Written “language”?

Hi everyone, Sabina here! As the resident nerd of orthography and writing systems, I am here today to talk to you about language. Shocking, I know!

When I say “language”, you might be thinking of spoken language but also, perhaps, of written language. But is “written language” actually language?

Well, yes and no. Written “language”, while sharing a lot with spoken language, is a medium through which we might use language to express ideas, thoughts and emotions, but it is not the language.

The distinction between spoken language and the written medium may sound simple enough, but the two are easily confused simply because they are very closely related. Haven’t you ever heard someone saying, with a frustrated tone, that the English language is soooo weird on the basis of spelling? Well, that’s the orthography, i.e. the rules that govern spelling, punctuation and such things, not the language.

Or perhaps that Chinese is an ideographic1 language? Well, that describes the writing system of the language, not the language (also, Chinese is logographic, but it’s a common misconception according to our resident Chinese expert, Riccardo).

Now, a writing system is a form of communication represented in a visual way. This may be through a system like the Latin alphabet (like I’m using) or the Cyrillic alphabet (like that used in Russia, e.g. алфавит ‘alphabet’) where the symbols represent sounds, or through a logographic system (like that used in Chinese, in which a written character represents a word or a phrase, e.g. 这是一个示例 ‘this is an example’). Basically, it is any way we use letters, shapes, accents and so on to convey meaning on… well, any material really, as long as it is graphically represented.

You with me so far? Great, let’s move into the tricky stuff.

Now, the writing system and the orthography of a language are derivative mediums of spoken language, usually reflecting the spoken language fairly well. However, writing may also go entirely its own way (or at least, it might seem like it).

Consider the English spelling of the word “tough”. Pronounced (in British English) as as [tʌf], it is nevertheless spelt with -gh, not f. (I’ll leave the vowels for now. We’ll offer more insight on vowels later.). So, if a written language is merely a way to express the spoken language: what’s up with that??

Well, this is the Historical Linguist Channel, after all (thought you could sneak by the history, did ya?). Such discrepancies (of which English has plenty) are often possible to explain by studying the history of the language. You see, orthography (especially spelling) is slow to change (like, really slow) and the standardisation of English was done during late Middle English/Early Modern English. English has, of course, changed quite a bit since then, but the written form of English actually still corresponds quite well (we think, at least) to the pronunciation of earlier stages of the spoken language.

While it would be convenient to have an orthography that reproduces the spoken language as exactly as possible, it would be quite difficult to create such a system. For instance, most letters pull a double (or triple or quadruple and so on) act and their pronunciation in a particular word is very dependent on the reader.

Let’s use another Swedish example here: In Swedish, the word for shrimp is ‘räka’. Now, in Gothenburg, where I’m from, this is pronounced something like ‘rää-ka’ with an open vowel ([æ:]), a vowel that, in Swedish, is traditionally associated with the letter <ä> .

However, my husband, who is from Stockholm, would pronounce the same word as ‘ree-ka’ with a much more closed vowel, perhaps something like [e:]. Yet, using the letter <e> to denote the vowel [æ:] may become an issue because the pronunciation “ree-ka” might actually be nonsensical to a lot of Swedish speakers (there’s actually a really old joke about it, talking about  a person wanting shrimp and the other person doesn’t understand what the first is asking for).

Add to that that there already is a word spelt ‘reka’ in Swedish, a clipped form of ‘rekognosera’ meaning “to explore or investigate”, and you’ll see how spelling shrimp as ‘reka’ might be an issue (especially since the pronunciation is highly dialectal and does not correspond to the pronunciation of other dialects).

There are, of course, a bunch of words that could (and perhaps should) be updated to a more ‘modern’ spelling, but the point of all this is that, while spoken and written language are closely related, we cannot expect the written form to be an exact replica of the spoken language. That being said, it would be naive of us to claim that spoken and written language are completely separate. Of course they’re not. But, at the same time, when we talk about “written language”, we must be aware that that “language” is not actually a language at all, merely a really slow-to-change expression of the spoken language. This does not mean that the study of writing systems and/or orthography is not worthwhile. Quite the opposite, especially for historical linguists whose only resource is written texts.

We cannot, and should not, expect writing to be a trustworthy representative of spoken language, and that’s okay.


1Ideographs are symbols that manage to convey their meaning independent of any particular language, like a big red circle with a line through it to mean “no”.

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