The difficulty of learning to write and the evolution of language

Over at Babel’s Dawn, Edmund Blair Bolles discusses Stanley Fish’s new book How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. Bolles describes Fish as thinking that “composing sharp sentences does not come naturally” but rather requires practice “just as a child learning to play an instrument practices hour upon hour at playing scales.” (Note to self: Insert Amy Chua reference here.)

Bolles suggests that Fish’s argument on this point “is a direct challenge to the evolutionary view of language.” (The evolution of language, for those who aren’t familiar with Babel’s Dawn, is what the blog is all about).

Here’s Bolles:

How are we to reconcile [Fish’s view that good writing doesn’t come naturally] with the sort of common dogma that appears in, say, Tecumseh Fitch’s The Evolution of Language: “Each normal human being is born with a capacity to rapidly and unerringly acquire their mother tongue, with little explicit teaching or coaching” [2]?

We either have to say that Fish is wrong and that training in how to write sentences is the equivalent of being taught how to digest food, or that Fitch is, at a minimum, overstating his case.

This strikes me as a non sequitur, and I’m surprised to see Bolles saying it. As Bolles knows, writing and language are two different things. Indeed, he has noted that “[s]peech was already very old when writing was a new invention.” Acquiring language is a normal part of human development; unless something goes wrong, everyone acquires language—and without the benefit of explicit instruction and without any apparent effort on the part of the learner. Reading and writing are different. They typically have to be taught, and they are skills that many people never acquire.

Walter Ong discusses the difference between speech and writing in his book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word:

By contrast with natural, oral speech, writing is completely artificial. There is no way to write ‘naturally’. Oral speech is fully natural to human beings in the sense that every human being in every culture who is not physiologically or psychologically impaired learns to talk. Talk implements conscious life but it wells up into consciousness out of unconscious depths, though of course with the conscious as well as unconscious co-operation of society. Grammar rules live in the unconscious in the sense that you can know how to use the rules and even how to set up new rules without being able to state what they are.

Writing or script differs as such from speech in that it does not inevitably well up out of the unconscious. The process of putting spoken language into writing is governed by consciously contrived, articulable rules: for example, a certain pictogram will stand for a certain specific word, or a will represent a certain phoneme, b another, and so on.

So I don’t understand how the difficulty of learning to write well is relevant to the investigation of how language evolved. And I’m especially puzzled given that Bolles’s his views about how language evolved would seem to incline him toward seeing writing as something very different from speaking.

Bolles thinks that the key to language evolving was the development of the ability for two or more individuals to jointly focus their attention on the same thing. And he sees the function of language as the directing of attention. (His posts on this topic are collected here.) When that ability arose (50,000- 100,000 years ago?), the focusing of joint attention could only take place in real time, between individuals who were physically together in the same place. But that changed when writing came along. You’re not with me as I write this, and I’m not with you as you read it. And you’re reading this days, weeks, or months after I wrote it.  The relationship among speaker, listener, and speech event  is entirely different than that between writer, reader, and writing event.

So as I’ve said, I’m at a loss to understand where Bolles is coming from.

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