when is a language a language?

Antony Daamen adaamen at OPTUSNET.COM.AU
Tue Jul 8 06:04:21 UTC 2003


Hi Polly,

one point of Defence you could use, is the fact that Auslan (Australian Sign
Language) is recognised as a language.  ASL is older then Auslan, so that
must also be a language!!

-------Original Message-------
From: SignWriting List
Date: Tuesday, July 08, 2003 14:14:41
Subject: Re: Looking for an article for my students
>> Hi,
>> I am a hearing teacher who teaches ASL at Kentwood High School in
>> Washington state.  I am tired of defending the fact that ASL is a
>> language.  Do you have statistics that show how many world languages
>> have no written form? 


How about English? Oh, sure, today we write English. But, was that always
the case?

In medieval times, most people were quite illiterate, so that never stopped
any of them from talking. Still, English back then was written from time to

We know that at some point, English was written using runes, a system
imported from the Scandinavian countries in the 5th century AD (according to
my Encylopaedia Britannica.) That's around the time that the Anglo-Saxons
conquered England. But, very few examples of written Old English (beyond
family names) exist today. In time, the writing system shifted over to the
Latin alphabet, with some modifications. While there seems to have been
some level of literature in Northumbria by the time of the Viking invasions
in the 800's, it is not clear to me that there was much of anything in terms
of literature back in the fifth century. Therefore, you might be looking at
a couple of hundred years of language evolution (from other languages, no
less) before any "literature" appeared.

The first writing in the phonetic coding sense, as I understand it, was
developed by the Sumerians to replace a pictorial system. I think it fair
to say, then, that the Sumerians were already talking before they developed
their orthographic system.

Then there are all those neolithic cultures not only way back when, but
continuing to this present day. Do Amazonian rain forest tribes have a
written system?

Polly, any spoken language can be represented by a phonetic coding system,
regardless of whether or not the actual speakers are familiar with the
writing code. We can use the Roman alphabet to capture most of Chinese,
even if literate Chinese use an entirely different system.

Is music a language? Decidedly not, but it can be recorded through a
notational system. So, the fact that you can write it does not make it a

And, the fact that a speaker is not able to write his language does not mean
that you can't write his language.

Therefore, the ability of SignWriting to record ASL does not demonstrate
whether or not ASL is a language (as opposed to some kind of less
sophisticated communication system.) Rather, the test is whether ASL is
rule governed with the richness, complexity and flexibility that
characterizes other human languages (spoken or signed.) On that score, the
literature is extensive.

The confusion, I think, comes from two sources: 1) Many hearing educators
foist a signed version of English on Deaf people, and therefore, with some
accuracy, argue that sign language is not a distinct language. However, we
ought not to confuse ASL with Signed English. 2) Many "scholars" who should
know better are too quick to label communication systems (chimp signing,
wolf howling, even home-signs) as "languages". So, cut to the chase. Is
ASL as rich and diverse and rule-dominated as, say, English? Is it
acceptable to use a prepositional phrase, but somehow a mark of inferior
thinking to use a locative verb instead?

Back in the days when racial prejudice affected Western society linguistic
analysis, similar questions were raised about certain creole languages. So,
it's the same old battle -- just the actors have changed.

-- James Shepard-Kel 
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