Thursday, January 7, 2010

Go for the jugular

Start as you mean to go on...
The first topic of discussion for this blog about LLL starts with the sentence.
The sentence was mainly created in the minds of language theorists for the benefit of teachers and linguists.
To be more specific, the sentence can only operate in the context of modern writing, especially writing with punctuation marks. Sentences are literally defined by punctuation and commas. However, we never speak full stops or commas. That means that before we wrote language down, before we used punctuation, we never had full stops or commas because we never say them. This means we did not have the concept of a sentence before we wrote language down.

Of course, it may be that we did not discover sentences until later, but when we look at how we speak and how we write we find that language is structured quite differently. Write down a natural conversation and try to work out where to put the full stops. In a lot of cases, it is almost impossible to decide what a sentence is, in the traditional sense that we are to write, Some linguists like to imagine that the written form of the language is the true or 'pure' form and that spoken language is generally a degenerate form. However, the opposite must be true as (phylogenetically) all human cultures have developed some form of spoken language, but not all have written forms, and not all forms of written language construct sentences defined by punctuation. Further, (ontogenetically) we all speak before we write - and not all of us manage to write.
In short, linguists are obsessed with the written form - see Per Linell's book "The Written Language Bias in Linguistics" for more detail.
If we look at the history of the written form of the English language (and most western European scripts) we can trace the beginnings of punctuation to a corresponding shift to silent reading.
That is, punctuation is designed to help readers so that they can read silently rather than having to read aloud. In earlier centuries, western European written scripts were a string of continuous letters, known from antiquity as scriptura continua.
The only way that people knew how to read at that time as aloud. Our image of "murmuring monks" is derived from the practice that without voicing the script, the scribes in ancient monasteries could not make any sense of what they were copying. Paul Saenger has looked at this in great detail in his book published by Stanford University Press.
To be continued...

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