One snowy afternoon in January of 1998, I was having lunch at Geoff’s, a sandwich hangout on Providence, Rhode Island’s East Side. As I munched on a dill pickle and tried to focus on the book I was reading, I couldn’t help overhearing the animated conversation at the next table between two Brown University undergraduates:
“You know what that scum-ball [aka former boyfriend] did to Heather? He sent her an email telling her he was seeing someone else.”
“You mean he didn’t even have the decency to break up face-to-face?”
“Nope. The coward.”
As we round the millennium, the written word is undergoing major shifts in form and function. Messages that once were delivered orally in person or through carefully phrased formal letters are now dashed off in email with the same abandon with which we jot down grocery lists or leave casual voice mail of the “Hey, call me when you get home” variety.
Nearly three decades ago, I first became curious about the use of writing to represent language and, in particular, about how speech and writing divvied up communicative functions in literate societies. Long before email or voice mail arrived on the scene, it was clear that the “linguistics” of writing were every bit as fascinating as more traditional study of speech. Whether you looked at writing at a particular moment in time, at language change, or at the social forces shaping literacy, it was obvious that written language could be analyzed with many of the same conceptual tools linguists employ in looking at speech. My initial thinking about the linguistics of writing appeared in a book comparing spoken, written, and signed language. 1