LINGUIST List 6.1527

Tue Oct 31 1995

Disc: Literacy

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. benji wald , Re: 6.1518, Disc: Literacy (was _Language & Dialect_), Free Word Orde

Message 1: Re: 6.1518, Disc: Literacy (was _Language & Dialect_), Free Word Orde

Date: Sun, 29 Oct 1995 00:00:00 Re: 6.1518, Disc: Literacy (was _Language & Dialect_), Free Word Orde
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.1518, Disc: Literacy (was _Language & Dialect_), Free Word Orde

"Reducing" a language to writing seems to me to be an apt, even astute,
expression. I don't know what the original metaphor meant, but I take it
as an elimination of most prosodic cues. This is where written language
differs greatly from spoken language. Presumably, some compensating
discipline is put into written language (organisation into sentences etc?),
so that intent, often clear in spoken language (to the addressees) by means
of prosody, is somehow handled by other means in written language. To
appreciate the reduction of prosody in written language, it is revealing to
look at the way Bolinger represented the prosody of utterances in his
studies of prosody -- and to note that no written language has or will ever
adopt such complex conventions.

Another meaning of "reduction" to writing may be reducing the amount of
variation in written language when compared with intra- and inter-speaker
variation in spoken language. I doubt that was the intent of the original
metaphor, however.

About preserving endangered languages by "reducing" them to writing, I
have always assumed that it's as simple as that. I may be wrong, but I
cannot think of any cases in which reducing an endangered language to
writing had any effect on whether or not it became extinct as a spoken
language -- well, maybe it retarded the demise of Latin, but that eventually
happened anyway. Instead, linguists appreciate that ancient languages
were reduced to writing because they are all extinct as spoken languages
now (with ceremonial exceptions, mainly religious, but which might have
survived as spoken formulae anyway) and writing provides data on the nature
of these languages. There are various arguments, such as the "prestige"
of written languages, which are used to rationalise reduction to writing
as a means of preserving the languages as spoken as well, but I have not
seen any evidence that this works. Correct me if I'm wrong. Benji
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