Between writing and speaking, which language differs the most?

It takes a long time to come up with and teach the conventions for writing a language. When speaking, or talking quickly, long phrases get shortened. New things get names. People like to play with words and sound cool. Trendy expressions from other languages, advertisements and movies fall into favour.

So spoken language is always much more vibrant than conservative writing. But where is the difference biggest? I’m thinking Chinese and its mutually unintelligible dialects. But perhaps not. Maybe there are non-computer languages where there is no diffrence. Even most people in France did not speak French during Voltaire’s time.

How about the difference between American Sign Language and English (or any version of sign language vs. it’s written counterpart)? I don’t know if ASL counts, but it is the way deaf people ‘speak’.

In a way ASL vs. written English is the reverse of Chinese, at least as far as I understand Chinese. Written and spoken English both make use of letter symbols corresponding with their sounds that get strung together as words and sentences. But ASL uses a large vocabulary of gestures that are fully-formed nouns, verbs, concepts, etc. So in that way it’s more similar to written Chinese pictographic characters. How those characters correspond to spoken Chinese I don’t really understand though. So maybe I’m way off base with my comparison.

Maybe I should ask my son- he’s been teaching himself Mandarin, and he claims he can understand ‘80-90%’ of what a native Mandarin speaker is saying.

ASL is kind of a special case: There (mostly) isn’t a written form of ASL, and so ASL speakers have to resort to an entirely different language when they’re writing. It’s not that “written English is the written form of ASL”.

(there have been a few attempts to produce a written form of ASL, but none of them have really caught on)

If your son is studying literary (aka classical) Chinese, then, besides the grammar and vocabulary differences, it is pretty clear the modern pronunciation is not like it would have been once upon a time.

There was a similar issue with Greek, back when Ancient Greek was the only form of Greek taught in schools, and even later with the “katharevousa”, but as far as I know especially the latter has pretty much disappeared.

Classical vs vernacular is also an issue to some extent in Arabic and Hebrew.

I just wanted to state for the record that I know the proper usage of ‘its’ vs. ‘it’s’. Stupid spellcheck ‘fixed’ it for me and I missed the edit window.

True, ASL and English are not spoken vs written versions of the same language, which is what the OP is going for, so my example is incorrect.

So True. Written English is a reflection of English and not ASL. There is a signed version of English that ASL learners normally first learn and use called Signed Exact English (SEE). This type of signing is quite true to the particularities of spoken/written English as it is (normally) a word-to-word transliteration of English to signing-gesture.

ASL is an entirely different beast to English as it was formed (and used) in a different enviroment with users who need not be constrained by certain factors that linear spoken languages are constrained by (but do have other constraints).

For example syntax in spoken languages must adhere to a rigid structure based on it’s linearity (we speak/write one word at a time in long sentences thus the relationship of arguments are indicated by their exact word placement). Signed languages need not always be constrained by this linearity. One can sign:

1st step. “Boy” (in left space)
2nd step. “Girl” (in right space)
3rd step. “Kiss” (with the kiss-sign moving left-to-right or right-to-left depending on the subject/object)

Notice that in the above scenario one can communicate the same info/action if you signed “boy” first or “girl” first; what is important is that the verb at the end shows the correct relationship between the two actors.

It is better to imagine sign languages as “moving paintings”. You “paint” a picture in your sign-space (in front of you), then you add movement or actions to the “painting” showing relations between your “painted subjects/objects” and verbal changes. You also use facial expressions, repetition of hand movements, and sounds to indicate various other linguistic factors (like questions, or impartives, or gerunds, etc).

There is a type of syntax to ASL thou. For example it normally follows that one signs:

  1. [time]
  2. [topic] → a) [enviroment/scene] b) [actors] c) [action]
  3. [comments]

The above syntax is normally adhered to as it aids in clearity. 1. You set the scene. 2. You describe the actors/action. 3. You say your comment.

And during this session the signs used in ASL do not often have exact one-to-one English equivalencies. English equivalencies might exist in SEE (which again is basically an English transcription into signing) but are used sparringly in real ASL (which often uses a lot of jargon or “home-signs”).

Sign languages are their own languages, they aren’t representations of spoken language. ASL is not a dialect or representation of English. It’s just the sign language most common in America. There are signs for the Roman alphabet for spelling purposes, but that’s about as far as they overlap.

