[Lingtyp] Is written language a separate modality?

David Gil gil at shh.mpg.de
Wed Jan 2 07:56:30 UTC 2019

Dear all,

On 02/01/2019 10:19, Joo Ian wrote:
> I would like to ask everyone if you agree on the idea that written 
> language is not simply a representation of spoken language, but a 
> distinct modality (similar to how sign and spoken language are 
> different modalities).
I would say yes and no, but more no ...
> It seems that there is a general consensus that a written language is 
> simply the “shadow” of a spoken language. But I am not sure if this is 
> exactly the case.
You are right that this is not exactly the case.  Case in point: Social 
media in Indonesia (and presumably other places as well) has innovated 
all kinds of conventions that are purely orthographic: they have a life 
of their own, beyond the language that they "come from".  Emoticons are 
just one small aspect of this.  if you "just" know Indonesian, but are 
not familiar with these conventions, you won't be able to follow a 
Facebook conversation "in Indonesian".

But here's the rub:  knowing Indonesian isn't a sufficient condition for 
understanding such a Facebook conversation, but it's most definitely a 
necessary condition.  Such orthographic systems are still derivative 
from the spoken language, the way a ludling might be, or, for that 
matter, the way signed versions of spoken languages, such as Signed 
English is.

But this is NOT the case for real sign languages.  A sign language such 
as ASL has nothing whatsoever to do with any spoken language; you don't 
need to learn English to learn ASL, and for the most part it won't help 
you that much to do so.  So the analogy between written language and 
sign language is of only limited validity and is potentially misleading.


David Gil

Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany

Email: gil at shh.mpg.de
Office Phone (Germany): +49-3641686834
Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-81281162816

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