Monday, November 25, 2013

Writing is Language

Language is a natural faculty, writing is an artefact. That is the reason why children acquire language, but not writing, without guidance. The difficult art of writing requires skills that must be taught, memorized, and laboriously practised. The place to do this is the school. The school is the institution that most obviously depends on writing and serves its dissemination. No writing, no school; no school, no writing. These equations are basically valid. (Writing & Society, Florian Coulmas)
No no no.

No. Mostly.

I get that linguistics and sociolinguistics had valid reasons for wanting to approach language as speech. Coulmas explains how Sausseure & Bloomfield successfully banished writing from the study of language in the field of linguistics, and addresses the paradox between the alleged "tyranny" of writing in how language is conceived in the popular imagination, and what I would call the opposite "tyranny of speech" in (socio)linguistics: the idea that only speech is authentic language, and that writing is just the recording of language. It is impossible for me to agree with this, and Coulmas seems to be wanting to move in that direction too, in his first chapter, but then the above passage occurs in a chapter on writing and institutions.

I will just say this now, and probably many times later: Writing is language. It just is. It isn't (just) putting little marks on paper to represent things we say or would say. It is a way of languaging, just like speech is. Language use -- all language use -- is cultural. Our use of writing and speech for language is always already embedded in sociocultural context. That is just how we humans do. There is no reason for us to demand that writing is so fundamentally different from speech that one is language and the other is not, or that speech is more authentic than writing, or that because speech is more "natural" than writing it is more representative of "real" language than writing is.

We absolutely have to start with writing if we are going to get anywhere in the sociolinguistics of writing. This is why I find it easier to go along with Lillis (whose book I finally finished last week) than Coulmas: Lillis is primarily a writing specialist arguing for greater engagement with sociolinguistics; Coulmas is (more or less) primarily a (socio)linguist arguing for more engagement with writing.

I think it would be very hard for a person of my background, training, and generation not to take writing as a starting point in this discussion. I don't carry the disciplinary baggage of linguistics, for a start, but I also come from a time and place where communication in writing is just a simple, obvious, everyday fact of communication. People of my generation (and social class), and younger, constantly write. We write all the time. We write to each other to make plans for the times that we are going to speak to each other. We switch between writing and speaking all the time, and in some domains we do most of our communication in writing.

So here is some talking back to the passage above.

1. Of course writing and speaking are different in many ways. But I'm not convinced that the 'learning vs. acquisition' argument is all that helpful. My son is 1 1/2 years old and I would argue that he is laboriously learning to use speech. We know that people who grow up without anyone to talk to -- that is, anyone to learn from -- do not develop language. You cannot possibly develop language without observing/hearing how other people do it. We can argue that people have a "language instinct" and not a "writing instinct," but that doesn't really change the fact that in a conventional understanding of human society, almost any symbolic behavior that people do has to be learned from other people.

2. "No writing, no school; no school, no writing" strikes me as untrue for many, many people. Certainly people learn how to read and write (or do it better, or a certain way) in school. But certainly not everyone. I could read before I went to school, and most of the reading and even a lot of the writing I did when I was a child and teenager was done outside the auspices of school -- and this is much, much more common now than it was 20-25 years ago. I am sure there are scores of young people who write much more on the internet than they ever do in school. 
Where I really want to see the relationship between writing and sociolinguistics expand, though, is the area of variation. I need to read some more sociolinguistics stuff before I can really make this argument, but the problem is that it's too easy for sociolinguists to say "well, writing is highly standardized, just because, so let's just focus on variation in speech, which isn't very standardized." There are a lot of problems with this, especially when you think about language varieties across cultural and geographical differences. Which, of course, is what world Englishes is all about.


More on this soon.

No comments: