Ashok .R KELKAR, Pune, India.







I. There is only a language.  Speech and writing are not two kinds of language but two mainfestations of it in the course of language use.  Speech enjoys a certain priority over its written record in relation to the life history of person, a community, or mankind.  At the same time, there is a certain broad functional symmetry between speech and writing – either can do duty for the other, if primary proficiency is supplemented by secondary proficiency.


II.                 Why then do many people tend to see something deeper in this distinction?  For them speech typifies language use viewed as an act or gesture, while writing typifies language use viewed as an object or text.  Gestures are responded to, but texts are interpreted.  In sum, speech and writing serve as metaphors for the alternate conceptions of language use.  Acts can be either work or play.  Objects can be either productions or creations.


III.  Not only literary works that fuse the vehicle of language material and the content of experience but also other kinds of art works can be seen either as autonomous acts of speech or as transitive written texts.  The various kinds of art may be reviewed from this angle the arts of language, the arts of design and of spectacle, the arts for display, the arts of performance, and finally the art of criticism,







Ashok R. KELKAR, P u n e


It is best to begin by finding out what speech and writing really are in relation to language and to each other and only then consider them as metaphors for language use and for works of art.


   What precisely is the relationship between language, speech, and writing?


       It is misleading to speak as if there are two kinds of language—spoken language and written language.  Rather, there is only spoken language use and written language use.  Language has two kinds of manifestation, speech and writing, in the course of its use in communication.


    Language is a system of national forms that embody man’s understanding of the world as shaped in the course of man’s shared life in a community.  Language is also a system of speech manifestation that speakers and listeners make use of and a system of written manifestation that written and readers make use of.


     It is misleading to speak as if speech and writing are on a par, being simply two alternate and parallel modes of manifesting the system of national forms.  Speech is for more nature-made than writing is.  Every child that is not deaf-mute than writing is.  Every child that is not deaf-mute or feeble-minded or deprived of exposure to speech acquires a near-adult control of speech by the age of five or so without anybody having to take the trouble of teaching it to speak.  Literacy on the other hand is not only a pair of skills, reading and writing, that needs to be carefully taught but also turns out to be an acquired taste.  It is only to be expected, therefore, that speech antedates writing by far-mankind acquired writing not earlier than 4000 B.C.; many communities in human history remained and even now remain without any accepted writing system; many persons  remain without writing even without being visually or manually handicapped or feeble-minded or deprived of exposure to writing.  In the history of mankind loud reading antedates silent reading, and children indulge in ‘loud writing’ before they settle down to writing  silently.


            Rather, language is essentially plugged into speech and writing  is an optional appendage to language that enables ene to substitute writing for speech.  Changes in speech habits lead to changes in the national symbol system, while the same language can carry on with alternate writing systems.  Writing, being modelled after speech, remains; unidimensional; and unidirectional though visual signs don’t have to be so.


;           True, writing is not wholly plugged onto speech, silent reading, which by-passes speech, quickly gets established once it is introduced anywhere.  Any fast, adult reader may even suppress inner vocalizations poetry of course resists such suppression, as does the script of a play, indeed these ask for loud reading.  Writing can exceed the unidimensionality and unidirectionality imposed on it by speech and enjoy the advantages of notes and charts, ready-access inventories, the capacity to sustain alternate loud reading, and the opportunity it affords for back-tracking, fast-forwarding, and ruminating.

            Once writing is introduced and established, language users are offered a choice between the relatively more permanent but more distant written signalling and the relatively more intimate but more intimate but more evanescent speech, between a telegram and a telephone call.  While literacy may confer status on a person or a community, orality in a language confers ready access to other persons.  Messages conveyed through writing tend to be more improvised, more intimate.  While writing tends to achieve length through elaboration and shortness through compression, speech tends to achieve length through relaxation and shortness through ellipsis.  While re-edited vocabulary and syntax, writing tends to achieve intensity or subtlety by falling back on pre-edited vocabulary and syntax, speech depends on diction and  accompanying face and body gestures for these effects.



            In sum, when one compares the relationship between language and speech on the one hand and the relationship between language and writing on the other hand, one undoubtedly detects a major asymmetry in terms of the attendant life-history of language users.  Speech, like certain facial and bodily movements, is part of man’s behavioral endowment.  Writing, like cooking, clothing, and sheltering, is a piece of widely disseminated technology.  At the same time, one has to concede that whatever comes more naturally in speech can be achieved in writing through cunning and whatever comes more naturally in writing can be achieved in speech through rehearsing and gesturing.  In other words, there is a certain broad functional symmetry between these two alternate manifestations of language.  Both make use of technological supplements like telecommunication and duplication to enhance their space and time reach.


            In order to understand better this functional symmetry between speech and writing, it will be best to make two more distinction.  First, we need to distinguish between


(1)    Primary oral proficiency

(2)    Freedom form listening defects such as missing distinction of articulation, of timing and transition (being’deaf’ ti


Such as defective articulation, defective timing and transition  (slurring, sluttering or the like), and defective toning and volume (shrillness, flat monotony, or the like);


(2)  Secondary oral proficiency –1.  controlled and effective use of diction, accompanying gesture, improvised vocabulary and syntax, memorizing and  mimicking.  Secondly, we make a corresponding distinction between—2.  ready and discriminating listening (with awareness of nuances, alternating norms of speech or the like).


(1)    Primary literacy—freedom 1) from writing deficiency (such as illegibility, excessive slowness, incoherence in syntax, excessively poor vocabulary); 2) from reading deficiency (such as halting, slow and poor comprehension or the like)


(2)  Secondary literacy—1) ready and effective composition (with logical coherence, a certain minimal appeal, discriminating choice in vocabulary or the like). 2) ready and discriminating interpretation (with awareness of nuances, fund of common knowledge, catching of allusions or the like)


When speech successfully competes with writing in deliberateness, decorum, elaboration, or concision, one naturally attributes this to secondary oral proficiency or eloquence.  When writing successfully competes with speech in spontaneity,  intimacy, relaxation, or terseness, one naturally attributes this to secondary literacy or craft—especially a craft that effaces itself.


            If, then, there has been a persistent feeling that there is more to this distinction than the difference in the functioning of speech and writing, the source of this feeling must lie elsewhere than in the attendant life history of the language users or in the day-to-day display of secondary proficiency.




            The truth of the matter is that the reference to speech or writing is often symbolic of differences that lie elsewhere but that tend to be associated with speech and writing. The spoken use of language (parole) and the written use of language (écriture) are simply metaphors for two quite different conceptions that people entertain about the nature of language use.  The question to ask is not how the message in language is being manifested or signalled but rather how the person is using language in coping with reality.  Two radically different answers have been proposed to this other, and deeper, question—


            (1)            Using language for coping consists in doing something, performing an act, making a gesture

            (2)            Using language for coping consists in making something, fashioning an object, composing a text.



            Speech is, then, simply a metaphor for language use as an act or gesture.  (Writing is viewed as no more than recorded gesture.)  Alternatively, writing is simply a metaphor for language use as an object or text.  (Speech is viewed as no more than performed text.)


            Let us take a closer look at these two alternate views of language use—as a gesture and as a text.


            Language use as a gesture is a deed and so is a part and parcel of man’s coping with reality.  It is thus closely identified with the language user and with man’s attempts to come to terms with reality.  It makes a difference to the life as lived both by the person speaking (or writing) and by the person listening (or reading).  The rôle of the recipient involved in the language transaction is that of making an active response to this gesture made by the other partner in the transaction.


            Language use as a text is an object and as such comes to have an existence apart form the coping with reality that brought it forth I the first place.  A gesture can be merely copied, but a text can be quoted from or re-used in a fresh event or handed down to the text generation no less than be copied.  So a text thus gets detached so to say form the language user and from man’s attempts to come to terms with reality. It makes a differences to the reality as understood both by the person writing (or speaking) and by the person reading (or listening). The rôle of the recipient involved I the language transaction consists in making out an interpretation of the text presented by the other.


