Writing can divide even when language does not

Writing can divide us even when language unites us
Writing can divide us even when language unites us

Humans excel at discussing how their family, tribe, state, or ethnicity differs from another. Even when everything seems so similar to the outsider, the insider can fixate on one aspect of culture. A dance move, a hand gesture, the use of a spice, a pattern of embroidery–anything can show how you and I are “essentially” different.

Personally, I love these differences, but I can see the downside. When I study languages, I love the little differences. I seek out how Ukrainians pronounce Russian, how different Arabic dialects say the word “now,” how Serbs and Croats pronounce “girl” differently. Variety is the spice of life, right? When discussing these differences with native speakers, sometimes the discussion unfortunately moves to value-based ideas like language “purity” or “progressive” thinking or some other sort of ideology. I dislike ideology because it cements differences by devaluing the Other. Variety and distinctions display the uniqueness of human beings and cultures. The cultural differences I have encountered have shown me that I always have more to learn; I don’t have all the answers.

Writing systems represent a “paralinguistic” phenomenon that cultures can use to distinguish themselves. Even when people speak each other’s language, or even speak the same language, writing divides. Division may be bad, in that it can foment chauvinism, or may be good, in that it can preserve unique cultural traits. In any case, writing distinguishes cultural groups within an otherwise unified linguistic milieu.

Polyglot illiterates in India

Recently I read Michael Erard’s, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners. (Anyone who loves languages must read this salute to hyperpolyglots.) In one place, he discusses the polyglot world of India. My experience supports his description, that Indians speak multiple languages. At the same time, each language does not represent an “airtight” container; every Indian seems to be speaking multiple languages simultaneously by dropping in words from whatever language comes to mind. Sid, a Telugu whom I interviewed a while ago, said he chooses the word from the language that suits most what he’s trying to say. Erard discussed the Tamil grammarian, E. Annamalai, who wrote of an Indian “monogrammar,” that is, “While they sound different and use different vocabularies, he said, the grammars are nearly the same” (Erard, 208).

Significantly, among such similar languages, distinct writing systems developed for many Indian languages. India is divided into two major language families, the Indo-Aryan languages in the North, and the Dravidian languages in the South. The four most widely spoken Dravidian languages, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam, each possesses its own writing system. Among my South Indian acquaintances, a working knowledge of at least 2-3 of them is common–but they can’t read them.

The contrast struck me between the common ability to speak many Dravidian languages and inability to read them, prompting me to ask the question of “why?” Human beings use markers to distinguish among groups, whether by food (eg, kosher), clothing (eg, hijab), or language. Since the first two do not distinguish among these South Indian groups significantly, and many people move fluidly among the languages, the societal organism grabbed on to writing as a way to distinguish. As a result, you can place a piece of writing in front of an Indian polyglot to see where in the social structure he or she belongs.

To simplify or not to simplify in China

The Chinese word for "National language&q...
The Chinese word for “National language” (國語; Guóyǔ) written in Traditional and Simplified Chinese characters, followed by Hanyu Pinyin, Gwoyeu Romatzyh, Tongyong Pinyin and Wade-Giles romanizations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After several decades of serious discussion, Chinese intellectuals decided to simplify Chinese writing in the 1950s and ’60s under Mao Zedong.  This reform took off on the mainland; in Hong Kong, Macau, and Republic of China (Taiwan), however, they continue to use the traditional system. The former is called “Simplified,” and the latter, “Traditional.”  For some rarer applications, one can use the standard romanized writing system, Pinyin, for writing in Chinese. I also learned about the Dungan people of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, former Soviet Republics, who write their dialect of Mandarin Chinese in the Cyrillic alphabet. Compared to the other writing systems, though, this one is negligible.

While we think of Chinese writing as difficult, we have to understand that there are two significant Chinese writing systems. Native speakers/writers of each one find the other difficult. Even if speakers in Mainland China and Taiwan speak the same dialect, they may write using systems that are not mutually intelligible. In effect, Chinese writing is bilingual, even if the people are speaking the same dialect.

In this aspect, the writing systems cemented in place the divisions in the country from the ’50s and ’60s. While the Mainland was moving in one direction under Mao, the other areas that were resistant to Mao’s ideas moved in another.

