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Linguistics classes seem to be mostly concerned with analyzing language in its spoken form. Written language is seen as almost "parasitic" to spoken language. A language's orthography generally gives an unreliable reflection of its structure. As such, I've been told that you only need to examine language in its spoken form to understand its morphology. However, I feel that this is a rather myopic approach to morphological analysis. For example, consider the relationship between the words 'sign' and 'signify'. Note that 'sign' has a silent 'g', where 'signify' does not. Casually browsing the online etymology dictionary, you can observe that the Latin word 'signum' evolved the old french word 'signe', which evolved into 'sign', which in turn evolved into 'signify'. The orthography, though unstandardized at the time, may explain how /g/ remained recessive in 'sign' and was transferred to 'signified'. I understand that pronunciation was very different in the early 13c, and that this probably is not a very good example. (I know nothing about historical linguistics.) There are probably other processes at work for my specific example. But I hope you can understand the concept which I am trying to convey. Why don't we consider a language's orthography when doing morphological analysis?

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    For one thing, many languages don't have an orthography. – Gaston Ümlaut Dec 21 '13 at 8:07
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    That's true. Though if you examine societies where literacy is the norm, I feel like orthographic knowledge may influence your conceptualization of language. – RECURSIVE FARTS Dec 21 '13 at 9:45
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    Writing is basically a technology, something that has been consciously invented and developed. This makes it very different and much more recent than language. Written language is more primary when studying dead languages which are known only through inscriptions. – hippietrail Dec 21 '13 at 10:25
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    Alas, I don't know what you mean by "orthographic knowledge may influence your conceptualization of language." If you mean that orthography may influence what a person thinks about language, you may be right. But if you are suggesting the orthography conditions spoken language somehow, well that's a curious claim. After all, orthography typically changes more slowly than spoken language. If the former conditioned that latter, wouldn't it be the other way around? – James Grossmann Dec 22 '13 at 1:36
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    I don't think any linguist would deny that orthography can have an influence on the spoken language. Spelling pronunciations are an obvious example. And it's not impossible that written language might encourage certain types of syntactic complexity, which could then carry over into speech. (Neither of these points has to do with morphology specifically, though.) – TKR Dec 22 '13 at 4:15
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It is not correct to say “that the Latin word 'signum' evolved into 'sign', which in turn evolved into 'signify'”. The English words “sign” and “signify” are both borrowed from Old French, which had them from Latin. English does not allow the cluster /gn/ in word-final position; that is why the /g/ is lost in “sign” but retained in “signify”. It is about phonology, not orthography.

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  • Thanks for pointing that out, I updated my question to be more accurate. – RECURSIVE FARTS Dec 22 '13 at 10:15
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Common knowledge of writing in a society can and does have an effect on the language structure, and it's been noted:

There's this Israeli linguist (I've forgotten his name) who says so-called Modern Hebrew isn't really a Semitic language... he argues in one of his books how Chinese writing has had a profound effect in the language, by altering the way new words are created and how borrowings are adapted.

I vaguely remember Saussure mentioning in a sentence in one of his books "I've been told people in Paris now pronounce the 't' in 'sept' ". I found that really odd, for I had been taught uttering "set" was THE correct way to pronounce 7 in French. So clearly Parisians of his time were adopting an artificial pronunciation based on spelling, which then was declared the standard.

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    I think you're thinking of Ghilad Zuckermann. – TKR Dec 22 '13 at 6:19
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    Thanks for the reply! Why isn't this acknowledged in undergrad ling classes? Is it because it's very uncommon to have a large literate population for some random language? Or maybe I just haven't taken enough classes for it to be an issue. – RECURSIVE FARTS Dec 22 '13 at 10:29
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    To be sure, you could ask your professors and/or the head of the department, I think it might be due to pedagogical reasons... – Joe Pineda Dec 22 '13 at 10:42

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