LINGUIST List 6.1503

Thu Oct 26 1995

Disc: Language and Dialect

Editor for this issue: Annemarie Valdez <>


  1. Peter Daniels, Language and Dialect
  2. Dan Moonhawk Alford, The Consequences of Writing a Language

Message 1: Language and Dialect

Date: Mon, 23 Oct 1995 21:35:31 Language and Dialect
From: Peter Daniels <>
Subject: Language and Dialect

Regarding Leo A. Connolly's remark that more than 60+ languages have a
writing system:

The new book by Barry Sanders, *A is for ox* (an excellent title)
claims without a reference that the United Nations states that there
are exactly 78 literary languages in the world. (a) Presumably the
source would be UNESCO? Has anyone seen this claim before? Do you
remember where? (b) Define "literary language"!

Presumably it's what LAC had in mind with "60+"; but the United Bible
Societies puts out a freqntly updated list of all the languages with
at least one book of the Bible translated, and I think they're close
to 2000 languages now; so in the literal sense, at least that many
languages "have a writing system". Possibly a handful more could be
added if there are any languages which Muslim or Buddhist missionaries
have recorded and Christian ones haven't.
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Message 2: The Consequences of Writing a Language

Date: Tue, 24 Oct 1995 23:54:55 The Consequences of Writing a Language
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: The Consequences of Writing a Language

Leo Connoly writes:
I agree completely about the need to do basic linguistics. Who gives a hoot
what the latest jargon for "subject" is and what node of a speculative
tree it is attached to? There are real languages out there, and they're
worth knowing about and recording i.e. writing. And I further agree that
writing them will encourage minority language speakers to demand their rights,
although we may well disagree as to what these are exactly.


And finally, having a writing system does not guarantee nirvana. Sometimes
having a writing system is a bad thing. Cyrillic and Roman do not happily
coexist in the former Yugoslavia. Might the war be less bloody if they
didn't have one alphabet too many to fight about?

Leo A. Connolly Foreign Languages & Literatures University of Memphis

Perhaps this is the time to open a new discussion which strikes at the
root of our profession. What are the long-term consequences of "reducing"
a language to writing? What changes in the language-culture dynamic when
literacy is introduced? Is the professional imperative to put all
languages into writing value-free? If, as seems evident, Plato's warnings
were right that literacy would result in our losing our memories (compare
anything you can do in memorizing to those who memorize and can recite
the entire Quran -- even when they don't *understand* a single word of
Arabic and are just doing it rote, syllable by syllable), is it fair to
ask what the consequences to a culture are in losing their oral memories
when literacy gains prestige? Is our profession value-free? Or are we
simply following blindly some crypto-Indo-European inner imperative?

In my own Intro to Language courses, an integral part of the course is
recording a random 5-minute slice of reality and transcribing it -- the
first time just the best you can, the second time through the filter of
Tannen's _That's Not What I Meant_, and the third time just a 10-second
slice phonetically. Each time they finish a particular assignment, they
think they've discovered EVERYTHING that's going on in that slice of
reality, and each succeeding assignment opens new worlds. By the time
they are through (including a morphological and syntactic pass in the
best of all possible worlds with lowest student-to-teacher ratios, as
sometimes in grad instead of undergrad enrollments), they know in their
gut, experientially, in a way that no mere words will ever dissuade, that
written English is an entirely different language than spoken English, as
evidenced by their 5-minute random slice of reality.

That explanation was for a reason. What exactly are the pros and cons, in
the most concise terms, around committing spoken language to writing? I
know from committing the Cheyenne language to a phonetic-like writing
system in the '70s that the very FIRST issue that comes up is
"standards": whose dialect, of the four communities that live within 20
miles of each other, will we write it in? The speakers in Community B
says black as "mo?OhtavO" but speakers in Community L say it as
"mo?kOhtavO", as do speakers in Community A. So how do we decide? By
number of speakers? By which community seems to speak the "older" way, or
the more modern way? Or, as seems most expedient at times, do we simply
use the dialect of the community that contains (historically
accidentally) the Tribal Center and arbitrarily designate it the
"prestige dialect" worthy of bestowing the writing system on?

I didn't mean to stretch it out this long, but these are the questions
that weigh heavily on me because of my experience, and I've never found
the proper forum for discussing them.
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