And if not, is there a term, accepted by both the Deaf and linguistic communities, that includes both spoken and signed language, in contrast to written language?

Reputable linguistic sources, including common introductory textbooks (Language Files, for example), frequently make the distinction between writing and speech, or written and spoken language, rarely mentioning sign explicitly in that discussion. However, the same sources often distinguish between spoken and signed language. It is my understanding that signed languages can also be described in terms of articulators and phonemes, but introductions to phonetics and phonology usually concentrate on "speech sounds." My students have found this confusing at best, and dismissive of the Deaf community and signed languages at worst.

As an example, the Wikipedia entry for "spoken language" expresses this ambiguity:

The term "spoken language" is sometimes used to mean only vocal languages, especially by linguists, making all three terms synonyms by excluding sign languages. Others refer to sign language as "spoken", especially in contrast to written transcriptions of signs."

And the Talk page for the same article expresses the confusion this can generate:

The present version of the article seems to have a POV in discounting the language of deaf people: the phrase "Modern linguistics regards the spoken language as the natural or the primary medium of human language for some obvious reasons" is particularly strange and I will delete it. --Mathew5000 20:16, 26 March 2007 (UTC)

I think they meant spoken as opposed to written, not oral as opposed to sign. It's now clear that that is what the stub is about. — kwami (talk) 04:33, 1 June 2012 (UTC)

I am not a phonetician or ASL scholar, but I do often teach introductory linguistics courses. To me, a term for performed language seems necessary to avoid excluding sign in discussions of non-written language; for example, when we say that "written conventions generally follow spoken language, not the other way around," it is unclear whether this statement includes or excludes non-vocal language production. If such a term already exists, it would be very helpful if authors of commonly used linguistic resources could make the distinction clear. At the very least, I'd like to know what terminology I can use in my classes that accurately represents this contrast and respects the Deaf community.

Note: while tagging this article, I noticed that the tag "spoken-language" is described:

A modality of language, contrasted with written language, whistled language, or sign language.

  • 1
    My view is that there is no such thing as 'written language' as writing is simply a technology for representing some aspect of actual 'language', with 'language' referring to both spoken and signed forms (or perhaps actually referring to the cognitive toolkit that underlies both). Sep 27, 2018 at 6:44
  • @GastonÜmlaut So in that case, "speech" and "sign" would be modalities of "language," but "writing" would just be a representation of one of those primary modalities (usually speech). But uniquely written conventions exist apart from speech or sign (e.g., punctuation, texting conventions, and grammatical conventions that rarely continue to exist in spoken registers...). You would have to say that "written conventions follow those of primary language modalities such as speech or sign"? Sep 27, 2018 at 22:39
  • 1
    I think all those written conventions are devices that attempt to convey some of what actual language conveys through prosody, pause, paralinguistics, etc. In the case of texting conventions, they're often just conventionalised iconic shorthand. Sep 27, 2018 at 22:44
  • I feel like I should apologise for quoting Chomsky (😉), but in his Transformational Grammar work he introduced a couple of terms that might be relevant to your question. 'I-language': the internal (mental) linguistic knowledge; and 'E-language': the external manifestation of I-language in speech or sign (and etc). Sep 27, 2018 at 22:50
  • Related question: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/20757/… Dec 16, 2018 at 21:31

1 Answer 1


Coming from a very specific point of view, namely writing high quality metadata for language resources, I think that spoken language is indeed a different modality from signed language, and should be interpreted as such.

I don't know a cromulent term that comprises both spoken and signed language as such, maybe something like spontaneous speech production captures the gist of it.

  • I like what spontaneous speech production implies, but it also contains the word speech. Is that different from spoken language? Sep 26, 2018 at 19:51
  • 1
    @obstruction spontaneous utterances? This excludes certain spoken or signed performances, of course.
    – TRiG
    Oct 23, 2018 at 12:14
  • @TRiG I could see that, but it also implies focus on individual examples rather than a modality, doesn't it? Oct 24, 2018 at 18:17
  • It does, @obstruction. An utterance is one specific thing. Yes, this is a tricky one.
    – TRiG
    Oct 25, 2018 at 10:42
  • Is the answer to be found in the parole/langue distinction, @obstruction?
    – TRiG
    Feb 17, 2020 at 23:10

Your Answer

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

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