Language and Linguistics


Ashok R. Kelkar

Language is the mainstay of human communication

                    And speech is the main stay of language use. Writing

                    is a substitute for speech, but what a substitute! Printing

                    is a substitute for, writing but what a substitute! 


Writing is a substitute for speech, let there be no mistake about that. Whether it is the life history of the human species or the human individual, speech is in separable from language, writing comes later as an optional accessory. Whether it is the whole system of a language or the structure of the given message in the language, speech seems to condition it – changes in speech sounds bring about changes in grammatical and lexical distinctions, the unidimensionality of speech imposes itself on the sentence and word structure.


            Speech has certain advantages to it as a mouth – to – ear signaling channel calling for proximity between the sender and the receiver and permitting exchange of roles between the sender and receiver. One may speak and listen in the dark, with one’s back to the other party or with a screen in between, with the hands free to work and the feet free to take you anywhere within earshot, one may even speak with pen in the mouth or a cigarette between the lips and listen to speech in a noisy cafetaria. Speech is relatively low in cost in terms of time, space, and energy. Speech lets one make one’s presence felt and enables one to get an immediate response from the other party. (That’s why the telephone tends to displace the letter).(Indeed it was discovered fairly early that imparting literacy is more profitable and labour-saving if done on. When the learner is still quite young.) But then this very face – to – face quality of speech is attended by certain inconveniences too for the sender reluctant to face the receiver (I can’t bring myself to say it to his face) or the receiver reluctant to face the sender (I’d rather he doesn’t say it to my face.) Also the evanescent nature of speech permits the sender to be slippery (But I never said such a thing) or the receiver to be evasive (But I don’t recall your saying such a thing). Writing is a convenient way out of such situations.


            Writing being relatively more permanent than speech is useful in extending language through time. It helps one to send a message to one’s future self or receive one from one’s past self – that is what a diary entry, a memorandum does. It can likewise be at least a one-way bridge between generations. Writing also extends the reach of the language across the space. The boast of the United States post office (Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds) is made possible by the written massive. Writing is also an insurance against loss of a message by easily permitting. Tagging, branding, and erecting signposts serve the purpose of identification.


            In spite of these advantages of writing over speech some civilizations have been rather slow in taking to writing. The Indian civilization still boasts of an oral culture. The scared texts are called shruti (bearings) and smriti (rememberings) rather than quran (reading) or scripture (writing). The key texts are memorized – we have invented the sūtra (thread) and kārikā (mnemonic verse) for this very purpose. We still don’t quite put our trust in the written message (Better see the minister personally about it). Even important business transactions are made through word of mouth. Our labellings (even the destination sign on a bus) are proverbially inexact. Writings to be effective needs an infrastructure of the library or the archive that the white ant cannot get at, of a system of couriers or a postal service, and of course widespread literacy. Now Asoka tried to spread his ethical message by dotting his empire with wayside inscriptions and the Jains and the Muslims did try to make children literate. But these are expectations. India didn’t really develop the infrastructure. The sheer pressure of the twentieth century is now slowly – altogether too slowly – inducing Indians to take to writing more kindly. (Our invitation to the wedding is not the less cordial for being written rather than spoken). It is time that they did so more really.


            Writing is not a mere substitute, it is a tremendous substitute. It is not merely valued for its utility in overcoming separation by time or space or in serving as an insurance against loss or perfidy. Writing is also valued socially as a great cementing force. The linguistic unity of Chinese in part depends on its word writing – two persons from the ends of the country may not be able to speak with each other and be understood but they can exchange letters. Written constitutions or charters or tablets can be symbols of social identity and fraternity. Writing thus extends both the utilitarian and sociative functions of language by lending greater fixity first to the structure of the given message and thereby indirectly to the system of language as such. Every society finds a way to have certain message re-performed from time to time in more or less the same form because it finds those messages worthwhile or memorable – they may be laws, treaties of knowledge, poems, tales, or pieces of practical advice about farming or curing illness. A preliterate society can depend solely on oral tradition – but oral tradition has limits on the quantity and the fixity of the transmission and on its reach through space and time. Messages may be grabled or completely lost in the process. (The oral transmission of the Vedas was a feat achieved at great human cost and was not duplicated in human history.) Written transmission is more effective, less costly. It ensures fixity, handles larger quantities, and brings about better dissemination. As the Spanish proverb wryly puts it, books are great impediments to stupidity. The British could have lost Shakespeare without writing as Indians were on the point of losing their Kautilya or their Bhāsā, because of imperfect preservation of texts. The whole fabric of laws as Roman, Islamic, and the western societies understood it depends on writing – the writing of deeds, contracts, order, statues, judgements. Writing is a pre-condition of the rule of law. But it is not enough that the form of the message be preserved over time and space, it is also important that the meaning of the message be also preserved. This calls for a certain fixity of language – not a dead fixity compatible with flexibility over time and versatility over contexts of use. In short, writing promotes the standardization of language in the true sense. (The standardization of Sanskrit grammar and vocabulary was achieved at a terrible cost – the language of higher culture stopped being a vehicle of changing needs and became a preserve of the few, all too few.)


