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I might be wrong since I'm unable to find any sources supporting this, but it's increasingly my gut feeling that linguistics appears to focus on spoken languages as opposed to written ones. If this is the case, why is it?

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Just to clarify, do you mean 'words' as opposed to other units/structures? Or do you mean 'spoken' as opposed to signed? –  Gaston Ümlaut Oct 13 '11 at 3:38
+1 @Gaston Ümlaut: Yes, I mean spoken, not signed. I had heard of a signed language that developed in isolation and was not taught, but that was on the radio; meaning afterwords I made no attempt to find the research, and was unable to find it yesterday. To address your concerns about the use of 'words', I change it to speech. Thanks for sharing your observations! –  blunders Oct 13 '11 at 12:35
What do you mean by "Might be wrong..."? The title question, or what follows? –  Mitch Oct 13 '11 at 12:49
There is only one language with a written form but no spoken or signed form, and it's a constructed language with no native speakers as far as I know: Blissymbols –  hippietrail Oct 13 '11 at 19:11
Linguistics may "focus" on spoken language (for reasons outlined by other people here), but that doesn't mean that written language is uninteresting or that it doesn't get studied at all. To my knowledge, text messaging e.g. has been extensively studied. –  Fryie Dec 2 '12 at 18:53

8 Answers 8

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Linguistics is the scientific study of language. A language is narrowly defined as the set of rules that "speakers" (speaking or signing) acquire when they are very, very young. There is evidence for processes of language acquisition underway at the very youngest testable ages (under a year old).

A speaker with a grammar like mine knows, without ever being told, that strings of words like colorless green ideas sleep furiously are well-formed, but strings like furiously sleep ideas green colorless are not. I can say that the first sentence would be true if (i) there existed some things that were colorless, green, and ideas, (ii) such things could sleep, and (iii) such sleepings could happen furiously. The other string supports no such interpretation. Since I don't have to look up these two strings in some kind of book to tell whether one is good or bad, we say that my grammatical rules are internalized.

The rules of grammar (again, in the linguist's sense) are learned implicitly. They are not taught, as the rule "i before e except after c" has to be learned when one learns how to spell, but rather inferred on the basis of experience in a linguistic environment (i.e., a community of speakers who do some speaking in the presence of the child).

Lastly, knowledge of language is universal. Barring severe cognitive deficits or social deprivation, every normally-developing child acquires a native tongue.

Written language stands in sharp contrast: children learn to read and write much later (usually once they start attending school) than they learn to understand and produce spoken language; written language has no internalized rules, it reflects only the speakers' internal rules and, possibly, a speaker's regard for the prescriptive rules of style; written language has to be learned explicitly (often laboriously); and, written language is not universal—there are many, many people on this planet who have knowledge of language but can't read or write.

"Written language" is an artifact of (some) human cultures who already had spoken languages. Spoken language is definitional of our species, and it is this kind of species-specific capacity that linguists study. This is not to say that the capacity for writing is not complex; it is in fact more complex than the capacity for language, in that explaining how we can have writing systems requires in part an explanation of what the language we're writing down is in the first place.

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Not necessarily disagreeing, but just wondering if you have a source, since e.g. Wikipedia doesn't seem to agree: "Language is the human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, and a language is any specific example of such a system. The scientific study of language is called linguistics." (highlighting mine) –  dainichi Nov 30 '12 at 14:01
Whoops, forgot the link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language –  dainichi Nov 30 '12 at 14:06

Your question is ambiguous, so I'll just cast my net wide.

There is a lot of research into different aspects of language that don't necessarily involve speaking. Psycho- and neurolinguistics, both thriving subdisciplines, focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and neurological components of language production and processing. Morphology, phonology and syntax focus on the rules that govern the production of language, not necessarily the particular modality of production. A lot of language acquisition research, such as that focusing on how babies process pointing gestures or gazes, or on the strategies that children use to learn a language, has very little to do with spoken language.

A lot of disciplines that prima facia deal with spoken language, such as phonetics or phonology, can and have been successfully adapted to sign languages. For example: research has shown that their are sign language analogues for place and manner of articulation, and that sign language has units of production that can be rightfully refereed to as phonemes.

Written language is a reflection of spoken, so most of what we know about spoken language can be transfered to written. The converse is not true. Still, there is a great deal of research focusing on how written language is processed.

Spoken language is a part of what makes us human. Every child will become fluent in their native language unless they suffer from massive cognitive or social deficits. Even mentally retarded children, or others with low IQ's, still achieve a great deal of fluency. If someone is deaf or mute, they will either acquire or invent a signed language. Acquiring literacy, on the other hand, is laborious process. Most languages do not have a written form, and even in those that do, not everyone achieves literacy. Spoken language is more widespread and universal, and therefore more interesting than the mostly cultural invention we call 'writing'.

