It seems like every scholar since Hinds has only mentioned English as a writer-responsible language, which is also used to contrast reader-responsible languages (that are usually identified as Asian languages). I've been searching and searching and haven't been able to come up with languages, other than english, that are defined as writer-responsible. The broadest list I've been able to identify as US/UK/Canadian English. But what I'm looking for specifically are languages other than English. Any ideas?

  • Based on languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=14467 and its discussion, I'm not sure we ought to call them writer/reader-responsible languages, rather writer/reader-responsible language cultures since in many cases it comes down to a question of cultural values. But others mentioned in the link are other Germanic languages like Swedish/Danish. Mar 3, 2015 at 3:00
  • Related Mar 3, 2015 at 11:34

1 Answer 1


I answered a similar question here. The crux of the answer is that the idea of reader/writer responsible languages is not an objective category of language. It is based on the original distinction made between high and low context cultures which is also highly problematic.

Basically, what we know is that all languages require context to interpret the meaning of what is said and written. This is true at all levels from pronunciation, through morphology, lexicon, syntax, all the way to text and discourse.

Languages don't vary in any objective way in the overall amount of context required for interpretation. However, each language (and the same applies to culture) will vary in how much context it requires in any given instance. For instance, English requires context to interpret the genders in a sentence such as "I asked the doctor out on a date." whereas a language like Russian will know exactly what the genders of all participants were. English, on the other hand, can specify time sequences better in sentences like 'When you get here, I will have been cleaning for 2 hours.'

In both languages, the writer/speaker will have to decide how much information to include to specify all the details that might be needed for interpretation. And in both languages, there will always be some things left unspecified. This is how language works.

However, when people talk about reader/writer responsible languages (or high/low context cultures), they usually refer to rhetorical traditions. This is not linked to the 'nature of the language' in question. It reflects the way stories are typically told in a culture. This will reflect education and the literary/oral culture canon. Many English-speaking culture (UK/US) have developed a very structured, information-based essay writing tradition. Writers (and speakers) are taught to be explicit about what they are trying to say (e.g. the famous saying: 'Tell them what you're going to say, say what you have to say, tell them what you said.') But in fact, writers are only responsible to follow the convention. And in that, writers are supposed to follow the conventions of any culture. (Also, note that the English conventions I mentioned above only apply to expository writing or speech. Not fiction or other rhetorical styles such as sermons.)

These conventions will lead to real differences in how writing is structured and what is required for understanding, but there will be no difference in that readers and writers as well as speakers and listeners both have responsibility for creating understanding in any language. And they will use all available linguistically and culturally appropriate tools to make understanding happen (even though the level of understanding required may itself vary). For instance, in American culture it is appropriate to find out the names of people you're talking with by introduction and question. In other cultures, you find out the names by asking someone else. So in those cultures, people spend longer not knowing each other's names after meeting. But that is culturally appropriate lack of knowledge.

  • nicely put, +1. Re your point about English v Russian pronouns, I've always wondered about how and why language changes in such a way that it becomes more ambiguous - thinking in this case about how English [and many other languages] now has only one pronoun for 'you and I', 'they and I' and 'you, they and I'. Mar 4, 2015 at 9:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.