Linguistic Ecology: Language Change and Linguistic Imperialism in the Pacific Region

By Peter Mühlhäusler | Go to book overview

8

The impact of literacy

While the creation of a writing system has helped to preserve the Hawaiian language, it may have helped kill it as a spoken language.

(Day 1985:170)


INTRODUCTION

Literacy, more than virtually any other phenomenon, illustrates the impact of an introduced mode of behaviour on the linguistic ecology of the Pacific. It has led over the years to an almost total transformation of most Pacific societies and most languages spoken in the area. Whereas the use of literacy as an instrument of social change was often deliberate and whilst much has been written on the social effects of the ‘literary revolution’, its linguistic consequences remain much less well charted. In the popular view, which is also widely shared by the linguistic profession, writing is a form of representing spoken language rather than a mode of behaviour that can radically affect the linguistic structures and practices of language use in a community.

One main reason for the lack of awareness of the full impact of literacy is the virtual absence of in-depth longitudinal studies, illustrating the processes of linguistic and conceptual restructuring and the attrition of traditional modes of communication; the other reason is the well-known trend within modern linguistics to regard writing as a epiphenomenon: as a form of representing speech, not as a force affecting all linguistic practices.

As one begins to consider the vast body of scattered evidence, a different picture begins to emerge, one that puts literacy and derived technology at the centre of an ongoing restructuring in the linguistic ecology of the Pacific.

The changeover from orality to literacy can be characterized as follows:

-212-

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