Monday 1 November 2010

speech and writing

Speech is sounds, vibrations in the air arising from movements of the human organs of speech under the control of the brain/mind (or of an electrical device simulating this). Sounds can be heard, but not seen directly.

Writing is marks on paper or some other surface, or patterns of light and dark on a screen. Letters can be seen, but not heard directly.

It is incredible how difficult people find it to grasp the difference.

Several times last week, in our discussions of pronunciation, interviewers or commentators raised the matter of text messaging and the innovative spellings associated with it. But that is not speech! Other than occasional initialisms such as lol spoken aloud as lɒl, txtng has nothing at all to do with pronunciation. It is a matter of writing, not speech.

Other commentators, under the heading of pronunciation, complained not only about “text talk” but also about misplaced apostrophes.

Apostrophes, whether misplaced or not, are not part of speech. They are part of our writing system. Why don’t people get it? Even highly educated journalists?

Perhaps one reason for the confusion is the common sense of ‘pronounce’ in the sense of ‘say letters aloud’ (er... you can’t actually do that), i.e. ‘say the sounds corresponding to written letters’.
The letters ng are pronounced ŋ, or sometimes ŋɡ or ndʒ.
Spanish has a letter ñ, which is pronounced as a palatal nasal.

But this rests on the fallacy that writing is primary, speech secondary. It implies that when we speak we are merely supplying sounds appropriate to the written form of the words we use.

If that were so, how could the illiterate ever speak at all? How is it that children learn to talk before they learn to read and write?


  1. Yes, I've noticed the same thing. BTW, there is an "I" before "Other than occasional initialisms..."

  2. If that were so, how could the illiterate ever speak at all? How is it that children learn to talk before they learn to read and write?

    Better don't ask this; you'll hear that indeed the illiterate skip letters such as H or T all the time and speak Wrong English anyway, with double negatives and the like, and that children obviously talk random gibberish in their pre-school years.

  3. Trevor: thanks. Now corrected.

  4. It all seems to be part of the confusion in the media over linguists describing or prescribing language.

    There seems to be an erroneous assumption that if you're a linguist, you'll adopt a lofty position from which you criticise others' language use. More often than not, it's the non-linguists who adopt the prescriptive "language is going to the dogs" arguments. There was a Queen's English Society spokesman in The Independent getting his knickers in a twist a few weeks ago about declining standards of grammar, before launching into a rather ill-informed discussion of accent and "correct" speech too.

    I think that the prescriptive mindset tends to lump together everything vaguely languagey into some huge blob and see it as one problem, be it th-fronting, glottalisation or textspeak and apostrophe use.

  5. @ Dan: In my experience most people have that "prescriptive mindset" you mention.

  6. When explaining the relationship between speech and writing to non-linguists, I often find it helpful to use Magritte's The Treachery of Images as an analogue. Most people can grasp that a painting of a pipe is not a pipe, but a representation of a pipe. By the same token, writing is not speech, but a representation of speech. And just as Magritte can say of a painting of pipe, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe", I can point to the black squiggles at the bottom of the painting and say, "Ceci n'est pas français" – it's only a representation of French.

  7. There are quite sophisticated forms of muddle. I've encountered people who would run a mile from the term phoneme, but have an intuitive grasp of the principle. Their arguments use the term letter to mean something like phoneme as represented by a letter.

    Such arguments sound almost plausible when a letter used to represent a phoneme. The prime example is the argument of Scottish speakers that their rhotic accent is more "correct" because it pronounces all the "real" R's. And speakers who don't consciously have "intrusive R" use the converse argument to deride Laura Norder for law and order.

    I spend quite a bit of time on the BBC Word of Mouth message board. Some posters are happy with terms like phoneme, but there are others with real and perspicacious curiosity about language who lack the terminology to separate spoken from written phenomena. Away from the board, an individual poster might well appreciate a short course in phonology, but there are limits to what people will accept in a public forum.

    It does help, I think to eschew writing R (for example) but always stipulating letter-R and R-sound — or similar. A massive help to any discussion of accents is John's standard lexical sets, which can be grasped by punters with no formal understanding of phonology.