These divisions are still effective today, though I don’t know if anyone has measured the extent. At my company, our IT Service Desk needs distinct teams to be able to handle requests for help in both Traditional and Simplified Chinese. We know that a huge amount of traffic on the internet is “in Chinese.” But this is usually measured as “speakers of Chinese.” Since there isn’t a single written Chinese, then one would have to add the usage in Traditional, Simplified, and Pinyin Chinese writing.

One people divided by religion and writing

Slavs moved into the Balkans in Southeast Europe in around the 5th-6th century. Most believe that they moved from the North, maybe from the area of modern-day Ukraine. (From Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Slavs.) They were independent tribes, without central leadership.

During successive centuries, part of them came under the influence of the Eastern Christians (Orthodox), centered in Constantinople, and some under the Western Christians (Catholic), centered in Rome. In time, the former came to be known as “Serbs” and the latter, “Croats.” These groups started to develop national identities around their respective religions. Certain geographical areas contained a majority of one group, which became another important part of their cultural identity.

The religious leadership worked to evangelize and educate the Southern Slavs, each in their own writing system. To this day, Serbs read and write principally in Cyrillic writing, and Croats almost exclusively in the Latin alphabet. Linguists recognize a single spoken language, Serbo-Croatian, with local variations that are more tied to place than to religion, though this has changed a lot since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The religious difference is thus bound up in the language through the writing system.

Writing divides where language does not

In India, China, and the former Yugoslavia we see that mutually unintelligible writing systems are used when languages are fully comprehensible. What could motivate this layer of confusion, when mutual understanding is already present?

Human beings show a tendency to identify with a group whose markers function in opposition to others. Thus a Tamil who speaks Tamil and Kannada can say to the Kannada person, “I am not Kannada because I cannot read that writing.” A Taiwanese Mandarin speaker can say to the Mainlander, “We may speak the same language, but I cannot read your writing. If you have something important to say, I’m sure you’ll tell me.” The Croat can say to the Serb, “Your writing looks so Russian! You Serbs have a much more eastern mentality than we do.” The writing systems provide data to demonstrate that our groups, which share so much in common, are different deep down.

Individuals may not pronounce these precise phrases, but they demonstrate how easy it is to move from alphabet or ideogram to identity and to ideology. We must be careful of this ease of motion.

Most importantly for me, I don’t believe in erasing differences among people, though they must be viewed with caution. I believe in these distinctions; differences in culture exist just as attached and unattached earlobes exist. They don’t necessarily imply different ideologies. Varying language systems help preserve diversity, as well. Identifying with one culture over another, though, can be dangerous. Preserving my culture must be as important as preserving your culture, otherwise we end up with self-righteousness and violence. Writing can preserve beautiful cultures, but one must believe in the beauty and value of every culture to avoid degrading ourselves.

Photo credit: Mennonite Church USA Archives / Foter.com


18 thoughts on “Writing can divide even when language does not

  1. Fascinating! The point about being able to speak with a mish-mash of languages in India but not write is very common! I like the term “monogrammar” as it aptly describes North Indian language family at least. With my Hindi and smattering of words from other languages, can get along pretty much anywhere in North India. South too except Tamil Nadu.

    As I learned to read devanagari at the same time as learning Hindi and it is such a beautifully logical script, I struggled the 1st time I saw ‘Hindi’ written in ‘English.’ My partner’s scripts for Hindi language films are not written in devanagari script and there are times where if only it WAS in devanagari it would be absolutely clear which D / T / R it is and hence which word. Yet too few in the Hindi film industry can actually read let alone write in devanagari!?
    Another sign of the evolution of language and perhaps culture?

    The lines blur… as you quite rightly point out, preserving ‘culture’ should never be at the cost of another – healthier to value and celebrate all yet equally accept the only constant is change! 🙂


    1. This is an interesting observation. I’ve seen a lot of cognitive studies that we recognize written words by shape more than by letters. So I can see why learning to read Romanized Hindi would require re-learning the words.

      When I wrote my dissertation, my advisor recommended I transcribe the Hebrew. That way the dissertation would be accessible to those who don’t know Hebrew writing. It was a difficult task, and even harder to copy-edit; reading Hebrew in Latin letters is so slow-going!


  2. Who was it that said the US and the UK were divided by a common language? Get a Brit and a Yank in a room together and they’ll argue over “u” and double “l” and doughnut having more than five letters until the cows come home… and then a little bit longer.

