The Preservation of Words: Oral and Written Language


By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

If all language had existed for only 24 hours, writing would have come along at about 11:08 p.m. That’s how new writing is in terms of what language is. But what is different about the written language from the spoken one?

Woman in profile, looking left, with a hand beside her open mouth, with letters of the English alphabet pouring out of her mouth.
Compared to written language, most oral languages use a simple structure and vocabulary. (Image: Marijus Auruskevicius/Shutterstock)

Oral Vs. Written Language

Out of the 6,000 languages, only about 200 are written in a real way. So writing is an artifice. As a result, there are differences between the way we talk and the way we write. These are differences that are very stark and very regularly found between the spoken and written language.

While speaking, even if one has a Ph.D., it has been shown that we use a much more limited vocabulary than is available in the written language.

Learn more about the beginnings of English.

Forgotten Words

There are a people called the Lokele in the former Zaire. They use a talking drum language. They have been doing this for a very long time. As such, there are many words in what they say on the talking drums in this language that nobody remembers the meaning of. It’s just these words that you use in these settings.

Children playing Ring around the Rosie with their teacher.
Ring around the Rosie is a song sung by children as they hold hands and go round and round. But its meaning is unknown to most, unless they look for it in a dictionary or another written source. (Image: Juice Flair/Shutterstock)

It’s kind of like ‘peas porridge hot’ in English. What does that mean? You could find out, but really we just learn to say it by rote, and we just deal with it. Another example is the rhyme ‘Ring around the Rosie’: we do something with our bodies, going round and round. But what precisely does it mean? You can look it up.

But the Lokele don’t look it up because it is a spoken language. There is nothing to look up. They just don’t know what many of those words mean. The language has bypassed the point at which the talking drum language was composed. So it’s a very natural phenomenon.

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

Dictionary and the Preservation of Words

It’s different for languages with a strong written component, such as English. For example, we know and commonly use the word ruthless. This word implies the existence the word ruth (as a common noun, not as a name) and ruth is supposed to mean mercy.

You can find this word in a big dictionary. But we don’t use the word. So, though it isn’t marked as obsolete, ruth is not really a word. “Please show me ruth.” No one has said that for hundreds and hundreds of years. It is still supposedly a word, but that’s only because we have dictionaries.

In general, you can go through a lifetime and still encounter new words every year. The word sciolism, for example, could be used in an article. You may look up the dictionary and find that it means “superficial knowledge”. And thus you learn a new word. But it is so rare that the only reason that it exists at all is because we have the printed page. So it is available for a journalist to use and for a reader to find. That can’t happen with the Lokele or with any language that is not written down in a real way.

Spoken English makes use of a small subset of all of the words in the dictionary. Spoken English uses more or less the same number of words that a purely oral language, a natural language, would use.

Learn more about dialect representations in Middle English.

Hedging and Hesitation in Spoken Language

It has been shown that educated English speakers, even university graduates, use hedging words to compensate for how hard it is to make a maximal use of the vocabulary.

One piece that analyzes this, has someone saying, “She was still young enough, so I just was able to put her in a sort of sling; one of those tummy packs, you know?” That’s the way people talk.

Two mothers walking in a park, with their children in strollers.
When two people are chatting, they use simple words, hedging, and run-ons. (Image: Olga Sapegina/Shutterstock)

This isn’t somebody standing in front of a white screen presenting the language in its Sunday best. This is somebody standing in front of a café, probably with a baby carriage or holding something, and a bird flies by and they are just kind of chatting.

So the next time you are listening to a conversation, notice that it is not like a vocabulary textbook. People are always hedging, cleaning things up. They use fragments, they use run-ons. That’s what people do all over the world. That’s what language is like.

Languages used orally tend to have tens of thousands of words. But what about a language having hundreds of thousands of words? You can’t help thinking: “Who knows all of those words?” And indeed, no one does. Only the dictionary contains them.

There is nobody who knows every word in there. Or, if there is, they have spent their entire life learning all those words for a specific purpose. For the most part, we are all too busy actually being human beings. Only a written language can have that many words. An oral language is simple.

Common Questions about the Preservation of Words in Written Language

Q. In terms of vocabulary, what is the difference between the spoken and written forms of languages?

The oral form of a language is much simpler and has a much smaller vocabulary than the written form.

Q. What happens to words that are not used for a long time in purely oral languages?

In oral languages, words that are not used for a long time are simply forgotten, or at least their meanings are lost, while the word persists.

Q. Why are words less likely to be forgotten in written languages?

Written languages have a repository of words in the form of dictionaries which ensure that even words unused for long can be recalled and used occasionally in writing.

Q. How do spoken conversations differ from written texts?

Spoken language uses a lot of hedging, sentence fragments, and run-ons compared to written language which is always clearly structured.

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