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I've been reading Language and the Internet by David Crystal(1), which has been a fairly informative experience overall. I wanted to basically copy down some characteristics of written versus spoken language that he identifies. His central thesis in this section of the book is that computer-mediated communication blends these two modes to a large extent. The following is pretty much verbatim from his book, pages 26-28

  • Speech is time bound, dynamic and transient. It is part of an interaction in which both participants are usually present, and the speaker has a particular addressee(s) in mind.
  • Writing is space-bound, static and permanent. It is the result of a situation in which the writer is usually distant from the reader and often does not know who the reader is.

  • In speech, there is not a specific lag between production and reception, barring recording of course. Most speech moves so quickly and spontaneously that it is difficult to engage in complex advance planning. The pressure to think while talking promotes looser construction, repretition, rephrasing and comments clauses. Intonation and pauses divide long utterances up into chunks, but sentence boundaries are often unclear.
  • In writing, there is always a time-lag between production and reception. Writers must anticipate effects of this lag, as well as the effects of writing to a potentially diverse audience. Writing allows for repeat readings and close analysis, and promotes the development of careful organization and compact expression, with often intricate sentence structure. Units of discourse are usually easy to identify through punctuation and layout.

  • (Speech) Because participants are typically in face-to-face interaction, they can rely on such extralinguistic cues as facial expressions and gesture to aid meaning (and provide feedback). In fact, the ability to hide those cues is a fairly rare skill, as most poker players will tell you. The lexicon of speech is often characteristically vague, using words which refer directly to the situation. (This one, or that one).
  • (Writing) Lack of visual contact means that participants cannot rely on context to make their meanings clear; nor is there any immediate feedback. Most writing tends to avoid deictic expressions, which are likely to be ambiguous.

  • (Speech) Many words and constructions are characteristic of (especially informal) speech, such as contractions. Length co-ordinate sentences are normal, and are often of considerable complexity. People are more likely to use nonsense vocabulary, profanity and slang in speaking than in writing.
  • (Writing) Some words and constructions are characteristic of writing, such as multiple instances of subordination in the same sentence, elaborately balanced synctactic patterns, and the long sentences found in some legal documents. Certain items of vocabularly are more likely to appear in writing than in speech, especially longer terms.

  • Speech is very suited to social or 'phatic' functions, such as passing the time day, or any situation where casual and unplanned discourse is desirable. It is also good at expressing social relationships, and personal opinions and attitudes, due to a range of nuances which can be expressed by the prosody and accompanying nonverbal features.
  • Writing is suited to the recording of facts and the communication of ideas, and to tasks of memory and learning. Written records are easier to keep and scan, tables demonstrate relationships between things, notes and lists provide mnemonic and text can be read at speeds which suit a person's ability to learn.

  • (Speech) There is an opportunity to rethink an utterance while the other person is listening (starting again, adding a qualification). However, errors once spoken cannot be withdrawn; the speaker must live with the consequences. Interruptions and overlapping speech are normal and highly audible.
  • (Writing) Errors are other perceived inadequacies in writing are often reduced through drafts without the reader being aware they ever existed. Multiple authors can also be involved with a final draft, where only one person is responsible for a spoken utterance.

  • Unique features of speech include most of the prosody. They many nuances of intonation, as well as contrasts of loudness, tempo, rhythm, pause and other tones of down cannot be written down with much efficiency. Crystal doesn't explicitly say it, but other clues hear would be the identity of speakers cues, as in race of speaker, gender, age and so forth that all provide context for utterances.
  • Unique features of writing include pages, lines, capitalization, spatial organization and aspects of punctuation. Severy written genres, such as tables, cannot be read aloud meaningfully.

It's pretty easy to find traditional examples of both forms on the Web, since a lot of the content of the Internet is transcribed from other formats. What's interesting is this genre of communication that's been going on for a good bit of time now that is mixed-modal, blending elements of written and spoken language. The genres most affected by the mixed modality seem to include email, instant messaging and posts in newsgroup type spaces. This is obviously not a complete set, since MUDs and MMORPGs also fall under this rubric.

Still, there are an interesting mix of constraints that inhabit online communication. Where overlapping speech in f2f is usually seamless and productive, even in quick online chats it becomes quickly confusing. Messages cannot really overlap, since they are sent one at a time, no matter how quickly. Feedback is delayed, and typing is slower than speaking for all but a very small percentage of users. It might be helpful, or simply divergent, to consider the origins of speech and writing as tools. We tend to think of them as the same thing in different media, but really they were developed for very different reasons, as I understand the history at least. Speech was used for small group coordination, getting hunting parties to all create a shared understanding of an immediate experience. Probably not just hunting parties, but definitely mostly in small groups. Even when verbal language crossed groups, it was often through weak ties between groups rather than the conglomeration of larger groups.

Writing was developed to deal with scale. Coinciding with the development of cities, writing was used to tally supplies, and coordinate massive, removed bodies of people. This seems to lead to some of the differences that Crystal talks about, and at root is that these methods of communication are very much different in their purpose.

The question remaining is whether CMC is a mix of these two previous modalities, or a whole new form that we don't yet understand well. Since we use the tools of a previous method (i.e. alphabet), it seems like a derivation, or a subset of writing. However, the ability to architect environments for genres of communication indicate that internet communication may secede from the writing union and take on it's own form. I need to think more on this...

(1) http://www.davidcrystal.com/