    It's rather a shame that the term phoneme has proved so hard for lay punters to absorb. What worries me even more is that the term is creeping in form the terminology of some educators and speech-recognition technicians. I may be wrong, but I sense that phoneme in these terminologies is often something concrete. This may be fine when specialists are dealing with realisations of phonemes and using the single word as a shorthand. But if this use of the word enters common parlance in a big way we may find it easier to explain some of the differences between sounds and letters, but harder to explain others.

  8. It is okay for journos to get things mixed up:-)

  9. Maybe one could exploit the inconsistency of English spelling to demonstrate the difference between phonemes and letters. Take a pair of homographs with different pronunciations, e.g. the bow of a ship (ˈbaʊ) and the bow that fires an arrow (bəʊ). They have the same letters, but different phonemes, so letters cannot be phonemes!

    I guess the confusion comes partly from the fact that letter names (ay, bee, see...) are just much more familiar and convenient labels for phonemes than the proper phonetic names. Few people are going to say "voiceless labiodental fricative" when they could say "eff", which will be understood, even though it is not the same thing. An example of a foreign sound, e.g. a dental click, might help, because there is no convenient name in everyday English for this sound, so as we exercise our minds trying to think of what to call it, we realise (hopefully) that it is indeed a sound, not a letter.

  10. I don't think we can completely ignore the influence of writing on speech, though. From the little I've seen of the project on the BBC, wasn't there mention of the changing pronunciation of words such as 'again, says, nephew' and so on? I'd say that spelling pronunciation has a greater influence on the pronunciation of English in these literate days (despite the usual complaints of declining standards, I assume that there are more literate users of the language now than there have ever been - in terms of proportions and absolute figures)than it has ever had.
    If not for our conservative orthography, how would many of us know where to put our aitches? How many sound changes would have marched on unchecked without the orthography there to remind us how to pronounce things 'properly'?
    I think the speech vs writing debate goes a bit deeper than than some of the some of the comments posted above would allow, though I understand the reason - writing has been given priority for too long.

  11. > If that were so, how could the illiterate ever speak at all? How is it that children learn to talk before they learn to read and write?

    And how did humans communicate for the first hundred thousand years, before writing was invented?

  12. But what happens when a misunderstanding (or something similar) about homophones is solved?

  13. Primary is one of those words like freedom and democracy that are meaningless until defined for each time its used. You could easily argue for the primacy of writing because our civilisation requires everyone to read and write. And that's presumably why so many people seem to equate language with literacy, including many we'd like to think should know better.

    But speech certainly comes and came before writing. As John said (er, wrote), children start speaking from infancy. They do it spontaneously, whereas writing is learnt at school. That means that speaking is part of being human, but writing is not. Writing is an invention, like the wheel. Invented, apparently, for fiscal and business purposes in the Middle East about 4-5000 years ago. Not for the Nobel prize in literature.

    We expect infants to start speaking, we're distressed if they don't. And incredibly few fail to start, for some pathological reason. But learning to write is like learning to play the piano. Many succeed and many don't.

  14. @John Wells "txtng has nothing at all to do with pronunciation"

    There is a connection: some spellings that some people use when texting work only because they involve some letter or symbol which suggests its pronunciation, which, in context, suggests the pronunciation of the word that the person meant. Why is gr8 a good substitute for "great"? Because of the pronunciation of "eight". Why is c u a good substitute for "see you"? Because of the pronunciation of the letter names c u.

    @Sidney Wood "speaking is part of being human, but writing is not. Writing is an invention, like the wheel."

    I disagree. Writing, like speaking, is part of being human. If something is an invention, that does not mean it cannot be part of being human. Speech, like writing, is an invention.

    @Sidney Wood "Primary is one of those words like freedom and democracy that are meaningless until defined for each time its used." Well said. Speech might be primary and writing secondary in some senses, but that doesn't mean they are so in all senses.

    Writing is merely a representation, yes, but then so is speech.

    Writing typically doesn't represent speech. Sometimes it does, I grant you: someone taking down dictation is writing a representation of speech. So is an author who misspells words in direct speech, in order to convey some aspect of the speaker's accent. For example, when David Crosbie in this thread wrote "Laura Norder". But then you could just as well argue that sometimes speech represents writing, as when someone reads out loud from a book. These exceptions aside, if writing represents speech, how come there can be near-total agreement within a language community about how words are spelt, when the people speak with a wide variety of accents and their ancestors have done so for generations? If writing represents speech, how come people can read and understand written texts that include words they don't know how to pronounce?

