According to this question and its answers, linguistics primarily focuses on spoken language and not written language.

This answer to another question indicates that this focus is a matter of historical trends and convention (i.e. linguists have chosen to focus their field on naturally occurring, human language and not on other forms of communication).

That being said, one of the comments on the first question says,

Linguistics may "focus" on spoken language (for reasons outlined by other people here), but that doesn't mean that written language is uninteresting or that it doesn't get studied at all. To my knowledge, text messaging e.g. has been extensively studied.

I am personally fascinated by text-based communication, and there are many questions that I think are interesting and potentially worthy of research (for example: how texting language differs from spoken language, how text based language has evolved with the internet, the presence of ambiguity in text-based language, the use of emojis vs words, etc).

If I wanted to research such questions, does it make sense to become a linguist? Is there an established sub-field of linguistics that focuses on written communication? Or would I find myself unable to research/publish on these questions because they fall outside of linguistics?

(Note: I'm also interested in spoken language and linguistics in general, so I think I would have no issue learning all about spoken language on my way to becoming a linguist. I'm just wondering whether that path makes sense at all if my goal is to research text-based communication)


1 Answer 1


Linguistics absolutely gives you the tools to study written language — at least some aspects of written language.

The reason writing has not been considered the purview of linguistics is that it is such a conscious and learned activity. Writing is acquired much later than speaking and is accompanied by numerous rules with which we correct our instincts. Often students were (and still are in many places) taught "grammar" as if that word meant the conventions of spelling and punctuation. As the scientific approach to linguistics gained ground in the 19th century, it became clear that to look at writing as the product of these conventions was at best a social science: the study not of language but of human habits and education, for instance.

But linguist Gretchen MuCulloch in Because Internet argues that we are living in a new era of written communication that works differently and hasn't been extensively studied: mass instant textual expression. People are exposed to a great deal of unedited, expressive text and produce a great deal of the same. While the basic skill of literacy is still a taught thing, what young people do with it in texting, TikTok subtitles, Snapchat captions, and so forth is much more organic. The way that phrases are innovated and spread seems much more like a subset of slang than the product of schooling.

McCulloch points to some of the same things you do, e.g. emoji use. For those who doubt that this is really language, we might ask how it is that other nonverbal systems like sign language have their own syntax, semantics, etc. Perhaps any system that can be symbolic and compositional can be treated by the mind as a linguistic system?

In any case, it's certainly worth exploring. I recommend you read McCulloch's book if you haven't yet and consider reaching out to her for direction and research ideas for your interest. I think you will find some.

Also, to take a different tack, you can simply consider natural language processing (NLP), an overlap between linguistics and computer science. This field doesn't really ask how linguistically vs. conventionally a piece of writing was generated, but still seeks to analyze it systematically, treating it not as insight into our "language module" but as a source of data in which patterns can be found. The computer scientists working on NLP greatly benefit from linguists' insights since linguistics gives the best general account of the structure of the data.

Update: Here's an article for the linguistics studying text among us.

Texting thumbs-up emoji in response to a question costs Sask. farmer $82K in contract case

  • I second Gretchen's book. A very interesting idea, with loads of machine-washable data to play with. Learning linguistics can also point out the aspects of written communication that don't represent language, like apostrophes, which are inaudible in speech, and are used to make distinctions that nobody makes in English. And are therefore commonly "misused". Also, writing and reading varies much more between individuals than speech does (though Gretchen may be right about that changing).
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 17:46
  • 2
    The big difference is that speech is universal and part of human culture and individual growth -- evolved, in a word. All non-body systems of communication, including literacy, however, are manufactured, not evolved, and they are not the common heritage of all mankind, going back several ice ages, like speech. So we have biological adaptations to speech, but none to literacy, which means everybody learns to read and write their own way, at their own speed, for their own reasons, and with their own bag of skills, which vary a lot, especially in childhood.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 17:51
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    @jlawler All true. I think Gretchen would probably say about apostrophes that while they aren't inherently linguistic items, a linguistic mind can turn anything into a system of language, be it sounds or hand shapes or (if they become so familiar that writing them becomes second nature) textual characters. But there are definitely many dialects, if we call them that :) For example, there's one in which it would be somewhat self-effacing if I ended with a comma, Commented Jun 11, 2023 at 22:09
  • @jlawler To be fair, observing the widespreadedness of oral language doesn’t intrinsically imply something like an innateness hypothesis, does it? Maybe there is other evidence for that, but it being common is a modal question: it is so, seems to imply it is possibly so, but, is it necessarily so? We have a world in which it is so, we do not know about alternatives, though. I conjectured in a different post that sound may be the most immediately available transmission medium to humans (air-waves). Not trying to be argumentative, just asking an open-ended, open-minded question. Thanks. Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 9:48
  • The famous Nicaraguan sign language case study would indicate the human language of thought finds an expression in varying modalities, and to me, if actually seems more in accordance with “Occam’s razor” (trying to get rid of assumptions) that the LoT could just as well find a system it works with that is visual, actually. While it seems likely that the co-evolution of speech and humans has probably given us an innate tendency for oral language, by now, it may not be so deep-rooted as to still not have alternatives-maybe people born deaf-blind could show how language is just as natively haptic Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 9:52

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