spellings (or spellings
from any word written in a roman alphabet!). Written English is so
conservative in this sense we can't even change loan words to conform to the
way English phonemic or phonetic principles are expressed in the

I think it was Sampson (1983, Writing Systems) who observed that if you have
a mixed language (like English's mixing of its germanic base with
extensively latinate lexicon), you often get a mixed writing system. He
points out an analogous system, believe it or not, is written Japanese.

Given the change over time and variation across dialects and accents,
perhaps English's conservative, complex, etymological and phonetically
under-determined writing system makes very good sense.

Charles Jannuzi
Fukui University, Japan
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Message 3: Re: 11.1606, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Tue, 25 Jul 2000 00:31:11 -0800
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 11.1606, Disc: Writing and Speech

This discussion of writing and speech and Derrida came up at a good time
for me, just after I was trying to figure out what's happening in literary
criticism in relation to linguistics. I picked up a recent book, I forget
who wrote it, already returned it to the library, think it's called
"linguistics and literary criticism" or maybe it's the other way around,
and saw that it was mostly about Derrida. Written by a scholar discussing
literary criticism, not linguistics. I couldn't understand most of what
she said, but more than I subsequently got from the message about Derrida
with all the indignant quotes. I sympathise with the indignation but I was
hoping for more substance, granted Derrida does not make that easy. What I
got out of the book, which may be wrong, is that D criticises Saussure by
saying that his methodology is based on phonological analysis, and somehow
that invalidates its application to other aspects of language because of
writing. I kept thinking while I read this, which is only an account of
Derrida -- I wouldn't dare try to read him first hand; I have too much else
to think about -- that's probably what used to be called
item-and-arrangement (IA) analysis, as opposed to item-and-process (IP)
analysis, whence generative grammar etc. Why isn't that mentioned? Is D
pretending that nothing has changed since Saussure, or that Saussure's
methods are so still fundamental to all forms of linguistic analysis, that
destroy that pillor and the whole edifice comes crashing down (don't judge
what I'm saying by the cliches I use)? Also, what about Martinet's "double
articulation" characterisation of language, separating the sound and the
meaning levels. Martinet's French, why does D ignore him? After all,
Martinet separates sound from meaning, and all forms of language are about
meaning, even written and literary (or, is D the exception?) I always
assumed that the double articulation concept was to take mode (spoken,
signed, written) out of the essence of language. [double-artic: when
speaking you simultaneously phonate and "mean", and whenever you use
language in any mode you "mean", somehow and in some sense -- so "mean" is
independent -- to an interesting extent -- from the mode you use; if not,
well, that's what I'd like to see Derrida talk about -- WITH EXAMPLES, so
we know it's not just about writing is about using the same old basic
semantic primitives for different socialising [or reminding] purposes with
its own social values and implications -- apparently summed up by D as
establishing and developing "civilisation", or his particular one].

So I got the idea that D's linguistics was a straw man. Difficult to tell,
since the discussion included absolutely no EXAMPLES (of anything). That
is the most abstruse philosophy. Then, something about a debate he had
with Searle, which was actually a double-monologue. I always look for
examples, even in linguistics articles, so I have some anchor for how to
understand the arguments, or at least what they're about. I remember how I
was reading with alarm a beautifully written article in some magazine in
the 70s about how linguistics was destroying the English language. It went
on for paragraphs, very convincing until it came to the example; it was
about "hopefully" (somehow linguistics was doing this to English, I think
by saying "let it be" -- instead of "I hope that"). What a relief!

I thought, was it Newmeyer's message, the idea that post-modernism or was
it post-structuralism or what's-the-difference (I'm really asking) was
culturo-politically motivated to oppose France to the US was a little off
the mark. The criticism of linguistics as such reminded me more of the
rather old and often reported tension between linguistics and literary
studies, even in the US, and that that was what made literature types
susceptible to Derrida. Apparently technology rules (the influence of
linguistics as perceived by literature), and D is making "technical" rather
than "humanitarian" arguments against linguistics, by invoking writing and
writing systems. So that seems to have something to do with his "success".
Now, I haven't read D but I did read some Bakhtin, and found some of it
insightful though requiring monumental patience, e.g., he noticed the
various forms of reported speech, direct and indirect and mixed, and said
something interesting about their distinct purposes, and he talked about
"voices". Also he's much older. So, I thought lumping Bakhtin with D and
various other post-moderns was misleading, as if they are all equally
obscure and insulting to linguistics (or critical of it in the same way).
[probably they are all equally verbose -- but who am I to talk?]

