Many People, Few Ideas 4

Spoken and Written Language

How the forms of expression we use in language evolve is part of that process of change. The great paradigm shift came with the invention of writing, of course, and then several thousand years later the printing press which over the next few hundred years gradually enabled the mass transition from the simply oral to the written, and eventually created the major social and cultural developments which we now take for granted. And just as the development of photography and the cinema reshaped our visual perception – and in the case of cinema also changed styles of acting and narrative use of language in drama – so the invention of the television made that technology more intimate and changed forever how people behaved in their domestic space; equally, the telephone and the computer (to take but two significant twentieth century technologies, one vocal and one textual) have in their different ways continued to reshape how we use language.

But I am, perhaps, getting ahead of myself here. This great paradigm shift deserves a little more consideration. Just as one of the major mysteries of language (at least for me) is the staggering fecundity and multiplicity of tongues – surely, one would think, simple economy of effort would have ensured that there was one spoken language common to the species? – so another is this long time-lag between spoken and written language. As Frank Maddlone points out in a private letter:

“(And) how do we address the link between art and language? If we look at the earliest cave drawings from early hominids, is it not arguable that this was the first rudimentary attempt at language – and certainly, written language? What can we say of the ancient shapes, hand prints and so forth that were made that relate to the shapes of our varied texts that comprise modern language?”

This is an important issue. After all, if language is about finding representations of the otherness of the world, surely the visual faculty would be a primary mover in its development? And yet current research and opinion agrees that the first sustained attempt at representing sounds visually – the early Sumerian cuneiform, initially a system of pictographs which gradually evolved into stylised wedge-shaped lines – emerged some five thousand years ago, long after spoken language is thought to have been established. Why should this be?

Two major lines of speculation suggest themselves: is there a quantifiable difference in the ways the auditory and visual systems process language information – and therefore do the different systems fall into the two kinds of mental representation identified by Humphrey, the subjective and objective; and does writing come later because it is technological where speech is apparently mimetic and instinctive?

Leun J Otten and others of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Department of Psychology at UCL devised an experiment to discover whether the brain has different encoding systems for auditory versus visual information where sixteen volunteers were presented with an intermixed sequence of 240 written and spoken words (with cues signalling the modality of the upcoming words) denoting objects, with EEG being recorded from 29 scalp sites and followed by a surprise recognition test some 45 minutes later with an intermixed sequence of 240 ‘old’ and 120 ‘new’ words denoting objects. To simplify (undoubtedly, to oversimplify), the effects differed qualitatively between visual and auditory input, with visual input producing a typically frontally-distributed memory effect whereas auditory input was typically (at least in the initial stages) posteriorly-distributed across the brain. Part of the conclusion reached was that

“The brain appears to have, at least in part, different episodic encoding systems for visual versus auditory information.”

How significant such findings might be in helping shape our thoughts on the mystery of why written language developed so much later than speech is difficult to assess, of course, given that the experiment was conducted on people benefiting from the effects of tens of thousands of years of evolution; there might have been much greater observable differences had the experiment been able to test Humphrey’s amoeba-like creature at the point where it was developing the subjective/objective dichotomy of sensory stimulation which in turn led to the different kinds of mental representation of the ways it related to the outside world. Equally, of course, there might have been no such finding.

However, for most people (and certainly for me) there does seem to be some kind of qualitative difference between auditory and visual input in the way the brain seems to respond – possibly reflecting the frontal versus the posterior distribution noted above. That is, the auditory response seems more intimate, more interior – the listening process occurs within our spatially-enclosed organism; whereas the visual response seems less so, occurring ‘out there’ – perhaps because part of its function is measuring the sense of distance between ourselves and what is observed: one of the core requirements for being able to develop tool-handling. If this is the case then there is an apparent correlation with Humphrey’s different kinds of mental representation of subjective qualia and objective cognition – though we must beware of extrapolating from the individual to the species.

There might also be a related factor of the pace of development and degree of discrimination between the auditory and the visual faculties. Because language only works when there is common ground between the participants and spoken language predates its written cousin by thousands of generations it seems sensible to assume that we agree more on what we hear than on what we see – or were able to agree sooner because either the visual is more complex (there is a bewildering range of medical problems affecting the eyes) or took longer to reach a state of sufficient acuity for it to become viable. Some theorists posit that modern visual acuity didn’t occur in Western Europe until as recently as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the rise of the Romantic Movement and its shift towards the personal and away from the social rigidity that preceded it – did Homer describe the sea as “wine-dark” because his eyesight was poor or because he didn’t have a vocabulary extensive enough to convey fine shades?

