[commenting on the following sentence in one of my posts:]

>>   English spelling is a rotten representation of English sounds.

>In the days not long after we evolved from the apes, spoken language was
>the primary means of interpersonal communication, perhaps along with
>gesticulating and other body-language behaviour.

Well, that's putting it pretty mildly, don't you think? Spoken language is gesticulating and other body-language behavior (look at Desmond Morris's books or TV shows to see how important it is), as well as the aural code you seem to be restricting the term to. And phonetic symbolism, as well.

By the way, exactly when were those good old days not long after we evolved from the apes? You make it sound like there was a brief period of adjustment between Lucy and Lucille Ball, that all us rational humans just gave up those old ideas and happily adopted universal literacy. Are we living on the same planet?

For virtually every human being who has ever lived (there may be exceptions, and they will have become more numerous in recent years, no question -- the problem is relative magnitude), spoken language is, and always has been, by orders of magnitude, in any dimension you care to define, "the primary means of interpersonal communication".

Well over half of the world's population is illiterate at this moment, and this in an age when literacy is at an alltime high. Most of the world's languages have no tradition of literacy at all. Ever.

Literacy is technology, language is biological. The automobile has affected American cultural and mythological life, absolutely. And literacy has affected human cultural and mythological life, absolutely. One's a century old and the other's 50 centuries; everyone would agree that's a big difference.

But human (i.e, spoken) language is between 5000 and 50,000 centuries old (i.e, between a hundred times older and ten thousand times older. As old as the species; that's a difference that makes a difference. It is the species, or rather the specific difference: Homo loquens, that's us. I doubt we're ready to give it up yet.

>But since the advent of writing and literature, it has surely been the >written word which has become the definitive means of expression. The >coming of printing technology simply made the spread of writing easier. >I'd like to argue that the coming of writing has brought about a reversal >of what language is. For this reason I dislike the notion of spelling >representing spoken sounds. Nowadays it's more a case of spoken sounds >representing written words.

"The definitive means of expression"? Perhaps, in certain limited circles (the 'Net, for instance, at least in some cases), but never for long and never for everything (remember, you're making an evolutionary claim, which means a claim about a biological population -- and by the way, do you really want to equate interpersonal communication with expression?).

Not "surely" at all, I should say.

Perhaps you are simply reversing what you wish to use the word language to refer to, tweaking your Inner Compiler a bit. That's your privilege as a software user. However, consider the interface problems created by such a rash relabelling of global constants.

By definition, spelling is an alphabetic system that refers to sound segments, perceived in some way. What you're apparently referring to is something like the Chinese writing system (good descriptions and instructions in Sampson's Writing Systems and McCawley's The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters), but even there there's a phonetic system involved, though it would still be wrong to call it spelling.

I suggest a somewhat less ambitious argumentative goal.

  - John Lawler       Linguistics Department and Residential College     University of Michigan

    "Language is the most  massive  and  inclusive  art  we know,  a           - Edward Sapir
      mountainous and anonymous work of unconscious generations."       Language (1921)

More English Grammar   More About Language   The Eclectic Company   The Chomskybot