    Since I’m learning both Scottish Gaelic and Irish (although I’m much better at the former than the latter), I find it interesting to see the spelling differences between the three Goidelic languages. I can understand spoken Irish reasonably well, but the first time I tried to read it, I just stared for a long time and went, “What?!” 60 years of spelling reforms in both countries has left little resemblance between the two, although until the early to mid 1800s, they used the same spelling and writing system and simply pronounced it a little differently. And then there’s Manx, which didn’t have a written form until recently. If I can figure out Irish well enough, I haven’t a clue with Manx, because it’s written phonetically from an English standpoint. Listen to a recording, and it’s easier for me to understand than Irish, but the writing defies my comprehension.


    1. Thanks for the information. I can sense a little ideology behind the decision to align with English writing or not.

      Who was in charge of the reforms in Scottish and Irish Gaelics? I’m wondering what motivated the movements away from each other.


  3. I really like your thoughts on the value of difference but also the danger of ideology that can come with differences. Variety is a beautiful thing, and each culture and language (and variety within a language) has something to be appreciated. The Other should be valued. The Self should be valued. Problems start when we try to rank cultural and linguistic differences as superior or inferior. This is unnecessary – we all have something to offer the world, and there is something to learn from everybody. Thanks for your thoughts!


    1. This is more challenging than I like to admit, I realized recently.

      To be perfectly honest, I feel more comfortable showing charity to the Other when I’m in the power position. When I’m the Other, I get a little resentful, and I just want to stay the Other. I like valuing the Other, but when I am the Other, I don’t know how much I want to be valued; I just kind of want to be left alone.


  4. Code-switching and/or code-mixing by polyglots is such a fascinating thing. I love seeing how it crops up even among language learners. The PCVs in Mongolia and I dropped a lot of Mongolian words in our everyday speech – sometimes out of habit, and sometimes because it was just easier to use one Mongolian word than the multitude of English words you’d need to convey the same concept.

    The point about writing systems struck home as well. Mongolian is commonly expressed by at least three writing systems: the Classical script (on official documents and signs, as well as for everyday use in Inner Mongolia), Cyrillic (everyday use in Mongolia), and the Roman alphabet (informal usage – Facebook, texting, etc.) I learned to read it in Cyrillic, and while I can sort of puzzle it out in that alphabet, I can’t make heads or tails of it in this one. Part of it is that Cyrillic has more letters, I’m sure, but more of it is mental. I conceptualize English and Mongolian differently, and putting the one in the alphabet of the other short circuits my brain somehow.


    1. I find code-switching fascinating, too. That’s why I love to watch Indians–they seem to have code-switching in their DNA.

      That’s really interesting to know about the Mongolian scripts. I had no idea there was so much variety.

      I know what you mean about conceiving of a language in a particular script. I mentioned in another comment, above, that cognitive studies have shown that we recognize words by shape, not by sounding them out.

      When my Lebanese friends write on Facebook, they write Lebanese dialect with the Latin alphabet, but classical Arabic with Arabic script. When they write with the Latin alphabet, I literally have to sound out the word aloud *with my mouth*. I can’t even sound it out in my head.


  5. Pingback: Who do we want to be like? Writing can unite | Loving Language

  6. jktzes

    I agree on the point that the Chinese language is currently bilingual, but what’s good is that the softwares that seamlessly convert simplified Chinese characters/pinyin to the counterparts when writing or reading are everywhere. And they are efficient, free, and handy. So I think it is not a big deal in 21st century, when we use computers to write stuff a lot. When people from mainland go to Taiwan island, they could adjust to the context really quickly. And I don’t see a big gap caused by two slightly different language systems in communication between netizens in Taiwan and those in mainland.


    1. Good point. It’s interesting that technology is bridging a gap in understanding that exists. Since the difference between simplified and traditional–as I understand it–is one-to-one, it should be easy to manage.


      1. jktzes

        You are right. But to be concise, it’s not technically one-to-one correspondence, sometimes a simplified character could correspond to more than one traditional ones. Like 发 could correspond to 發(verb) or 髮(noun). But you can tell which one 发 stands for under certain context.


      2. jktzes

        Yep. You could try to translate 剪头发 and 发大财 to traditional characters. I just wanna add that actually there are tons of tools you could use to do so, Google is only one of them


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