Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading

By Naomi S. Baron | Go to book overview

2

Legitimating Written English

A Brahmin was sitting by the banks of the Ganges, saying his prayers. It was the end of the eighteenth century, soon after the British had established themselves in India. Two Englishmen were talking nearby. An argument ensued, and one shot the other dead.

The only witness was the Brahmin.

The incident was brought to court, and the Brahmin was called to testify. Explaining (in Sanskrit) that he hadn’t understood the meanings of the words that passed between the two Englishmen, he could nonetheless report what they said. He then proceeded to relate, from memory, the precise conversation, spoken in a language he did not know.

While the story is probably apocryphal, it accurately conveys the enormous importance oral cultures place upon the spoken word. Of course, being part of an oral culture need not be at odds with the presence of literacy, for our Brahmin would have been highly literate in Sanskrit. However, in oral cultures that also have literate traditions, the written word itself often serves more as a record of the message that’s carried in memory than an independent form of language. 1


THANK GOD HE DOESN’T HAVE TO

The presence of literacy doesn’t, by itself, tell us very much about the role literacy plays in a culture. An oral culture may have a small sector of the population that’s highly skilled in reading and writing, while a literate culture may have large numbers of people who are illiterate, barely functionally literate, or just learning to handle written language.

-26-

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Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Figures x
  • Preface xi
  • 1 - Robin Hood’s Retort 1
  • 2 - Legitimating Written English 26
  • 3 - Who Writes, Who Reads, and Why 48
  • 4 - Setting Standards 95
  • 5 - The Rise of English Comp 143
  • 6 - Commas and Canaries 167
  • 7 - What Remington Wrought 197
  • 8 - Language at a Distance 216
  • 9 - Why the Jury’s Still Out on Email 247
  • 10 - Epilogue: Destiny or Choice 260
  • Notes 270
  • Bibliography 285
  • Name Index 305
  • Subject Index 311
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