On the English Language Learners SE meta site, I'm involved in a conversation that I find somewhat bizarre. In the order in which they appear, here are the assertions (paraphrased with supporting quotes) made by the user with whom I started the conversation:
- The distinction between hyphens and dashes in English is not part of English or any other language: "...dash style is [not] part of language use, whether English or any other. Of meeting some formal style prescriptions, okay, but not language qua language."
- Capitalization is also not part of a language: "...they're not part of language, they're just stylistic, like capitalisation.... 18th-c. writers in English capitalised nouns. The style changed...but the language was unchanged."
- The distinction between hyphens and dashes doesn't affect understanding: " Because, like capitalisation, they don't affect understanding. They might affect us on a social level... but the reality is that our ability to communicate is unaffected.... which dash we use, or whether we use a dash at all, doesn't alter the meaning of what we're expressing..."
- The written word is not part of a language, but merely a "representation" of spoken ("real") language: "[The written word is] a representation of the language, but it's not the language. It's comparable to a map. Maps aren't the territory, they just represent it."
- It's impossible to know a written language but not know the spoken language: "Plenty people are illiterate in a language they know well, but you'll never find the opposite situation."
- Not only is written language not a part of the language as a whole, it's also not a separate language, so it's apparently not "language" at all: "...while you can call a written representation a separate language, you'll get little support from linguists (or polyglots)."
- Some punctuation marks "have a role" (?), but not hyphens and dashes, which cannot possibly affect understanding: "Commas, periods, and semicolons have a role because their use can actually change interpretation. But an en dash vs a hyphen? No earthly way."
- Although written English (per the above) is not a separate language, it certainly seems like one: "I sympathise with your feeling that written English is a different language. Many non-native speakers suspect it comes from a different planet. English spelling conventions are as bad as Gaidhlig's."
- Even if written language is considered a "dialect" of the English language, the hyphen/dash distinction still wouldn't count as part of the "language", because it's "essentially impossible" (?) to distinguish between them when writing by hand: "For one thing, it's essentially impossible to get the 'correct' length when writing by hand. Yet if text-mode English is to be called a separate dialect, then handwriting must be an example of it."
My impulse is to disagree with every single one of these (except the point that written English has strange spelling conventions), but I have not formally studied linguistics. So while I can provide counter-examples of some of the claims that are easily analyzable (e.g. I've provided examples in the thread of statements that could cause confusion if dashes are replaced with hyphens), I don't really have the background to adequately address the more abstract or definitional claims with regard to how "real linguists" would view them. However, the user who made these claims also lacks the appropriate linguistics training to support them. (We've both admitted this ignorance in the thread.)
So, can anyone here support or discredit these ideas, either by appealing to more rigorous and well-established definitions of the terminology involved, or by presenting some other evidence of how linguists approach these issues?