Don’t underestimate orthography

One of my favourite blogs is Nìall Beag’s Lingua Frankly. Despite the fact that it sometimes painfully reminds me of some of the weirdnesses in my approach to languages.

The latest posts primarily deal with something else, but one of the presumptions they are based on is that speech is by far the main means of communication and writing is only here to represent it. So that it’s the way words are spoken that influences our perception.

I naturally accept that historically speech came first and that everybody encounters spoken word before written one. Nevertheless, for many years now I have been spending at least as much time by reading/writing as by listening/speaking. And I’m sure I think in orthography about as much as in phonology.

Apparently, Nìall always “hears” the words first and only then “sees” them. Thus in one of those blogs he typed “right” when meaning “write”, and even copypasted that passage into a later post. I don’t think I would do this kind of mistake. On the contrary, the other day I was listening to a guy who said “encapsulate” and for me it was just a meaningless string of some unrecognized sounds within the sentence – until, after a split second, my subconscious made my mind “see” the word written. Upon which it immediately made sense.

Another example is forenames. The extent to which I do or do not like a particular name is more related to how likeable it looks than to how likeable it sounds. For me, Teàrlaidh is about as nice as Tòmaidh but definitely preferable to Charlie, never mind that pronounced it’s much closer to the latter. Or that character from one fantasy book called Ringil. A nice name no matter whether I think about it as of /rɪŋgɪl/ or as of /rɪndʒɪl/. I would like neither Ringyll nor Rinjil half as much.

Perhaps this is one of the things that make me fairly good at spotting typos. And yes, I could give you real-life examples illustrating my point even in my first language.

I don’t mean to say that I’m never influenced by a word’s pronunciation more than by its transcription. Sometimes it’s the one that prevails, sometimes the other. And to a lesser extent this must work for many others too. Else why would they have begun pronouncing the “t” in “often”, the “l” in “falcon” and so on?



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