Also, we should bear in mind that the literary tradition in linguistics has
always been much stronger in Europe than in the US. The founding American
linguists were challenged to develop synchronic methods to deal with
unwritten AMERIND languages, while the European linguists were more
answerable to traditions already established for working on literary
versions of their own and neighbouring languages -- and, their work on
speech through dialectology did not contribute substantially to synchronic
theory (apart from phonetics), being mainly running down fragments of data
of historical interest. I suspect that this difference between the US and
Europe had a lot to do with the sensitivities, social orientation, and
funding sources of the actual linguists involved, because there were indeed
some Europeans who did magnificent work on languages that colonialism put
them in contact with. But these linguists (often part-time) were not
anywhere as influential in the mainstream of European synchronic
linguistics as the Amerind scholars were in their role as leading US
linguistic theorists. So, yes, US linguistics may be viewed as
historically less receptive to the study of literary language than Europe
- notwithstanding that Derrida singles out the European Saussure as the
arch-villain for emphasising spoken over written language (as would
necessarily arise even from the historical origin and bias of linguistics,
with its initial preoccupation with reconstructing SOUNDS -- don't even say
it! -- and SOUND changes). So, I suppose D's picking on Saussure,
fundamental as he is to linguistics -- by tradition -- could be viewed as a
veiled attack on the preeminence of US linguistics and its synchronic
traditions and concerns in D's (more or less, recent) time. But it still
seems a little far-fetched to me, and smacks of an Anglocentrism which is
quick to dismiss any contrary French idea as motivated by orgeuil and
jealousy of Anglophone power.

I think the jealousy reflected in Derrida, if at all a viable notion, is
more general, less motivated by world politics -- as I suggested above.
More to do with the fall of literature from the position of prestigious
guardian of "Western civilisation", a painful reading of D's complaint
(resentment?) about linguistics, to a less esteemed and marketable
enterprise (like death, the common leveller for many, probably most,
Anglophone linguists and literature scholars is teaching English as a
second language, to make money --
wait, I may be wrong, I think many of literature ones survive by teaching
freshman composition, which I suppose usually counts as English as a first
language, and such a thing would go against the grain of a linguist, since
it requires the kind of prescriptivism that is only acceptable in marking
linguistics papers, to help the budding linguist get past the powerful but
unenlightened gate-keepers, of course, but which include older linguists --
but let's get out of these parentheses to the matter of prestige). So, if
linguistics has worked itself into a position of prestige in the broader
society, and is able and content to totally ignore literary theory (which
does seem to float aimlessly and change capriciously, as far as I can
understand), literary theory does not have the same option with regard to
linguistics. So that's where the resentment may come in. Linguistics does
not even have a patronising (in any sense) attitude toward literary
criticism (and it shouldn't), but views it as a non-entity. Also, what
many prestigious linguists are doing and saying about language, or pieces
of it, is often extremely difficult to understand, occasionally even
suspiciously so. So what help is that to literary theory? I could
sympathise here. Is the opacity of D a type of revenge, perhaps even a

Yes, of course, mode makes a difference to language, and takes on, to some
extent, a life of its own -- or maybe we should say, creates its own
industries with its own groupies and hangers-on. There have been many
studies of mode effects, e.g., studies experimentally comparing the same
thing spoken and written, etc etc. For written, concepts like
"compression" and "tighter syntax" come to mind -- due to advanced planning
and ex post facto editing, and the possibility of rereading more times than
you would care to say "what?" to the same thing in speech (for fear of
either seeming stupid or offending; yes, literacy is more private, even to
the extent that the obvious human necessity of talking to one's self has
become stigmatised; how did that get left out of basic human rights?). But
I'm still trying to understand what D is saying about all this, if not that
linguistics is a threat to (his notion of) "civilisation" because "civ...",
as "we" know it, has developed and is (as of date of this message still)
dependent on writing, in the form of laws, contracts, knowing what revered
and still influential dead people wrote in books etc etc. Is the substance
of this ordinary and mundane squabble between linguistics and literature
going to boil down to differences of emphasis based on different extended
conditioning of viscera? (which means no resolution and eventual boredom
- let's change the subject.) Yeah, I think so.

