Can I have that in writing? Speak up!

Can I have that in writing? Speak up!

It is usually taken for granted that there are differences between how things are written and how the same things are spoken, something touched on in an earlier blog. The differences taken to distinguish written and spoken registers are almost always expressed in a form which treats writing as the point of comparison and therefore prioritises it – logocentrism and the written word rules. In writing, so it goes, there is a tendency to use longer words, more nominalisation (eg. nouns) and abstraction, to use a wider vocabulary, more personal pronouns, and more words derived from Latin (nb. this of course applies to European-originating languages; the arguments by and large ignore languages which derive from other contexts). These differences are reflected and built upon to produce syntactic differences between the written and the spoken. That is, it impacts grammar and the structure of language use, with grammar rules more closely followed in the written, and with the written being more logical and providing completed rather than elliptical references to the social realities being considered (eg. ‘hey, you!’ when seeing a friend in the spoken becomes ‘Dear Susan‘ in the written).

Overall, then, the written is said to have a greater use of abstract terms, a greater choice of words, to be less personalised, more explicit, have more elaboration, a greater formality in its structure, and have a greater reliance on Latin rather than other bases.

The extent to which these differences exist and distinguish the written and the spoken is, however, ‘domain-specific’. That is, they are used in different ways in different domains or contexts, and may sometimes be very different indeed, while in other contexts or domains they may come closely together. And in considering this, class, ethnicity and also gender make a difference in how they are used in different contexts. To this can be added different national contexts. For instance, there is considerable difference in these things between American English and English English, and difference again with South African English.

But in general, there are more rules and the rules are more closely followed in the written form than they are in the spoken, although in both there is a hierarchical set of differentiations and context matters. However, these things have changed markedly over time and now there is much less emphasis upon grammatical and syntactic rule-following than in earlier times, and much more incorporation of spoken forms into the written register. To put it simply, the written word is now more colloquial, more informal, certainly in English, although some languages may remain resistant to this, of which French is perhaps an example.

Some wider considerations are as follows. The divergences make up ‘classes’ or sets of differences, such as those between men and women, or between ethnic/race groups and how language is used. These are not just about the niceties of things but reflect thought processes and ideas about relevances: they are rooted in important material factors and inequalities which need to be taken full account of. And so while the relationship between the spoken and the written has changed markedly over time, this has been in different ways in different linguistic contexts and is impacted by structural inequalities among other factors.

There is also a relationship between the written and numerical, not only between writing and speaking, to be considered. Words and numbers are closely related; numbers are expressed in words, words contain many numbers. One good example is the crossword puzzle as a matrix of columns and rows given numerical counterparts and which requires completion using written language. Another example is that spoken language is replete with shorthand references to one of this, two that, and half a dozen of something else. And written language follows suit, although the numbers may be have added to them cars or apples or whatever the numbers elliptically refer to.

So what does this have to do with letters, and more particularly what does it have to do with letters within the Whites Writing Whiteness project?

Many of the pages on the WWW website refer to distinctive characteristics of the letters which this project has been investigating. One aspect of this is that they are typically highly performative and closely linked to expediting shared activities of different kinds between the writer and the recipient – ‘I send you corrugated iron sheets, send me a wagon load of mealies’; ‘ power of attorney enclosed, missing home write me soon‘. Often the writer may be only functionally illiterate, and their writings are not ‘good’ letters catering for the amusement or entertainment of the recipient, they are matter-of-fact and concerned with activities. In this they bring the spoken and the written very close together. Grammar goes out the window, syntax is a non-consideration, communication and activity of a ‘making the world go round‘ kind is all.

An interesting, exciting and annoying in equal measure discussion which explores many of these points, and which certainly does take non-European languages into account, will be found in: Jack Goody (1987) The Interface Between the Written and the Oral. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Last updated:  18 March 2021


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