Distinct written and spoken languages
April 20, 2009 2:29 AM   Subscribe

Are there any human cultures, past or present, which have developed completely (or largely) distinct spoken and written languages?

That is to say, the written language is not spoken out loud, and even if it were, it would bear no relation to the established spoken language.
posted by nthdegx to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Japanese is a bit like that. As I understand it, the Japanese imported the Chinese system of writing, then superimposed their own spoken language on top of it, so that a written character (kanji) can be read in several different ways, which have no relation to the shape of the character.
posted by alexei at 3:12 AM on April 20, 2009

My understanding is that written Chinese has very little to do with the spoken language: the characters don't give any information about pronounciation, and different grammar and sentence structures are used in each. This applies to both Simplified Chinese+Mandarin and Traditional Chinese+Cantonese.

I should stress that I don't speak either of those languages; this is just what I've gleaned from friends who do.
posted by metaBugs at 3:13 AM on April 20, 2009

I'm having difficulty imagining how such a situation would work with the rules you stipulate.

There're two kinds of writing systems humans have come up with: ideographic and phonetic.

I'd argue that an ideographic writing system is, in some respects, inherently distinct from its spoken counterpart. Mainly because there's no pronunciation encoded in the symbol, only meaning. This allows, for instance, the Chinese writing system to be used by a couple dozen mutually unintelligible dialects of Chinese as well as by the Japanese. However, syntax and grammar is preserved. And whoever is reading the language is going to pronounce the pictographs according to his or her language's word for that concept.

A phonetic writing system is pretty inherently tied to a spoken language. The idea behind the phonetic system being to record the sounds of a language, allowing even an unskilled reader to piece together words by sounding them out. I've never heard of a phonetic written language being adopted by another speaker group. However, clearly, people borrow each others' alphabets--as evidenced by the letters here.

Arguably, the use of Latin in the Middle Ages is an example of your question. People used Latin to write scholarly works, to correspond when no other language was held in common, and to worship. It was read and written far, far more often than it was spoken. But, it was spoken. It's really, really difficult to read a phonetic language and not pronounce it (even if it's in your head). Reading becomes automated.

I'm sure that there are examples of special languages that are never spoken. Perhaps religious languages from back in the day when writing was magic. But, in natural circumstances, I can't see a phonetic written language developing except as a record of the spoken language. Likewise, an ideographic language is pronounced according to local spoken words.

Do programming languages count?
posted by Netzapper at 3:18 AM on April 20, 2009

I don't think Japanese really counts. You can definitely read written Japanese out loud, and while you can have several different readings for characters, usually which one it is in a given situation is clear from context.

This doesn't really fit your definition of total unrelation, but do you mean something like Katharevousa?


Or do you mean a situation in which a people have no way of writing down their language, so they use another language purely in written form to write? As if people were speaking Chinese, yet using Latin to communicate in written form with each other? The example of Classical Chinese might also be relevant.

posted by Charmian at 3:24 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

My understanding is that written Chinese has very little to do with the spoken language: the characters don't give any information about pronounciation, and different grammar and sentence structures are used in each. This applies to both Simplified Chinese+Mandarin and Traditional Chinese+Cantonese.
This isn't true - many if not most characters are formed from a radical usually with some semantic meaning and a phonetic element. The very earliest Chinese characters were representations of the cracks seen in turtle shells used in divination, but already thousands of years ago they had developed into a more complex writing form that was certainly linked to the spoken language - not only were records of the gist of what the kings, ministers and Masters said, there are plenty of exclamations and so on in classical texts that are entirely verbal in origin AFAIK, e.g. 呜呼 for "alas!" which cited at that link appearing in the Classic of History, compiled in something like the sixth century BCE.
posted by Abiezer at 4:51 AM on April 20, 2009

Do you mean pictograms and ideograms?
posted by Houstonian at 5:01 AM on April 20, 2009

Best answer: The closest thing I can think of is the relationship between Hebrew and Yiddish for many Jews in Eastern Europe. Sacred texts and scholarship were all Hebrew, while Yiddish was for speaking. It's not a true example, though, because Hebrew was spoken for prayer, and Yiddish was written down for non-religious writings (or even novice-oriented religious writing).
posted by Salamandrous at 5:18 AM on April 20, 2009

Alternatively: Written English and spoken English are much more distinct than we usually realize. There are grammatical structures and vocabulary that are, if not completely unique to each, then at least far more common to see in one or the other. Consider, for example, how bizarre it would be if someone actually spoke the way people usually do in novels.
posted by Casuistry at 6:21 AM on April 20, 2009

Best answer: You need to make clearer what you're looking for. Every language's written form is to some extent different from the spoken variety. There are well-known examples of written languages that are strikingly divergent from the related spoken ones, like Greek katharevousa (now, thankfully, no longer imposed by the government) and Standard Arabic; is that what you mean? Or do you mean situations where people normally write a completely different language than they speak (though they are capable of writing the latter), as in Netzapper's example of Latin in premodern Europe and Salamandrous's of Hebrew and Yiddish (or, in other Jewish communities, Hebrew and Arabic, Ladino, Persian, Georgian, etc.)?

Incidentally, the first two "answers" are completely wrong and demonstrate a basic ignorance of the languages they try to use as examples. (Please, folks, if you have to cushion your comment by saying your understanding is based on a vague memory or on something a friend once said, it's better not to make the comment.)
posted by languagehat at 6:48 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

For much of the Middle Ages Latin was largely a written language - the language of scholarship, theology, and law (including contracts and law codes) - while spoken languages were the precursors to modern European languages (French, English, Spanish, Italian, etc.).

