Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Monday, February 20, 2012

A continuum of connecting through evolving language

My recuperation from my knee replacement goes well. SO I can pick up my morning posts.

Here's an idea I've been exploring: A continuum of connecting through language  

         The ability to create language is universal among people so they are always able to find new ways to connect as they are needed.  Some linguists believe that only oral language is language and that language is innate- built into our brains. One argument used by those who say written systems are not language is that written language is not  universal in human societies while oral language is.  But what is innate is not language but the ability to think symbolically. What is universal is the ability to create written language when it is needed. That's when the need to be connected exceeds the span of oral language.
.            We need to connect over distance and time. We all, as humans have within us the ability to create language. So written language has been invented many times in many places. 
            Most often the process involves borrowing and adapting forms from another culture that already has a system. The Roman alphabet was based on one borrowed from the Greeks ( who were brought as slaves to Rome to act as scribes and teachers) And Hebrew and Arabic writing evolved from the same sources as the Greek alphabet. But other writing systems were being invented in Asia, South and Central America and Africa. They were invented wherever they were needed.
            Only 150 years after Alexander the Great built his huge empire and spread the use of the Greek writing system for political and communication purposes from Greece to Afghanistan, the first Qin Emperor of China, the one whose terra cotta soldiers are buried with him in his tomb in Xian imposed a writing system on his whole empire .  It represented meaning directly in its symbols rather  than speech patterns so that they meant the same thing for everyone in his empire even though their dialects could not be mutually understandable. Perhaps that is one reason his empire held together for centuries while Alexander's fell apart after  his death.
            So when societies became more complex, as nations grew, written language developed. The purposes were communication beyond the reach of the voice and as a means of storing knowledge that was accumulating: an archive. Language creates social communication; written language is more useful for connecting our memories- the shared knowledge our cultures build.             And it may be sufficient for a small group of specialists to be literate on behalf of the  community. In Egyptian society the writing on stone or papyrus was done by a small group of scribes.  Hebrew scribes wrote messages for the Persian emperors in Hebrew script which were  then read by other Hebrew scribes were they were received.
            In the middle ages monks copied laboriously by hand the religious texts that were important in their societies. And they also served as scribes for the political rulers.
            Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai two tablets on which were written- according to the old testament- by the hand of no less than God- the ten commandments. The accomplishments of the Pharaohs are memorialized on the walls of their tombs by inscriptions in hieroglyphics. The Incas and the Mayans created written inscriptions and elaborate written calendars. And of course the foundations of the world's great religions are represented in holy writing which preserved the oral traditions that had served the purposes earlier.
            Since early writing systems needed only small numbers of literates they could function as a terse minimal code as long as it was understood by all who used the system. Hebrew and Arabic didn't fully represent the phonology leaving out most of the vowels. Classic Chinese represented primarily the content words leaving out the grammatical markers.  The monks of the middle ages were basically archivists- copying manuscripts by hand for the libraries where they could be read by the very small group of literates who carried out the literacy functions for their societies. The Vatican library today has a huge historical collection of the world's writing but only the  Pope can borrow its books and only scholars and high ranking church officials are even permitted to visit the library. In the Name of the Rose Umberto Eco describes the library of  a14th century Italian Monastery where books are stored but hidden away even from the monks who spent their days copying books.
            Often Gutenberg's invention of the printing press is given credit for the revolution in literacy, making inexpensive books available to a  wider range of literates. But in the socio-historical view I am developing, here is a prime example of how changes in society bring about technologies which meet the need. The need for larger groups of people in complex societies to be literate created the conditions for Gutenberg's printing press to be a commercial success. The demand for books stimulated  the invention. That's not unlike the appearance in more recent times of xerography and the appearance on street corners of copy shops or the multifunction home printers that copy, scan, fax and transmit texts and images.
            The concept in architecture that form follows function applies equally well to language. We have the ability to create language forms to serve every new function. But also new forms- the printing press for example- leads to new functions. Computers were created for the purpose of crunching numbers but then they were adapted for the functions of language they could serve.
More on this topic soon Any responses?


  1. So glad to hear you are improving Ken. thank you for arranging for Yetta ticket for Connecticut. We are looking forward to her visit. SOS is planning an education convention for DC model after the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for Womens' rights. A great deal of the work will be about building a just framework for education reform that respects diversity, language, children, parents, teachers rooted in real equity. We will need a few WL voices to help us with this of ourse. I'll talk to Yetta about when she comes to Connecticut, and Stephen Krashen and Bess at Occupy the DOE as well.
    Stay healthy, and keep making us think,

  2. Ken,
    I really resonate with your observation that:
    "Some linguists believe that only oral language is language and that language is innate- built into our brains. One argument used by those who say written systems are not language is that written language is not universal in human societies while oral language is. But what is innate is not language but the ability to think symbolically. What is universal is the ability to create written language when it is needed. That's when the need to be connected exceeds the span of oral language".
    One consequence of the Chomskyan view that ' oral languae is pre-wired' has been the almost subconscious conflating of language and thought. Some of the absurd pedagogies you and I complain about are the result of equating language and thought. Scratch some of our colleagues and beneath the surface you'll find the belief that language IS thought. This in turn conflates 'knowledge' with 'vocabulary' and ' vocabulary' with ' words' and 'effective reading' being the same as 'accurate word recognition'.
    This is why I keep trying to convince others that we need to reframe learning as ' meaning-making using a diverse range of symbol systems'.
    Thanks for your posts on these issues. They help me make many connections.
    Brian C

  3. Thanks for your as usual insighful comment Brian. The diverse symbol systems are certainly evident in the ways people- particulalry the very young- are connecting though texting, internet, and all the wonderful new ways.Some of the kids labeled as having reading problems are connecting with their thumbs faster than I can with my computer.
    Ken Goodman

  4. What a wonderful exchange. I want to expose my ignorance -- I think (pardon the term) I agree that language and thought are not equal, but what is thought without language? I tend to hear words in my head when I am thinking. I can conjure images that have no words--e.g. the sunrise over the hills east of my home. And I can generate a visual of a simple math problem. However, I'm not sure I do either without intention. Just puzzling...

    Richard Owen