[Lingtyp] Are there (can there be?) more than two modalities?

JOO, Ian [Student] ian.joo at connect.polyu.hk
Thu Jan 27 23:15:32 UTC 2022

Dear typologists,

about a year ago, there was a discussion on whether writing is a linguistic modality of its own right, like spoken or signed modalities.
Although the majority opinion is that writing is simply a reflection of the spoken modality and not a modality by itself, I argued that written modality can be independent, based on several factors:

  *   The deaf people can learn and write written languages without exposure to its spoken form;
  *   Some parts of the written modality are untranslatable to speech (such as the bullets I am using here);
  *   There are languages that have been used almost exclusively in written form, such as Classical Chinese, which is incomprehensible when read aloud in any spoken language (other than perhaps Old Chinese).

David Gil disagreed and argued that even if deaf person writes a written language, they are still in some sense communicating in a spoken language, just in its written form.
For now, let's leave that discussion aside, and say that written modality is not an independent modality.
The question I would like to ask is: Are there any other linguistic modalities? Or do we have only two - signed and spoken?
If we have only two modalities, then is it hypothetically possible to have other modalities?
Or are the two modalities biologically ingrained in our brains, and we can only truly acquire a language in either signed or spoken form?
To me this seems to be a critical question regarding how we understand human language, yet to my knowledge, it has been seldom discussed. So I would appreciate your opinion on this issue.

From Uppsala,


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