when is a language a language?

Fusellier Ivani (Wanadoo) ivani.fusellier at WANADOO.FR
Tue Jul 8 08:10:47 UTC 2003

For these questions there is a site http://www.ethnologue.com/ where we can find many informations about languages (spoken and signed) in the world.  
Just for information there are more than 6000 languages in the world ant only about 300/400 of them have a written form. 
It's important inform teachers who work with deaf children. 
Best regards, 
Ivani Fusellier-Souza 

Université de Paris 8 
SAT- Sciences du Langage
02, rue de la Liberté, 93526 - Saint-Denis - CEDEX
Adresse personnelle: 97, Bd Soult - 75012 - Paris
Tel: 01 43 41 38 51
Portable: 06 61 53 70 66
Mails: ivani.fusellier at wanadoo.fr et ifuselli at hotmail.comDo you have statistics that show how many world languages
>> have no written form? 

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Antony Daamen 
  Sent: Tuesday, July 08, 2003 8:04 AM
  Subject: when is a language a language?


        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 
    IncrediMail - Email has finally evolved - Click Here
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