First of all, I am not a linguist, but I was thinking the other night that being literate was almost the same as being bilingual.

My reasoning is that sign language is distinct from written and spoken English, and sign language is a "visual" language in the same way that written English is. Also, homonyms and homophones would be entirely analagous, if these are considered different langauges.

It seems to me that the only reason they could be considered the same language, is that they follow each other so closely. That is, there are many one-to-one literal translations between them.

This distinction is relevant in natural language processing contexts, because it would mean that "understanding" a language and "translating" between languages would be distinct problems. I believe that this could reduce the problem space substantially.

Surely, I am not the first person to think this, but as I have no formal training on the subject; I'm not sure what the real story is. So, Are written and spoken languages considered distinct? If not, why not?

  • 6
    English written and spoken grammar and vocabulary are close, but spelling and pronunciation less so. Mandarin Chinese faces different issues.
    – Henry
    Sep 24, 2012 at 21:25
  • 1
    You might want to look up diglossia.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 24, 2012 at 22:14
  • 1
    Personally, I can tell the difference very easily.
    – Greg Lee
    Jul 20, 2016 at 18:51

5 Answers 5


As far as I can surmise, written and spoken are not quite two distinct languages. A written language and a spoken language are, in general, two different media of communication. What keeps them from being distinct, however, is that a written language is a representation of a spoken languages. Each word in a written language corresponds to a word in a spoken language.

The first paragraph of the wiki article on written language states this in detail:

A written language is the representation of a language by means of a writing system. Written language is an invention in that it must be taught to children; children will pick up spoken language (oral or sign) by exposure without being specifically taught.

A written language exists only as a complement to a specific spoken language, and no natural language is purely written. However, extinct languages may be in effect purely written when only their writings survive.

So in effect, a written and a spoken language are two separate representations of the same language. In theory a human language can exist with only one or the other--the Iroquois languages are among the most famous languages which historically have no written form. But because of the one-to-one correlation of words, they are best thought of as a pair, in effect constituent to what we call a single language.

Sign language, on the other hand, does not have a one-to-one correlation to any spoken language. Moreover, American and British Sign Languages are two entirely different languages, even though they are both spoken in English speaking countries. A sign language is neither a written nor an orally spoken language. Each one is a language of its own.

  • I know this is a little bit off topic, but, theoretically, written language could have preceded spoken language despite as much as we hear otherwise. I suspect children would have as much difficulty learning spoken language if children's only experience of it was limited entirely to conversations held in passivity so to speak.
    – oldboy
    Apr 10, 2023 at 10:10

Sign languages and spoken languages are both real, natural languages, learnable and normally learned automatically by children -- without any special training -- if they are used in the speech community the children grow up in.

Written languages, however, are always representations of some spoken language; one has to be specially trained in the technology of literacy.

An analogy is horses vs cars -- horses are natural, cars are technological. Horses have drawbacks and limitations compared with cars as a means of transportation, but one big advantage of horses is that they can make more horses without a factory, or even any education.

The fact that most people in a community are literate does not automatically result in the children of that community becoming literate, the way a common language generates new speakers (or signers). They have to go to school -- no school, no literacy.

But they all speak or sign, whether they're literate or not.

  • 2
    Don't some languages, like Norwegian, have written forms which do not correspond to dialects spoken anywhere? Sep 24, 2012 at 21:25
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    No. There are dead languages that have no speakers, of course, and there are fusion languages like Hochdeutsch (invented by Luther for his Bible translation, basically N. German vowels with S. German consonants) or Nynorsk, and we might even think of English writing as corresponding to a dialect of English that has not been spoken anywhere since around 1500.
    – jlawler
    Sep 24, 2012 at 21:31
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    Speech is language. Writing may define a national language, but if it has no native speakers, it's not real. Real language is not "defined", any more than my left eyeball; it's just there, that's all.
    – jlawler
    Sep 24, 2012 at 22:03
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    Rules for speech are almost impossible to enforce, short of physical violence; think of rules for walking, or something else people do automatically. It's not so easy to program those. And children learn how to do trial-feedback learning by learning talking and walking; this can be applied to very unnatural skills, like bungee-jumping. Learnable is not the same characteristic as naturally evolved.
    – jlawler
    Sep 28, 2012 at 15:24
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    nitpick: one can certainly conceive of a written system that is a representation of a signed language.
    – amI
    Oct 2, 2018 at 16:55

Written English comes in many varieties. When people write like they speak, their written language is more or less a transcription of what they say orally. When they write the kind of formal expository prose that is usually required for PhD dissertations, they write a variety that normally follows rules that speakers don't follow when they speak. This frequently yields stuffy, stilted prose -- what's often derisively called academic prose, and represents the worst side of the language: verbose, boring, complex, pretentious, and just plain undecipherable (cf. postmodernist parlance) -- or clear, easy-to-grok prose. Formal written English is a separate language only in the sense that it must conform to rigid rules laid out in great and sometimes confusing and conflicting detail and arbitrary rules in style manuals -- and not all style manuals agree.