There are of course exceptions - Latin was read and sung in church, and the vernacular languages were slowly but surely committed to parchment and paper. And England was writing in Anglo-Saxon before the Noman Invasion. But for a good long time, in many parts of medieval Europe, Latin was the "official" written language with which to conduct business, while the vernaculars were the languages of day-to-day oral exchange.
posted by hiteleven at 6:54 AM on April 20, 2009

I guess hieroglyphs are ideograms as well, containing no info about how to pronounce them, but I'm not sure.
posted by NekulturnY at 7:02 AM on April 20, 2009

And I think mathematics would qualify here. I read an article in the blue recently where a math professor complained about how much stress the educational system places on teaching the coding of math as opposed to the fundamental ideas beneath it. He thought the written mathematical expression was pretty contorted and confusing.

I also seem to remember (here on MeFi) reading about a mathematical wunderkind who had developed a mathematical notation system of his own for algebra - the fact that he later had to learn the accepted notation was quite a hindrance to his development.
posted by NekulturnY at 7:08 AM on April 20, 2009

Best answer: Actually, through the Heian period and up through WWII, Japanese men wrote poetry in a particular style known as Kanshi. Kanshi is the practice of composing poetry completely in Chinese characters. The poems were the primary form of courtly self-expression for men in the Heian period. The Japanese government also encouraged it through the mid-20th century because of the martial spirit associated with the practice.
posted by Alison at 7:21 AM on April 20, 2009

I guess hieroglyphs are ideograms as well, containing no info about how to pronounce them, but I'm not sure.

Not true.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:51 AM on April 20, 2009

Best answer: I don't really know if this would be an example that would interest you, but the sign language used by the community of deaf people-- their 'spoken' language-- seems to have a much looser correspondence to written language than that of ordinary speakers of English, say.
posted by jamjam at 8:03 AM on April 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

To follow up on what jamjam said, signed languages do not have written forms, and, for instance, a Deaf user of ASL will have to learn to write in English, which has a completely different word word order, not to mention other aspects of the two grammars (noun plurality, facial grammar for conditionals and wh- questions...). Hence, when Deaf individuals learn to read, it is a very different process than when a hearing person learns to read, because the mapping of the written to the spoken system doesn't overlap in the same way. One citation.
posted by joan cusack the second at 8:52 AM on April 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do computer languages count as written languages? Who speaks Lisp (even with a lisp)?
posted by billtron at 8:53 AM on April 20, 2009

Standard Arabic was already mentioned and I think is a good example (especially since Standard Arabic is not truly anybody's native language), but I wanted to give a little interesting anecdote about it.

I once asked a co-worker from Morocco what he does if he wants to write a message to someone talking about a conversation he had that day in Moroccan Arabic. He said that if he were writing to, say, his sister, he would actually write the whole thing in French. If he were writing to his aunt, he would write the whole thing in Standard Arabic (which is not Moroccan Arabic, as others mentioned). Either way, he'd be translating his spoken conversation to another language and not be writing the language he was speaking at the time.
posted by kosmonaut at 10:10 AM on April 20, 2009

Best answer: I can think of two examples not discussed here so far. First, Latin and Vulgar Latin. As far as I know there are no records of Vulgar Latin from before the middle ages. A few bits of text from before 476 exist in what is clearly Vulgar Latin but other than that no written records of it exist.

Oh, and standard Vulgar Latin disclaimer: Vulgar Latin is not a language but rather the name given to all spoken dialects of Latin that existed during the time of the Roman empire until the end of the Western Empire (roughly speaking). Since there is little in the way of records it is hard to know how divergent Vulgar Latin was from Latin and whether it constitutes a dialect or its own language (standard language/dialect disclaimer: It's a mess. There is no particular rhyme or reason why some tongues are considered languages and some dialects).

The other example I can think of is Scots and English in Scotland. To my ear Scots is sufficiently different from English to constitute a distinct language but there are people who disagree. Scots is rarely written anymore except by a few writers, the most famous being Irvine Welsh. I'll note it has a long history as a written language though, with Robert Burns being the most famous. While a large section of the Scottish populace speaks Scots almost all writing in Scotland is in English.

I think any other examples of such differences will be found among other colonized nation. Danish was the written language of Norway while it was subject to Denmark but I don't know enough about the linguistic history of Danish and Norwegian to say with any certainty that no written Norwegian existed at that time or how different Danish and Norwegian were back then (they're not all that different now).
posted by Kattullus at 10:42 AM on April 20, 2009

umm, I'm a little confused about the question, but for my two bits I'll throw out the Incan khipu system. They tied long series of knots to keep very complex records, and no one is really sure what they mean but they could possible have some sort of semantic organization based on binary

somebody correct me if I'm wrong please.
posted by Think_Long at 12:05 PM on April 20, 2009

Response by poster: Apologies to those that didn't understand the question. Those that did have been very helpful, thanks. All very interesting.
posted by nthdegx at 1:59 PM on April 20, 2009

A side question based on comments by JamJam and Joan Cusack The Second about how sign language is only loosely related to the written language: would we have an illustration of this with this season's The Amazing Race?

One of the teams on The Amazing Race is a mom and her deaf son. The teams basically have to complete a number of tasks as they progress through the Race. In one of these tasks, the deaf son had to unscramble a bunch of letters to spell out a famous Russian playwright, Chekhov. He had the most difficulty in this task out of all the teams. One question I had at the time was whether his difficulty had to do with ignorance of Russian playwrights or because his ASL didn't give him a way of "sounding" out the letters in some sensible way (setting aside issues of frustration on the part of the racers during tasks, etc.). Would the latter be the more significant problem?
posted by chengjih at 4:42 AM on April 21, 2009

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