Wondering if my observation that variations normally are less frequent within written forms of a language than spoken versions of the same language is correct. If this is the case, why?

For example, within English here are examples of:

I'm mainly interested in if pronunciation differences are more common than purely written spelling differences, and if so, why.

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    Just to clarify: by "dialects being less frequent", you mean "having fewer dialects"? Jun 8, 2012 at 16:26
  • @Otavio Macedo: I've removed dialects from the question, since it is possible it was confusing the matter. As for "being less frequent" instead of "having fewer", frequent would I believe relate to relative occurrence, and fewer would relate to count; I believe, might be wrong. I'm more interested in relative occurrences in this case.
    – blunders
    Jun 8, 2012 at 19:50
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    Written language usually only follows spoken language. It is actually a formalization of how people communicate. Wikipedia defines spoken language spontaneous since it reflects habits of people, and habits are different. Written language is usually governed by officials or historic tradition. So I guess your observation is well-founded. Jun 9, 2012 at 2:03
  • It makes sense because spoken languages start off naturally with lots of variation especially dialects whereas written languages tend to be consciously standardized versions of the prestige dialect or based on the most widespread features across the range of dialects. Then once you have this somewhat artificial standardized written dialect that feeds back in the form of prescriptive rules to "correct" the "inferior" spoken forms. Jun 9, 2012 at 10:34

2 Answers 2


This is largely a matter of standardisation. For example, English had highly varied spellings up until the 18th century as people spelled words however they wished and this was not seen as a bad thing. Printers commonly added letters to words (or removed them) to make full justification easier. Letters were added to make words more like their (presumed) French/Latin/Greek/whatever source. Also, in the early British Empire there was no standard spelling for many of the tremendous number of words borrowed into English. Much of this was made possible by the fact that spoken English had changed quite substantially, meaning that the writing system did not match it at all well, so there many choices in spelling. Even with languages with a highly phonemic orthography there will be variation in how people spell. With small language communities it is likely that standards will emerge naturally from the small number of writers. But with a large and widespread body of speakers, likely with differing dialects, it is much more likely for there to be great variation in writing, reflecting the dialectal differences.

Once language planning is undertaken and standardised spellings are imposed, and with the development of a concern for 'correct' ways of spelling, variation in writing becomes much less, while variation in the language may still be large. Of coure, as the language drifts away from the orthography there will be a new source of variation in spelling, due to the difficulty of always spelling correctly. But as writing/spelling is a constructed system (as opposed to speaking, which is a natural system) it can be taught and imposed, which will reduce variation.


Currently taking a Sociolinguistics course so I am, obviously, an expert on this subject (please note the sarcasm).

@Gaston Ümlaut did a very good job describing why there's less variation in written form but I wanted to bring up a few more points.

First, the reason there's less [observable] variation in written forms compared to spoken forms is simply that there is greater societal pressure to conform to the "standard dialect" in written form, as opposed to spoken. Think of writing as akin to making a presentation for a crowd of people. In formal situations like that, most people will make a concious effort to better conform to the standard dialect to be more easily understood. It also helps that since written form has an editting process, people can take more time to think and craft their words and go back and fix "mistakes" (i.e. deviations from standard dialect).

Second, you need to think about the context. Language Style as Audience Design by Allan Bell (from 1984) shows that people adjust their speech patterns based on the audience. I see no reason why this won't apply to writting as well. In emails, IM, and facebooking between friends slang, varient spellings, and sentence structures which reflect the speaker's (writer's) native accent are extremely common. Then you have the issue of emoticons, slang, and the fact that spelling errors and typos are more easily accepted than, for example, in a newspaper.

I do have anecdotal evidence to support this view cross-linguistically. I currently live in Seoul, South Korea and I have observed that my friend's IMs and text messages frequently use slang and short forms they would not use in more formal situations. It should be noted though that Korean spell adheres quite closesly to pronunciation (not 100%, but maybe 90% identical. Mostly because they occassionally revise their dictionaries to conform to modern pronunciation) so these spellings are rather consistent across writers (but still vary from standard form).

  • Seems to me that if you abstract all methods, including voice to be a channel of communication, it would be much more easy to see the relationships between the channels. For example, the volume of people seeing an expression via a channel maybe heavily weighted in variation by the format of the technology,
    – blunders
    Jun 11, 2012 at 17:09

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