All the grammar anxiety about language comes from confusing the spoken and written forms. Although they are essentially the same language, they are different varieties and require some different skills, and proficient speaking doesn't guarantee proficient formal writing (and vice versa). I remember reading somewhere that Thomas Jefferson wasn't a good speaker. He certainly was an excellent writer of formal expository prose, though.

The language taught in textbooks is a written language and usually artificial. When I studied German, I was assured that what my textbooks taught me was something called "Schuldeutsch", a language found only in textbooks and not on the lips of native speakers of German. When I studied Japanese, I was assured that my textbooks were teaching me something called "Nihongo" and not the everyday language spoken by the Japanese in Japan. When I started teaching English as a foreign language, I decided that the textbooks I was using were teaching students an artificial variety of English -- and listening to the tapes and CDs that accompanied those texts confirmed how phony that variety of English was, so I started writing all my own materials using my idiolect and using "authentic" English as spoken and written by other native speakers (TV news reports mostly).

The other answers provided here are excellent. I especially like John Lawler's sentence "... we might even think of English writing as corresponding to a dialect of English that has not been spoken anywhere since around 1500." That just about sums up the difference between spoken and written English. Most of us don't speak like we write or write like we speak. Speaking is natural and a naturally acquired skill; writing is an unnatural act and mechanical and "must be carefully taught".

  • 1
    +1 for taking a different angle for this question. But academic prose being the worst side of the language? To each his own I guess haha
    – phoenixheart6
    Sep 25, 2012 at 1:33
  • You want terrible academic prose: try this out.
    – jlawler
    Sep 27, 2012 at 15:06
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    "When they write the kind of formal expository prose that is usually required for PhD dissertations, they write a variety that normally follows rules that speakers don't follow when they speak. This frequently yields stuffy, stilted prose -- what's often derisively called academic prose, and represents the worst side of the language: verbose, boring, complex, pretentious, and just plain undecipherable" What a load of anti-intellectual rubbish.
    – mrr
    Oct 9, 2014 at 0:26

The short version: no, but there is a useful perspective gained treating them as such.

Or, perhaps more controversially: not until recently.

That said, as was repeatedly emphasized to me in introductory linguistics courses, language is a fuzzier concept than our everyday use of it might suggest: dialects of "the same language" might not be mutually intelligible, as in the case of Chinese, or two countries might distinguish "their" languages from each others despite being perfectly able to carry on conversations.

Note: the remainder of this answer focuses on English, as this is the language I have firsthand experience of; it may generalize to other languages, however.

Specifically, the advent of the Internet and text communication has catalyzed the rate of change in written English, to the point where it may well be changing as rapidly (and diversely) as spoken English. Nevertheless, there is a fairly tight feedback loop between the two on account of the vast majority of English writers also being English speakers.

For example, consider the term "LOL". I think it is reasonable to say that this is not a term that would ever appear in spoken English without its textual counterpart; pre-Internet, written English was exclusively for formal or private use. I've witnessed the term make its way into spoken conversations, where it was pronounced either letter-by-letter or (slightly more recently) as a single syllable.
More recently still, the term has come back into written English as, variously, "lawl", "lulz", or "lel"; all express or refer to some form of amusement.

I should probably note here that this sort of written English is not what you would find in a dictionary - it is conversational, informal, and an artifact of typed (or texted) interface limitations.

While it is true that there are no "native" written language speakers, I wonder whether part of this absence might be due to the props required: the relative ease of learning a spoken or signed language means that the situation where a written language might become natively "spoken" never comes up (nor should it).

It should also be noted that written English has impacted spoken English before, and vice versa - just ask anyone who's failed a spelling bee. Acronyms such as "radar" and "laser" are inventions dependent on the alphabet - that is, the phonemes, so to speak, of written language (the technical term I believe is "graphemes").

  • "two countries might distinguish 'their' languages from each others despite being perfectly able to carry on conversations." Can you give an example? I'm not sure if you're talking about mutually intelligible languages or something else.
    – Joe Z.
    Oct 10, 2014 at 2:27
  • @JoeZ. It's been a few years since I graduated, so all I can remember without consulting Google is that one such pair is found in India and Pakistan (with each country having "their own"), while a triple is found in a set of the Scandinavian countries. Post-Google, here tells me that the Scandinavian ones are Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, while here tells me that the India/Pakistan ones are Hindi and Urdu. Oct 10, 2014 at 3:40

No they aren't different languages.

The difference between written and spoken language is generally termed modality and there are lots of studies published studying systematic differences due to modality.

Note that modality is overlayed by other dimensions like formality, register, jargon, dialect, etc.

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