Saturday, February 16, 2008

primacy of oral language

In graduate school a moment came and passed when the entire class, except for me, agreed that oral language was first; it preceded written language; it was there in almost every case, though only some languages were written, and in general, the written alphabetics corresponded to sounds, which then corresponded to meaning- writing went through sound, which was more basic, on its way to what it represented.

Now, many years later, I'm searching for where exactly any linguistics book discussed this. If I remember correctly, my entire class agreed with this general principle; the teacher thought I was a nut to question it, or to not see the obvious. I couldn't marshal my argument quickly enough, and the moment passed.

What I would like to have said, is that I'm not sure I see why it has to be that way. Sure, maybe most languages started out oral, with spoken words representing ideas, a set of oral symbols that everyone understood; then some got a written set of symbols superimposed on that set of symbols, so that in most cases, oral was first, oral was basic. Notable exceptions were deaf languages that sprung up in deaf communities; and, maybe, heiroglyphics. Is it possible that people skipped the oral stage? Or did the pictures first? Or, that in some cases, the mind does not take the familiar route, or the one that we would expect applies to all situations? I suspect it's possible, because, a symbol is a symbol, and people are willing to do what's easiest. And, basically, that's why 99% of the time, they follow the usual pattern, and sometimes they don't.

More about this later, I hope.



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