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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: August 2013

12 - Select letters: a major divide


Put writing in your heart that you may protect yourself from hard labour of any kind.

Egyptian scribe of the New Kingdom

In the Eskimo language Inuktitut, as it has come to be written in newspapers, relative clauses are actually developing from the ground up, having not existed at all in the language as it was spoken by hunter-gatherers.

McWhorter (2003: 247)

Within the global structure of power differentials, languages have a hierarchy.

Prah (2001: 127)

Outline of the chapter

This chapter deals with the sociolinguistic meaning of writing as a communication mode that introduces distinction and inequality among both speakers and languages. The oral–written divide has a social dimension in that the gap between ordinary speech and written language is greater for people coming from a socioeconomically disadvantaged background than for their better-off peers. And languages gain through writing prestige, communicative reach and the paraphernalia of power. Typically countries and speech communities have a default writing system representing past choices; however, in many cases the questions of which languages are to be used in writing and how they ought to be written are not settled and are sometimes a matter of controversy. The criteria for selecting a language and variety, a writing system and script, and determining spelling conventions are discussed, and it is shown that, in each case, both instrumental and symbolic considerations come to bear; for, thanks to its visibility, writing serves emblematic functions as an object of attitudes relating to language.

Further reading
Barton, David. [1994] 2007. Literacy: An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language. 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.
Coulmas, Florian. 2013. Writing and Society. Cambridge University Press.
Harris, Roy. 2000. Rethinking Writing. London: Athlone Press.
Martin-Jones, Marilyn and Jones, Kathryn (eds.) 2000. Multilingual Literacies: Reading and Writing Different Worlds. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Olson, David R. and Torrance, Nancy (eds.) 2001. The Making of Literate Societies. Oxford: Blackwell.
Sebba, Mark. 2007. Spelling and Society. Cambridge University Press.