Oral Structure of Early Writing: Short and Rambling


By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Spoken language generally uses shorter and simpler sentences than written language. This is just normal. However, written language is much more rigidly structured. But was it always like this?

Extract from Caxton's preface, talking about the use of English.
Early English printers, like William Caxton, were the first to write down the language, and did not use any structure. (Image: William Caxton/Public domain)

Early Written English: Running-On

When languages first began to be written, people were inclined to write more or less the way they talked.

For example, a very early passage of written English comes from the pioneering printer William Caxton. This is early written English, when there are not yet conventions for the writing of English. Caxton wrote:

William Caxton's portrait.
William Caxton was one of the earliest people to write in English. (Image: The Granger Collection, New York/Public domain)

And afterward whan I remeberyd my self of my symplenes and vnperfightnes that I had in bothe langages, that is to wete [wit] in Freshe and in Englisshe, for in France was I neuer, and was born and lerned myn Englissh in Kente in the Weeld, where I doubte not is spoken as brode and rude Englishh as is in ony place of Englond; & haue contynued by the space of xxx yere for the most parte in the contres of Braband, Flandres, Holand, and Zeland;…

It just goes on like that. There is no sense of written style because no one knew how to write yet. It’s the sort of thing that you would imagine. In a way, it reflects something that’s true of us. It’s the sobering reality of how we actually speak English rather than write it.

Learn more about sound changes in language.

Even the British Aren’t Perfect!

Think about the way you speak in casual conversations. There are hesitations. There are outright flubs and sentences that go on and on and corrections. That’s just the way spoken English tends to sound.

For example, you could take language like that and make it into written language, but it would be a translation. You’d have to work to do it. It would be almost like working with two different languages.

For example, this is a passage about the purchase of a dog. This is a speaker from Britain. Do note that in Britain the word bitch is commonly used to refer to female dogs, without laughing or being self-conscious.

I had to wait, I had to wait till it was born and till it got to about eight or ten weeks of age, then I bought my first dachshund, a black-and-tan bitch puppy, as they told me I should have bought a bitch puppy to start off with, because if she wasn’t a hundred percent good I could choose a top champion dog to mate her to, and then produce something that was good, which would be in my own kennel prefix.

So then this is a native English speaker just jumping from sentence to sentence to sentence. What she did not say is what the translated, written version of that could be, which could be something like:

Some eight or ten weeks after the birth, I saw my first acquisition of a dachshund, a black-and-tan bitch puppy. It seems that a bitch puppy would have been the appropriate initial purchase, because of the possibility of mating an imperfect specimen with a top champion dog, the improved offspring then carrying my own kennel prefix.

Nobody speaks English like that, not even the British.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human LanguageWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Language of the Bible

A page from the Hebrew Bible shows the short structure of spoken language.
The Hebrew Bible shows how early writing was structured very similar to spoken language. (Image: Yad Ben Zvi/Public domain)

Another example of how early writing is more like natural language than the kind of writing that we are used to today is the Bible.

The Hebrew Bible is written by people who obviously were used to thinking of language as something that is either said or recited for an audience, and only secondarily is put on the page. The Hebrew Bible is not written in what we would consider written style.

For example, we are used to the very beginning of that book in question going something like,

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

That took work. That is not the way it was originally put. People who are Jewish or are particularly interested in such things are familiar with the original Hebrew version, which can be translated as:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

And the earth was formless and empty

with darkness on the face of the depths.

God’s spirit moved on the water’s surface.

God said, “There shall be light” and light came into existence.

You can call that majestic. There’s a certain pleasing chunkiness and straightforwardness about it. But it’s not as if they had a choice. That’s the only way they would have known how to write.

This is the way the earliest writing of languages tends very strongly to go, because these people are just scratching down what they say, and what they say is spoken language.

Learn more about the first language.

Common Questions about the Oral Structure of Early Writing

Q. Why is early writing in English unstructured?

When English began to be written, then people wrote it exactly as they spoke it. Thus, like spoken language, early written English was unstructured and rambling.

Q. Do British speakers speak English in a structured way?

Even British speakers speak English in an unstructured, rambling way, with flubs and hesitations, and corrections.

Q. Why does the older Hebrew Bible differ in terms of language from the standard English Bible?

The language of the Hebrew Bible is chunky, composed of short sentences. The modern English Bible generally has longer and more elaborate sentences that flow smoothly. This is because the Hebrew Bible was composed in a time when the written language was not so elaborate.

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