Finally, a lot of linguistics has to be done with spoken language. A lot of phonetics, for instance, is about sound production, transmission, and perception. Children learn spoken language far earlier than written language, so most interesting research on language acquisition is about spoken or signed language. As I pointed out above, most languages do not have a written form, so any linguistic research concerning them has to focus on their spoken forms.

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I would argue that the term 'written language' does not make sense, at least in linguistic terms. There is no 'written language', only orthographies: arbitrary sets of symbols that are used to represent some aspect of (usually spoken) language. There are only really two types of language: spoken and signed (there is sometimes mention of 'whistle languages', but I don't know anything about them). –  Gaston Ümlaut Oct 13 '11 at 9:16
+1 @Gaston Ümlaut: That's pretty much the reasoning I thought to be behind Why linguistics appears focus on spoken languages. Would it be possible for you to state that in an answer an, expand on it, and provide sources supporting this claim? Thanks! –  blunders Oct 13 '11 at 12:44
+1 @Nathan: I've heard that if someone is deaf or mute, they will either invent a signed language too. Do you know of any research related to this, and if so, would it be possible to add references to it. Thanks! –  blunders Oct 13 '11 at 12:47
@blunders Nicaraguan Sign Langauge is probably the best example. The phenomenon you are referring to is called home sign. –  Nathan Oct 13 '11 at 14:47
+1 @Nathan: Yes, I believe you're correct, thanks! –  blunders Oct 13 '11 at 15:32

The attitude that spoken language is somehow primary to written (usually in a more general sense than geneologically) is known as logocentrism and has been extensively studied by, amongst others but arguably most famously, Jaques Derrida in his Of Grammatology.

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I didn't realize the historical thread. Are you aware of what alternatives to this attitude might be? –  Mitch Oct 14 '11 at 2:05
I do not have great insight into linguistic practice, so take what I say with a grain of salt. That said I think there are at least two traditions which could reasonably be posed as alternatives. There is a study of language related to mathematical logic/formal language theory where one can study languages as certain kinds of formal structures. Alternatively it doesn't strike me as unreasonable to use semiotics as a "foundational theory" and consider linguistics as studying sign systems which certain "linguistic" qualities. –  Tilo Wiklund Oct 14 '11 at 9:06
You'll sometimes hear the alternative referred to as graphocentrism. Outside of linguistics, "first world" culture tends to be pretty intensely graphocentric -- most non-linguists in, say, the US will feel like "Well, of course the real form of English is its written form! That's why illiterate people talk funny!" I don't think there's such a thing as "Graphocentric Linguistics," though. Basically whatever a graphocentric researcher does, we're likely to say "Dude, that's not linguistics you're doing." –  Dan Velleman Oct 14 '11 at 16:01
@TiloWiklund But spoken language is primary to written. All writing systems are parasitic on language, most (maybe all) being systems for representing the phonemes of a given language. Linguists take the view that even spoken language is secondary, it being the knowledge inside the head that is truly primary--it is this knowledge that mathematical linguistics tries to model. –  Gaston Ümlaut Oct 16 '11 at 3:06
@Gaston Ümlaut: It is precisely that attitude towards language (I'd say including the notion of an "internal" language) that people like Derrida have criticised. I'm not arguing for or against this view here (if I were I'd be very much on the side of people like Derrida, but this is not a discussion forum) but just mention that this phenomenon has been studied, has an established name and that not everyone "agrees" with it. –  Tilo Wiklund Oct 16 '11 at 10:18

It's pretty simple, actually.

Spoken language is a natural phenomenon; written language is a craft or art form.

There's a pretty strong divide here among the natural sciences. Chemists don't study Money; physicists don't study Beethoven.

Linguists don't study written language (generally) because written language isn't language — it's art.

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that's not true. do you really think every E-Mail, every Facebook comment, every text message is "art"? No. It clearly is communication, as is any face-to-face conversation. –  Fryie Dec 2 '12 at 18:51
@Fryie: I think it's fair to interpret that esoneill's first language is not English or that the best word, artefact, can be a bit elusive even to native speakers. –  hippietrail May 26 at 11:50
Art: Conscious direction of means to an end. Covers writing. Covers technology. Covers fine arts and literature. Doesn't cover language, any more than it covers walking. They come with the territory. Derrida's supposed "graphology" is a theory of art, while linguistics is a theory of language. There are facts in linguistics, as well as attitudes. –  jlawler May 27 at 18:02

To make an analogy, spoken language is like a hand and written language is like a hammer.

We are born with the capability to speak/hear (specific anatomical structures in the ear, mouth/throat/lungs, and brain) and we spontaneously learn spoken language by its presence. But writing systems are artificial, man-made contrivances, a coding system to record the spoken language, a tool that attempts to extend the usefulness of spoken language.