    What writing represents is not speech but text in the abstract. Writing and speech are two concrete ways to represent that abstraction.

  15. Here's yet another knock-down argument that spoken language us psychologically primary and written language secondary:

    people very frequently make spelling mistakes based on homophony: e.g. writing "your" instead of "you're". If written language were primary, one would instead expect pronunciation errors based on homographs such as saying a b[MOUTH] and arrows. But in fact one does not see this.

  16. This error is even contained in the classic of English spelling poetry "English is Tough Stuff":

    Dearest creature in creation
    Studying English pronunciation,
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse

    The second line always bugged me because the difficulty is one of spelling and not pronunciation. Although, it could be argued that from the perspective of a foreign language learner (at whom this was aimed), the issue is one of pronouncing of what is written. Still, it is a jarring note in an otherwise fun work.

  17. Richard Sabey

    What writing represents is not speech but text in the abstract. Writing and speech are two concrete ways to represent that abstraction.

    True, but it's not at the text level that communication breaks down between linguists and lay punters.

    Down at the level of substance, the basic units of writing —individual physical marks— are easily perceived and related to abstract letters. Indeed, for the average punter there is no difference between the concrete and the abstract — the term letter may refer to either. But the basic units of speech —individual segments of sound— are far less easily perceived, and not at all easily related to abstract phonemes.

    People without phonological training —i.e. almost everybody— use their reading knowledge to identify and recognise individual speech sounds. Thus (in English) ŋ is identified as NG — vocalised as ɛn dʒi:, θ and ð are lumped together as ti: eitʃ, and so on. The concrete sound is unrecognised and the abstract is equated with a letter (or pair of letters).

    This starts in infant school. We learn letters and use them to analyse what we have never analysed before. Teachers say things like A says æ, and children who have never perceived the sound æ in their lives learn it as the sound that A makes.

  18. Richard Sabey: as I hope was clear from the context, what I meant was that texting in no way affects pronunciation. If someone spells great as gr8, that neither reflects nor causes any change to the pronunciation ɡreɪt. So it is irrelevant to a discussion about pronunciation.

  19. Spelling pronunciations might be annoying, but they're probably really marginal, and spelling pronunciations from texting are a subgroup.

    But there are lots of issues that might interest the phonetician, eg what is sufficiently homophonic, eg when the homophony is stronger in one accent than in another. ("2" for "to", not only for "too" and the like. The use of full, stressed vowel or even spelling spellings© is probably a pattern.)

  20. Paul Carley writes: "If not for our conservative orthography, how would many of us know where to put our aitches?"

    We know because we know how to speak our variety of English with our local accent. It's true that all initial /h/ was lost in England (except the far north) in the 18th century, and then partly restored from the spelling (somewhat inconsistently; Americans froze an early version of /h/-loss, and consequently are mocked in England for saying 'erb, though that was the traditional pronunciation). So written "h" is helpful in words usually learned first in writing, like "hypothesis" and "holocaust".

  21. @ John Cowan

    So orthography reversed a sound change. I'd say that was pretty strong evidence for writing and speech not being as separate as we phoneticians would like them to be. We should avoid being dogmatic ourselves and accept that the relationship between writing and speech is an interesting one.

  22. I get tired of people saying that speech is a human "invention". Writing definitely is though.

  23. Re:
    "Pete said...
    > If that were so, how could the illiterate ever speak at all? How is it that children learn to talk before they learn to read and write?

    And how did humans communicate for the first hundred thousand years, before writing was invented?
    1 November 2010 14:46"

    Such a question is (unfortunately) answered wrongly -- and probably for immense sums -- by one American who makes his money and his reputation by teaching "communications skills" to hapless job-trainees, using his very own textbook which states that humankind communicated for millennia by drawings alone until the Phoenicians invented speech (and hence the word "phonetic"!) -- see for yourself on pages 5 and 6 of his book, which you can read here:

    What happens if the new hire (or other candidate for a business's required-training program) knows better, and won't put up with being forced to learn and regurgitate such nonsense? Probably his employer (who has invested large sums in miseducating his employees about language and communication) would rather get rid of an informed employee than of an uninformed (mis)training program.


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