Finally, I paused (again) over the recent quotation of an older Anthea
statement to the effect that languages are abstractions, they don't "exist"
- or however she put it; it was the word "exist" that got me. I hesitated
to comment. It is close to a rewording of Chomsky's point of view, which
is based on his interest in the neurolinguistic underpinnings of the
language capacity in individual human brains -- taken individually (even
though characteristic of the species as a whole), and his total lack of
interest in language as a universal social phenomenon (despite the
essential role of language in his "Orwellian paradox", the study of
propaganda, a universal social phenomenon). I emphasise the phrase "point
of view". Certainly neurolinguistics is a proud and essential addition to
linguistics, but it's not all there is to what linguistics recognises as
material or objectives for its field, and what the field as a whole takes
for granted (or allows being taken for granted) to EXIST, even if not in
individual brains. It seems to be the same as saying communities or
societies or even agreements or shared (partial) understandings between
people don't exist because only individual nervous systems exist (which is
quite difference from saying individual nervous systems are prerequisite to
the "existence" of these other things). That seems quite questionable to
me, even though it is no easy matter to say what a community, society or
language (something shared by a number of people, or once shared by a
number of people which might only have one speaker left -- or none) is, and
what its boundaries are, if boundaries, in the normal sense, is really
necessary (?) cf. when Newton proposed the laws of gravity the older
scientists schooled in Cartesian mechanics objected: but what's this thing
you call gravity? Newton violated their criteria for such theorising with
his "occult" force. Newton admitted he didn't know; it even came to bother
him that he didn't have an answer He just knew it worked. Of course, more
recently we've had theories of gravitons, where particles, or whatever they
are, are actually exchanged by bodies in gravitational attraction, showing
continued concern with limiting physical mechanisms to those more readily
visualised. In a similar way, it seems that formulating "existence" in
such a way that languages don't "exist" because they go beyond individual
nervous systems (if that's what Anthea really had in mind) seems as
questionable as claiming that language does not exist in the effect that
any individual's language (?idiolect? idiolect of what?) has on other
speakers of the "same" -- how can I finish this? Her claim also seems to
imply that historical linguistics tries to study what does not exist
because there is no such thing as "language" to change -- except in so far
as individuals change their individual "languages" in the course of their
life-times. The whole thing seems to be somewhat narrow-minded in its
concept of what we are talking about when we talk about "language" and
indeed "languages", or is it of what it means to "exist". It also ignores
the very remarkable agreement in detail that we empirically find within a
particular community when we explore the usage and knowledge of individual
speakers, even those who have never been in direct contact with each other.
I assumed that Anthea made her point with another aim in mind, that of
allowing greater fluidity to the concept of individual languages,
nationalities, etc., in contrast to the uncritical pigeon-holing and
over-reification of such concepts, which can equally lead to problems of
narrow-mindedness, intellectual blindness and worse. But I think all of
that needs to be explained with care and clarity, not just asserted as if
it were common sense, as if we knew. I didn't respond to it earlier
because I didn't want to get involved in some kind of abstract
philosophical discussion about "categories" and "phenomena" -- and I still
don't. But I took the opportunity here to make my comment in the present
context. Enough said for now, I hope.

As for Derrida, I have some idea what linguistics is about, though that
idea could stand improvement. I have no idea what D is about and what he
has to say about language -- or literacy. I'd be interested in knowing,
short of reading him.

- Benji
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Message 4: RE: 11.1606, Disc: Writing and Speech

Date: Tue, 25 Jul 2000 12:14:09 +0300
From: dwilmsen <>
Subject: RE: 11.1606, Disc: Writing and Speech


I have heard that the peculiarities of spelling in Irish Gaelic names was 
developed purposefully to confuse the British!

Dr. David Wilmsen
Director, Arabic and Translation Studies
The American University in Cairo
28 Falaki Street
Bab El-Louk
Cairo, Egypt
tel: 2 02 7976872
fax: 2 02 7957565
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