LINGUIST List 6.1518

Sat Oct 28 1995

Disc: Literacy (was _Language & Dialect_), Free Word Order

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Nicholas Ostler, Literacy - a Double-Edged Sword
  2. Alex Monaghan, Re: 6.1502, Qs: Free Word Order,L2 Learning Strategies,Modern Hebrew

Message 1: Literacy - a Double-Edged Sword

Date: Fri, 27 Oct 1995 12:36:56 Literacy - a Double-Edged Sword
From: Nicholas Ostler <>
Subject: Literacy - a Double-Edged Sword

1. The Forum
Dan Moonhawk Alford <> writes
>LINGUIST List: Vol-6-1503:
>Perhaps this is the time to open a new discussion which strikes at the
>root of our profession.
Yes, I agree. I hope the Moderators will give us a new title.

>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? ...
>these are the questions
>that weigh heavily on me because of my experience, and I've never found
>the proper forum for discussing them.
Well, Linguist List is certainly one forum. Another might be
endangered-Languages-l , to whom I copy Dan's letter and this reply of

2. The Value in Literacy
When talking to uncommitted people about the task of encouraging and
protecting Endangered Languages, I often find that the readiest concrete
point that they will appreciate is the need to give languages a script, a
written mode of communication. (By contrast, the phrase "reduce to
writing" connotes very much a linguist's eye view, perhaps deliberately
assertive of the primacy of spoken language.)

One important thing here is about power and representation in the modern
(Westernised) world. Languages which aren't written aren't known outside
their home circles (often have no unique name, even), and has as been
pointed out in other discussions on these lists tend to be counted as
"dialects", not languages at all. They don't have a clear "footprint" of
documents. The only texts they will have will be literary, and these texts
will only be referred to in anthropological/ethnological accounts: they
can't be quoted. Our global culture looks for concrete, physical evidence
of things: a language that simply "flutters live though the mouths of men"
(Ennius) is not on the record. And until multimedia go a lot further than
they yet have, records, in any significant quantity, will be written.

So the imperative, professional or otherwise, to put as many languages as
possible into writing is not value-free: it stems from a primary value of
OUR (Westernized) culture. It is the judgement of those outside the
endangered language's culture that development of a written version is one
of the best policies to promote and aid the cause and survival of it.

It's a tactical decision, of course. It could be wrong in certain cases,
and it will be for the speakers of the language in question to decide
whether it is. But the judgement of outsiders is that, in general, this
step is benign. (Interestingly, those outsiders who don't give a damn, or
who would prefer the language to be snuffed out, never advocate literacy as
a sneaky way of getting rid of a language!)

(All this is quite aside from the loss to humanity if the language goes
extinct without leaving a written trace. There we Westerners have a
legitimate interest to speak out, quite apart from the concern of the
community that speaks the language. But that doesn't require the community
to adopt writing itself.)

3. The Perils of Literacy
The point, about the debilitating effect on the memory of literacy, is
well-made. It is something that will need to go into the "tactical
balance" in deciding whether a community should become literate. But it is
part of a general trend in human development, which could be called the
De-Skilling induced by technological change. Introduction of Decimal
Currency in the UK has lowered the mean ability in mental arithmetic, even
as it has made calculations easier. Introduction of typewriter keyboards
has lowered mean standards of legibility (and elegance) in handwriting,
even as it has made the average document easier to read. Most recently, as
I feel rather strongly, introduction of word-processors has lowered the
standard of structured argument in text, as people cut and paste old
documents (theirs or others) to create new ones. More personally, I know
that I am less and less inclined to get up and walk across the room to look
for a file if I can sit here and search for its content in my computer

It is not clear that sticking doggedly to the old ways is a possible
option: the new technologies do have their advantages, too, and the hope is
that these (ultimately) outweigh what is lost. Anyway, the forces (even if
not so benign) that make for these changes are not going to go away. This
must be true for endangered language communities too, although the culture
which is changing may well be more vulnerable, because smaller and more
attached to ancient traditions.

There is a feeling of "If you can't beat'em, join'em" about all this. I am
actively concerned that Endangered Language Communities should take up
modern electronic (as well as ancient (written) and mediaeval (printed))
methods to communicate among themselves and with others on terms of parity.

4. The Tyranny of Standards
Another of Dan's points concerns the divisive effects of introducing these
technologies, because you have to standardize on one variant dialect over
> 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?

Divisiveness seems to be intrinsic to small communities. (In bigger ones,
it's just called patriotism, I suppose.) But someone who is doing sterling
work in bringing the potential for writing/printing/electronic publishing
to small languages has, I think, a major solution to this problem.

He'll no doubt speak for himself, but Russ Bernard
<> and the CELIAC project in Oaxaca Mexico in a
recent paper* argues that his experience in giving people the tools (to put
their own language into writing) shows that prescriptive standards are NOT
a pre-requisite. Once the documents start to be produced, norms will in
time establish themselves. And as the profusion of Middle English
documents shows, you can quite well have a flourishing literate culture
without an imposed set of standards.

5. Belated Self-Introduction
I am an independent consultant in Linguistics and Language Technology
working in Bath, England, also President of a new "Foundation for
Endangered Languages" and Editor of its newsletter "Iatiku" (about both of
which you will, I hope, hear more before too long.) I am working with
Minority Language groups here in Europe, as well as having published for
the last 5 years on the past and present Chibchan languages of Colombia.

* "Language Preservation and Publishing", to be published in Indigenous
Literacies in the Americas, edited by Nancy H. Hornberger, in the series
Contributions to the Sociology of Language (Joshua Fishman, general editor)

Nicholas Ostler

Nicholas Ostler (temp. phone/fax till 3 Nov.
 Linguacubun Ltd
 Batheaston Villa, 172 Bailbrook Lane
 Bath BA1 7AA England
 +44-1225-85-2865 fax +44-1225-85-9258
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Message 2: Re: 6.1502, Qs: Free Word Order,L2 Learning Strategies,Modern Hebrew

Date: Fri, 27 Oct 1995 12:04:22 Re: 6.1502, Qs: Free Word Order,L2 Learning Strategies,Modern Hebrew
From: Alex Monaghan <alexCompApp.DCU.IE>
Subject: Re: 6.1502, Qs: Free Word Order,L2 Learning Strategies,Modern Hebrew

jussi karlgren's posting re. free word-order languages struck a nerve
of mine: he/she implies that the constraints on word-order are all

my view is that languages with free-ish word order actually determine
which ordering to use on semantic, pragmatic and prosodic
grounds. this seems obvious to me: simple examples are french
adjectives switching from post- to pre-noun position and v2 languages
using first position for topic marking.

less obvious are the prosodic constraints. my hypothesis is that
languages with relatively inflexible prosody (french, japanese,
hungarian i think) will allow freer word orders in order to put the
appropriate constituent in the position of prosodic emphasis, and that
languages with more flexible prosody (english, german) don't require
the flexibility of unconstrained word order.

there are complications, of course. firstly, prosody is not available
in written language so any language with a printed culture may be an
exception! secondly, there's a chicken&egg question: does the prosody
adapt to the word order constraints, or vice versa?

all this is part of a continuing attempt to decouple syntax and
prosody while justifying their congruence/complementarity in many

comments very welcome.
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