My own current view is that music and art have different relationships with language because of the different sensory experiences they provide even in the formal settings of the auditorium and the art gallery (and recent innovations have transformed listening into a very personalised experience indeed). The relationship between ‘text’ (the piece of music or the painting) and audience is tellingly different because although it might begin in much the same way – the consciousness of ‘me’ waiting to experience ‘that’ – once the two sides engage something profound happens: the piece of music encloses us, makes us part of itself, in a way that the painting cannot because the painting is always itself spatially-bounded (most obviously by its frame) where sound is not – sound ‘fills’ the space around us. Perhaps this is why music is visceral in its impact – not so much because it is more ‘meaningful’ or ‘spiritual’ than other modes but because it operates on the deep level of resonant frequencies. It is, in that sense, more ‘on’ the human wavelength than other modes of expression.

The second line of speculation as to why speech so predates written language follows on from this, in that speaking involves the use of our internal organs whereas writing or painting or making marks in the sand requires some form of external tool the more sophisticated it gets (and even if we use our finger to perform the task that is external in a way the voice-box is not). Even at the level of cuneiform script, the move from pictographs to stylised wedge-shaped lines was accompanied and achieved by the invention of the stylus; and as I sit and write at my computer I am performing a wide variety of complex interactions using several body parts that require much more focus and intention than turning round and asking my wife if there’s any chance of a cup of coffee. Speech, then, is organic in a way that writing cannot be – it is created and contained within the organism and does not require any external agency for its production. Unless, that is, I choose to telephone from the study to the kitchen.

The telephone, once a high-status instrument confined for most people to brief formal (my parents’ generation had a definite ‘telephone voice’, especially when answering a call – perhaps because it was expensive to use) and functional high-priority communications has now evolved into a mass and comparatively cheap tool used as much for leisure as for ‘business’, characterised by informal and discursive language. Given that even modern telephone systems degrade the tonal quality of the communication, this informality is often accompanied by a compensating increase in volume – as those who have travelled on public transport alongside or near to someone engaged in a cell phone conversation will know only too well – so that the initially private dyadic form of the telephone call can become, dependent on circumstance, an annoying and conscious public performance. Likewise, the degraded tonal quality and loss of other interpretive visual signals arguably encourages users to simplify the language structures they employ, so that – especially for younger people in the industrialised world – spoken language is becoming a less complex mode built on simple sentences (although we should add the rider that this is speculative; an equally valid factor might be the drift away from the formal teaching of Latin in schools and a consequent vagueness about the understanding and possibilities of grammar).

The impact of the computer seems likely to follow a similar path, especially in terms of e-mail and instant messaging systems; a development wittily examined by Nora Ephron in the film You’ve Got Mail, where the two romantic leads fall in love via the exchange of anonymous e-mails. Ephron captures the appeal of the technology by showing how e-mail allows the opportunity to change one’s mind about what one says and how one says it – that is, the chance to refine one’s script – yet maintain a momentum of correspondence more akin to the speed of conversation, allowing the emotional relationship to blossom apace and over several months despite the fact that one of them remains unaware of the other’s identity until the final scene. Amid the humour Ephron gently insists on the importance of written language in enabling the lovers to speak more truly and precisely to each other: the great advantage and responsibility of the text even in a visual medium. And through this Ephron reminds us once again that our identity, what it means to be ourselves, emerges from and is shaped primarily through language.

In the world outside the film, of course, e-mail is perhaps less a vehicle of considered thoughtfulness and more a means of disseminating information, relaying instructions or a modern version of the garden fence over which we all can gossip. The variations in font size and layout between machines usually mean that hypertext can be more problematic to read (in 2004 Chaparro and others did some interesting research into reading online text with different white space layouts and found quantifiable differences in reading speed and comprehension across them) and the sometimes restricted viewing pane on the computer screen and the generally less comfortable seating arrangements tend to discourage extended or elaborated communication – it’s much easier to attach a longer message under a brief explanation in the e-mail itself, and most of us will print off such attachments for more detailed and relaxed perusal.

Modern telephone technology has already taken us one step further along the road towards a truly hybrid form which seems simultaneously to combine elements of the spoken and written modes: the cell phone text message, where keyboard limitations encourage a fascinating textual shorthand combined with the instantaneous response of the spoken conversation. So much so, in fact, that examination boards in English now have to consider not only how best to assess essays written in the shorter language structures emerging out of telephony and e-mail but also have to cope with otherwise competent pieces written in the somewhat arcane abbreviations and letter/number combinations of the text message.

But at least the short-sighted and middle-aged among us can take some consolation from the fact that, however mysterious and alien the form and however small the viewing pane, at least there is still text at the heart of it – and as Hamlet almost said, the text’s the thing.

© 2019 Mike Liddell
next section here