One naturally learns language growing up around people, but one needs instruction in reading and writing to do it. People communicated for thousands of years quite well without writing. The rules of writing are totally dependent on those of language that came before it.

To understand the arbitrariness of writing consider that Mandarin is normally expressed in logograms (the complicated picture-like collection of strokes for one syllable), but can also be expressed in pinyin, a romanization, roughly one letter per phoneme. Similarly, Persian is normally written in an Arabic script (leaving out most vowels) where Arabic is a very different structured language, but before the Arabic invasion was written in cuneiform, a syllabic system, but can be transcribed to a roman lettering. All these forms are with no change in meaning. The point is that writing systems are arbitrary inventions.

Writing is merely an attempt at encoding natural language (the non-written, primary, spoken thing). So, studying writing is studying the arbitrary man-made patterns of orthography, and these structures are very different from (or, if not, depend entirely on) the patterns of spoken language.

Studying writing (an interesting topic) is like studying a hammer, a very different thing than studying the hand that uses it.

As an aside, sign language needs to be accounted for (only because it is nominally not spoken), and that account (by analysis and experiment) seems to be that it has the same properties as spoken language in contrast to written ones.

For reference, see the preface/first chapter of any introductory linguistics textbook. There is the speech and writing section of wikipedia, which supports what I say, but you should seen actual authority to be convinced if you need a trustable reference.

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+1 @Mitch: Believe your answer is close, but think it might be more clear to say it would be possible for humans to create a written language, the wiring of humans and the functions of that wiring make the benefits of spoken languages much more likely, so much so, that there are no know languages that were born from a writing system. While babies maybe able to sign before using a spoken language, the benefits of spoken language quickly over take there usuage of hand signing expressions. Right, or no? –  blunders Oct 13 '11 at 15:40
@blunders, it's important to keep environmental factors in mind. If the baby is surrounded by adults who use speech as their main mode of communication, then the benefits of spoken language indeed overtake those of sign language. But if the baby is born into a community of adults who are deaf, that will not be true. It is not clear to me that, as a self-contained system, a spoken language has any advantages over a signed one in terms of its communicative effectiveness, provided that the respective levels of competence of the message sender and message recipient are controlled for. –  musicallinguist Oct 13 '11 at 16:48
@blunders: re babies - One of my points was that as far as this question is concerned sign language (using arm and facial gestures) is in the same category as spoken language, and that category is very far away from the category of writing (as a means of communication). So I think it is a non sequitur by talking about the learning of sign or spoken languages in babies (an interesting separate question). –  Mitch Oct 13 '11 at 17:04
@blunders: re 'wiring' - forgetting the physical expression (sight vs sound, the 'wiring' for writing is qualitatively very different from the 'wiring' for language, so 'much more likely' is just a extreme understatement. Even people with very dysfunctional nervous systems can do spoken language, and high brain functioning people can have difficulties learning reading/writing (have you learned Chinese lately?). –  Mitch Oct 13 '11 at 17:09
@blunders: to be intellectually honest, one could say that all known constructed languages (Esperanto, Lojban, Klingon) were created out of a writing tradition. But those could only be considered true languages when they are passed to a child as a first language. And that will surely only ever occur as a -spoken- language. The writing (orthography, character shapes, visual transfer) is secondary to the language properties. –  Mitch Oct 13 '11 at 17:20

Speech is thousands of years older than writing (the earliest known writing is Sumerian cuneiform -pictographs inscribed in clay). So it has primacy over the written word. According to Crystal (2003:178-9) both speech and writing are recognised as 'alternative, equal systems of linguistic expressions'. Focus on writing is characterised by studies in to literature and therefore style, genre and, perhaps, the notion of linguistic excellence and standards. Historically, speech was not considered worthy of study. In modern times, there has been much wider analysis of speech for a number of reasons: 1. Prevalence of 'second' language learning. 2. Investigations in to primary language acquisition. 3. Cognitive studies in to speech and the language centre of the brain. 4. Striving for improved standards and teaching methodologies. 5. etc..

or perhaps for the very fact that not a lot of academic attention had been paid to it before.

Speech is an innate skill that manifests itself without a formal learned environment (taking Krashen's distinction on 'acquisition' and 'learning'). Writing is a learned skill in formal learning settings. Children must learn to talk before they can write. So the primary focus in research is naturally on speech as the starting point of language acquisition.

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Many linguists focus on the spoken language indeed, or at least they claim to. Often times, Ferdinand de Saussure is attributed with, among other things, steering linguistics into this direction around the turn of the 20th century. Alas, for many years to come, linguists saying they’re studying the spoken language were instead relying on written records thereof. This remains a problem today, although the methods of transcription have improved and modern technology makes spoken language better accessible to direct analysis. Yet still, it’s much easier to generate corpora from written sources. As a result, most books(!) on grammar describe literal grammar, not oral grammar, which can be very different – therefore many people (even some linguists) will regard perfectly well-formed oral utterances as “grammatically wrong” or “ungrammatical”. (Note the etymology of grammar.)