            It has been argued lately in the west that thanks to devices for recording and long-distance transmission of speech permitting whole libraries of discs and cassettes and network of telephones and the wireless and mass-meetings made possible by the loudspeaker, writing has lost its advantage over speech and the book may have become already obsolete. Those Indians who not only want to cling to the orality of tradition and communication but are also still re reluctant to accept writing whole-heartedly draw comfort from this. But it has to be pointed out that writing not only permits better processing of messages. In the first place, silent reading could be much faster than listening and permits skimming, skipping and stopping, cross-referring, reading the steps far more readily than listening to recorded speech. This means that in the privacy of your study you can ponder the imponderables, mull over and pause, make notes and cross-check in a way that you cannot in a lecture room under the public gaze, or in front of a radio set or a television screen. In the second place, writing forces one to greater clarity and precision expression than speech does not which tends to depend too readily on the clarification and expansion that could be made available on the spot. This improves the reliability of processing. Finally, writing helps the sender to overcome the limitations imposed by the linearity of language more effectively. Versification was resorted to in speech not only because it made memorization easier (throwing up germs like Thirty days hath September…) but also because it was the first effort to overcome the shackles imposed by the linearity of linguistic processing –no wonder that versification often goes with an over-turning of the prose order. But writing can do it more thoroughly. An alphabetical index or reference work that permits quick retrieval of stored information is unthinkable without writing. The homely family tree or the table of facts and figures or the more fashionable flow chart or the more arcane chemical formulas or binomial equations are difficult even to read aloud, let alone to be placed by spoken discourse. Even in poetry, concrete poetry or the ancient chitra-bandha-kavya (graphic poems) or, even more ambitiously, the Chinese verse of ideograms try to explore the possibilities of non-linearization. Metrical verse is losing’ ground in a good many of contemporary poetic traditions that depend on the reading rather than the listening public.


            Printing is a substitute for writing. Let there be no mistake about it. The historical priority of writing is obvious, its effect on the shape and texture of the visual linguistic symbol is obvious. Taken any written character – whether from among the detached letters from Greek and Latin, the complex ligatures of Arabic and Sanskrit, the interlaced brush of strokes of Chinese or Japanese – it has a directed movement about it. The Latin letter moves from southwest to northeast, the Arabic letter from east to west, the Persian letter from northeast to southwest, the Devanagari letter from northwest of southeast, the Chinese character from north to south or from center to periphery, and so on. Take any written layout – it too has movement. The unseen human hand is very much in evidence in writing and even printed characters and lines preserve the impression of movement. Live typography draws its strength of lettering and layout from calligraphy.


            Writing has certain advantages as a channel of hand-to-eye signaling over printing. The shadow of the unseen hand commands attention, assures the living presence of the sender of the message in a way that the typewritten or the printed message cannot. A signature has to be hand-written, it cannot even be hand-printed: one cannot sign a document ‘in block letters’. The hand-written invitation or greeting is so much warmer than a typewritten or printed one. When one composes a poem or even a research paper, writing permits ‘composing’ more readily: one cannot cancel, go back and insert: compose the last paragraph first or the last, and the like so very easily if one is typing or dictating to another person. It takes a lot of practice to be able to compose without the benefit of writing it out in one’s own hand. But the advantages that writing has over speech are not only preserved in printing but magnified. The humble carbon copy or the rubber stamps are as much forms of printing as typewriting, duplicating, photocopying, engraving, letterpress printing, or printing with phototypesetting are. Hand-copying is time-consuming and more laborious than copying through print. Whether it is transmission through time or space, whether it is insurance against loss or insurance against censorship. Whether it is liking generations or binding social classes or bringing together nations, printing is a tremendous substitute for writing. Of course this also pre-supposes an effective infrastructure not only of literacy, the mail, and the library, but also of the press and book publishing. The Chinese invented the printing, but it was the Europeans that exploited its possibilities more fully. If writing is a pre-condition of the government to the people. Telegraphy, teletyping, and computer storage are so much easier when printing takes over. Speed-reading and non-linear reading too are so much easier with a printed book.


            Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenford had a tremendous library of thirty handwritten books. For a contemporary Oxford don a library of thirty books will sound ridiculous. No wonder that Claryle saw that “the true University of these days is a collection of books”. Face-to-face contact in a modern university is reserved more and more for seminar than lecture. As printing became more and more conscious of its power, it tended to lose sight of the umbilical cord that linked it to writing. Typefaces stopped imitating handwriting even as cinema stopped aping the stage, they acquired the architectural quality of repose and perspicacity. The personal and improvisatory style in handwriting was replaced by the communal and monumental style in typography. “ Nowadays, instead of looking at books, people read them”, as Shaw wittily reminds us (saint Joan, scene 4). But this means the author has the exhilarating satisfaction of seeing his book reach a large readership – a satisfaction that is qualitatively enriched if the book is finely produced with a fine typography and elegant book designing.


            If India is slow in taking to writing it even slower in taking to mass-printing and quality printing. If the development of an underdevelopment country is to be more than a mere developments of technology and economy, if it is also to be a development of the quality of mind and the quality of life, then it has also got to be a development of the quality and scale of human communication, whose mainstay is language, whose pillar is writing, whose pillar in turn is printing. Caltis 1984 is not coming a year too soon!





            This was published in Caltis –84 ed L.S.Wakankar on the occasion of Calligraphy, Lettering, and Typography of Indian Scripts, seminar, New Delhi, Feb 1984, p 13-5. A Marathi version appeared in: Bhāā āņi jīvan 2:2:4-10, summer 1984. A Hindi version appeared in Maharaṣṭra mānas 10:17=8-10, 1985 June 25.