Jeez Louise, I already admitted I was wrong, why y’all gotta keep beating up on me like that? It’s like we aren’t even speaking the same language, or something.

Would you like it fixed? I don’t do it unless asked to.

I once “heard” a talk by a deaf linguist. (There was a 2-way translator; I wondered if she had grown up with deaf parents, it seemed so effortless, although probably wasn’t. I think @RivkahChaya can also do that.) Anyway, what I came away from the talk with was a realization how totally unlike English ASL was. And for him, learning to read and write English was learning a foreign language. Worse, the kinds of grammatical structures used were entirely different. We can communicate feelings with facial gestures, but they have no semantic content; in ASL they do.

Coming back to OP, the question seems unclear. Which differs the most from what? Obviously, spoken language changes faster and so differs the most from the language you first learned. Eventually it all gets sorted out. As one example, when I was in HS, contact used as a verb was a no-no. Now it is hard to see what the fuss was about.

ASL and English are two completely different languages. Even leaving aside that in one the words/phrases are gestures and the other they’re sounds, the two languages have VERY different grammar and syntax. ASL doesn’t really have a written form.

And… I see I was ninja’d.

I don’t know about Arabic, but when I was inquiring about learning Hebrew I discovered that “Biblical Hebrew” and “Modern Hebrew” have some very significant differences. But their written forms are similar and clearly related, and apparently work OK for either form of the language.

No thanks, its not worth bothering about (heehee, that was intentional)

Chinese is an old language and presumably some of the ways it interprets newer things is forced. I know enough Mandarin to know words like television or telephone. But there are many Chinese dialects and presumably the gap between writing and speaking is greater in some of them than it is in Mandarin which might be updated more often due to frequent use. I would guess some Arabic speaking countries may also have gaps.

This is correct! ASL uses English words, but it is not English, and it’s one reason why so many deaf people are functionally illiterate and their unemployment rate is higher than that of the able-bodied blind.

You mean like a calque? What English words?

ETA but, yes, pretty much any written version of a sign language is likely to be rather different to the original:


This gets at a question I’ve had for a while, but never asked. this seems as good a place as any for it.

Do deaf people have an easier time learning “pictographic” written languages than they do with “alphabetic” languages. (I am not a linguist, or anything even close, so I’ll try to explain below).

Seems to me that a language in which the written attempts to convey the sound of the spoken language would be very, very difficult for a non-hearing person to pick up, particularly if they have never had their sense of hearing. None of the symbols in this post represent an idea or an object; they (or a combination of them) represent a sound. When I read, “sound,” my brain recognizes the sounds of the “s” and the “ou” diphthong, and the “nd” combination, I “hear” the word in my head, and I recognize it for what it is. I would imagine that this is not at all helpful to a non-hearing person, and that when they learn an alphabetic language, they have to learn entire words as patterns of symbols; they can’t derive or guess the meaning of an unfamiliar word by “sounding it out.” That has to be incredibly difficult.

As I understand ideographic writing, each symbol represents a concept, or an idea, or a concrete thing, and that in some systems it is possible to guess at the meaning of an unfamiliar word based on the component ideograms. This would appear to me to be a much easier system for a non-hearing person to grok.

I assume that a hypothetical non-hearing person in the USA is best off learning written English, difficult as it may be, since it is the way to navigate American society. But, if they wanted to pick up another written language, would they best off with something like Mandarin where it is both an ideographic language and one that is widely used, such that they would have access to a large quantity of written materials?

Just curious.

Speaking only for myself, the ideogram-meaning connection didn’t take me very far. A certain character might mean “eye” explicitly by itself, but lose much (or all) of that meaning when combined with other characters or strokes. People end up learning that this character can have 2 to 8 different sound values, and that helps them recognize it in other words. This is actually more overhead if you are a person who can’t hear sound values and therefore can’t get someone else to teach you a word.

Think of a word like “vision”. You learn that the word fragment “vis” is related to seeing. How does this knowledge help you if you’ve never seen the words “video” or “visit” or “Vistula” or “Avis rent-a-car”? It really doesn’t. You just learn to spell those words. Similar to how it works in other language. Word roots are a marginal help, but most people never think of them again after leaving school.

Your concept might help if there existed a standard international code of ideograms that could serve as a representation of core ideas in most languages. It’s been proposed, people tend to propose standardizing Chinese since it’s already out there, but there’s little popular interest in bolting on another writing system to languages that are already working just fine for most people.