There’s the interesting notion of conceptually and medially oral and literal languages, prominently by Koch/Oesterreicher. That means, a book is written in concept and medium, like a face-to-face conversation is spoken in both, but a formal speech is conceptually literal and medially oral, whereas a chat message usually is conceptually oral and medially literal.

Of course, gesture/sign language is primary to orally spoken language which in turn is primary to written language. This is true both phylogenetically for humankind and ontogenetically for each individual (even though you can learn a second language in literal form). The fact that writing was created, hence is an artifact, doesn’t mean it’s mere recording of speech (nor thought, as some believe), though. The (conceptually) written form of language developed specific rules that don’t apply to the spoken modality. There are also several things that one can only do in writing proper, although Ong, Watt and many more have provided interesting examples of what spoken language is capable of (especially in non-literate societies).

Many languages, most probably, aren’t written at all, i.e. they may be transcribed sometimes, mostly by linguists, priests and administrators, but conversation and “literature” is oral/aural only. That doesn’t require the society to be illiterate at all, since written communication is then often done in a different language. For these, it doesn’t make much sense to study their writing separately, but for most European, many Asian and some other contemporary languages, their writing system (incl. orthography and script) and written grammar are independent objects of linguistic study.

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(even some linguists) will regard perfectly well-formed oral utterances as “grammatically wrong” or “ungrammatical” - I think this claim needs some supporting information. Note the etymology of grammar. - see "Etymological fallacy". –  hippietrail May 26 at 11:45
I’m not saying they’re good linguists, they should know better, but it still happens all the time, even if they try to be descriptive. There’s also the occasional linguist who narrows the meaning of ungrammatical (as a technical term) or ‹*› to ‘not accepted in formal writing’. The etymology note is just a symptomatic fun fact; convention always tops history, of course. –  Crissov May 26 at 16:27

As a student of mostly dead "classical" languages, most of the "linguistics" I did encounter, was and is historic linguistics aiming at a reconstruction of a postulated "proto"-language, predating the known and handed down languages, which again predate the spoken languages of today.

Now, while from my perspective of a semi- to quarter-linguist it makes perfect sense, that linguistics should focus on language as opposed to literature (or: "art", as esoneill put it), already the question struck me as quite absurd (regarding my experience), since the linguistics I know does not only not focus on spoken language but even near-totally suppresses any reference to "language" as something spoken rather than written. This is, of course, because of the fact, that written evidence endures much longer than the sound of an utterance and so is the only available data for this sort of historical linguistics.

Still, sometimes even here, stress is laid on the spoken languages. Of course not so much in what concerns "proto"-languages, but there are, for example, attempts to reconstruct the phonology of (Vedic) Sanskrit and it is quite well known that Classical Sanskrit never was a spoken language at all. (Incidentally, this holds true for most of the "classical" Indian languages). This kind of reverses the modern approach to languages, reflected in the answers already given: spoken language is here only appended and ancillary to the written.

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But the Indians invented a writing system that actually represented the sounds, and they kept the pronunciation alive for centuries by using phonetic description. That they idealized the language is inevitable in a religious context; but they made every effort -- far more than the Greeks or Romans, or modern English speakers, for that matter -- to actually present the spoken language properly. And it's paid off, in terms of the information that's available to moderns about original pronunciations. –  jlawler May 27 at 18:08
Well, I do doubt this. Brahmi and Kharoshthi were modelled on the Paninian grammar that reflects the phoneme inventory of Classical Sanskrit, as stated a language, that was never spoken but has been an artificial language right from the beginning. It is quite obvious that the script failed to represent all sounds of even the languages spoken at the time of invention. For example Pali (still predating writing and artificial itself) has short e and o, which do not figure in most Indian scripts (and not in the ones used at that time). The situation worsens with later Prakrits and Apabhramsha. –  zwiebel May 27 at 18:26
The same can be said, even more so, about any language of antiquity. We have no evidence that any human being ever spoke (as opposed to recited, read, or wrote) Homeric Greek or Classical Latin, nor how well they were understood, nor by whom. All our evidence is written -- which refers to the OQ. There are always dialects, and there are always sociolects, in any spoken language; among them they probly display all the variation one needs. We have no idea how the lower classes actually talked in any ancient civilization, and it is the lower classes that drive language change. –  jlawler May 27 at 19:06
By the way: Brahmi and Kharoshthi, the first Indic scripts, even though having been modelled on Panini both supply no way of writing double, triple, quadruple consonants... –  zwiebel Jun 4 at 17:09

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