            Both these conceptions of language use apply to speech as well as writing.  There are written gestures as well as oral texts. A letter of resignation is as much a gesture as mouthing a piece of insult or abuse.  The U.S. President’s State of the Union address is as much a text as the U.S. Constitution.


            In either case language use is being seen as a coping with reality and as much open to the distinction between a rational approach and an imaginative approach.  Doing something in the rational vein is work and work can sometimes be organized into routines, but doing something in the imaginative vein in play and play can sometimes be organized into games.  Language use, when conceived as an act or gesture, can be either work, even routine work or play, even game-playing.   Alternatively, making something in the rational spirit is producing an object, but making something in the imaginative spirit is creating an object. Language use, when conceived as an object or text, can be either something produced or something created.


            Obviously, literary works illustrate one kind of language use.  Consequently, the two alternate conceptions of language use will apply to literary works.  Literary works then could be seen either as acts or gestures or as objects or texts—either as acts of speech (parole) or as pieces of writing (écriture).  This opens the way or extending the  metaphor of speech/writing beyond language use to language arts as such.  It is interesting that one can identify instances of art either as ‘work’ ( æurve) or as ‘object’ (object).






As one would expect, the metaphor of art as speech and gesture and the metaphor of art as writing and text are based to best advantage in respect of ‘the arts of language’—and these include not only poetry and prose literature but also poetic and prose drama and d cinema featuring story and speech. These are to be so called both because they employ language material and because, like language, they communicate and understanding of life and reality.  A work of art is seen either as an autonomous act of speech achieving delight or form or as a transitive written text conveying insight or the feel of life.  Thus, a poem or a song or a novel or a play or a feature film can be responded to as an enclosed ‘hall of mirrors’ or read as a ‘room with a view’.  ********************************

bound up with the specific context in which the artist is addressing the recipient.  The transitive written text affording a view of the world out there is free from its immediate context and thus open to interpretation by any recipient whosoever.


            Secondly, there are ‘the arts of design’ (such as product and too design, of interiors and exteriors, and architecture) and ‘the arts of spectacle’ (such as acrobatics and animal show, magic show, son et lumiére shows).  A work of art in such cases in seen either as an autonomous act of speech displaying the material vehicle and structuring the environment to our delight or as a transitive written text embodying the functional content and a certain vision of the environment.


            Thirdly, there are ‘the arts for display’ (such as painting or drawing, still and moving sculpture or photography, non-verbal photography).  A work of art in such cases, whether abstract or representational, is seen either as an autonomous act of speech embodying a response to reality or as a transitive written text conveying an interpretation of reality.


            Fourthly, there are ‘the arts of performance’ (such as non-verbal music like sitār or tarāna, verbal music like khayāl, musical theatre, abstract and dramatic dance).  (If the music subserves the song, that will illustrate one of the arts of language.)  A work of art in such cases is seen either as an autonomous act of speech embodying a response to life or as a transitive written text conveying an interpretation of life.  In the former view, such arts work best when improvised like speech.  In the latter view, such arts call for a script.  (It is interesting that in traditional India, where speech prevails over writing, music is improvised rather than scripted by a musical scales are movable rather than fixed. In Indian classical dance Kathak and Bharatha-nāyam present a study in contrast between ‘spoken’ and  ‘written’ dance gestures and movements; perhaps khayāl and Dhrupad could likewise be seen as ‘spoken’ and ‘written’ music.)


            Finally, there is ‘the art of criticism’.  A work of criticism is seen either as an autonomous act of speech embodying a response to art or as a transitive written text conveying an interpretation of art.




            This was presented in an international seminar on Oral Tradition, Written Word, and Communication Systems, at Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, February 1992.  This was remained unpublished.