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Review of  Writing and Society

Reviewer: Mirjam Weder
Book Title: Writing and Society
Book Author: Florian Coulmas
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.4279

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Writing and Society” is dedicated to an investigation of the social dimension of writing and written language. Here, Coulmas takes as his starting point the following premise: “If we want to understand the social functions of language, both speech and writing must be taken into consideration, as well as the multifaceted interplay of the two.“ (ix) This requires, argues Coulmas, an overhaul of the conventional idea that linguistics or rather sociolinguistics should deal primarily with spoken language as the natural innate language, since the written language represents a secondary system, i.e. one derived from the spoken language system. Written language is, therefore, subordinate in sociolinguistic terms. Coulmas pursues the hypothesis that written language represents an autonomous system that, in today’s world, pervades the communicative household of most cultures to such an extent that a life without writing is barely conceivable.The question is then whether written language should not also be the subject of sociolinguistic investigations, given that the influence of written language is so extensive from both a social as well as a linguistic perspective that it is no longer possible to treat spoken and written language separately. We should rather investigate from a sociolinguistic perspective the ‘division of labour’ between spoken and written language, as well as the influence of written language on language, society, the economy and politics.

Coulmas defines the focus of his introductory volume in the following modest manner: “In this little book I have recorded my observations and thoughts about the role written language and writing play in society.“ (ix) The aim is, in the tradition of ‘New Literacy Studies’ (Gee 1990) “to contribute to clarifying the social significance of writing and its complex relationships with social structure, linguistic varieties (codes), norms, attitudes, education and institutions that predicated on written language“ (17). He sets out his observations in seven chapters, which deal with the various aspects of writing as sociolinguistic phenomena and which are illustrated with numerous examples drawn from both modern and historical writing communities across the globe. Each chapter concludes with 3-4 ‘Questions for discussion’. At the end of the first chapter, he gives definitions of certain key terms (17) that are important for a full understanding of the subject area. Since this is an introductory work, Coulmas is consistent in not developing any new theories or concepts. Some topics can be found dealt with in greater or lesser detail in other books by Coulmas. In some cases, entire passages from previous essays by Coulmas are integrated (in chapters 2, 4, 5 and 6). This is made transparent in a preface chapter entitled ‘Acknowledgements’.

In Chapter 1 (‘The tyranny of writing and the dominance of vernacular speech’) Coulmas lays the theoretical foundation for the sociolinguistic investigation of writing and the written language; and, for this reason, this chapter will be presented in somewhat greater detail.
First, Coulmas pursues the question of why written language in 20th century linguistics has been something of a wallflower. He traces this back to the influential theories of de Saussure and Bloomfield. In reviewing their arguments, he comes to the conclusion that the influence of written language today on (spoken) language is so considerable that disregarding writing and literality in sociolinguistic investigations would mean that many significant characteristics of language would be excluded, e.g. “the writing systems, the effect of written norms, writing-mediated language contact, and language attitudes“ (7). Indeed, the best evidence for this, according to Coulmas, is actually provided by linguistics and linguists themselves: they necessarily rely on writing (i.e. the international phonetic alphabet, IPA) for their investigations of spoken language in order to record ephemeral speech in a visual and permanent format for investigations (6).

In the second part of the first chapter, he further introduces writing as an independent social practice, one which is not dependent on spoken language but rather represents a component of “society’s communicative apparatus” (10) and as a “prestige language” (11) is to be regarded as cultural capital as understood by Bourdieu (1991). According to Coulmas, parallels can be seen between Bernstein’s ‘elaborated code’ (Bernstein 1966) and literal practices (14), since writing places different demands on language than face-to-face communication, which can be more closely associated with the ‘restricted code’. Coulmas concludes the chapter with the observation that the development of writing has expanded the communicative possibilities of societies and, subsequently, also of individuals: “... literate societies and individuals have a greater range of codes to choose from; and choose they must. Every communicative act requires a number of decisions to make it suitable to the purpose at hand, including the choice of medium and code. On a macro level, the society makes choices which have a formative bearing on the choices made by individuals as they grow into that society.” (17). This statement defines the field of enquiry for the sociolinguistic investigation of writing and written language, since the existence of communicative choices lies at the heart of sociolinguistic theories.

Chapter 2 (‘The past in the present and the seeds of the public sphere’) is dedicated to the connections between writing and the public sphere. Coulmas discusses these interconnections exclusively on the basis of inscriptions on ancient landmarks from early writing communities (i.e. the Code of Hammurabi, the Rosetta Stone, the Behistum inscription, Menetekel, the Taj Mahal). He refers here to the new concept of ‘Linguistic Landscaping’ (Landry and Bourhis 1997) and sees the development of writing as connected to early forms of urbanisation. The landmarks and inscriptions described represent a type of publicly perceptible writing, which exercises social and political functions and, at the same time, opens up new communicative possibilities that allow an anonymous audience to be addressed. Consequently, these inscriptions are to be understood as precursors of the public sphere as understood by Habermas (1962).

In Chapter 3 (‘Written and unwritten language’) Coulmas probes the differences between spoken and written language. First, he poses the question of the division of labour between the two codes. For the purposes of this analysis, he proposes a matrix that differentiates between resources (intellectual, cultural, emotional-symbolic, social and economic) and reference groups (world, nation, ethnicity, organisation, family, individual) (40). A national standard language such as French proves to be fully functional in this matrix and is, therefore, dominant from a social perspective. By contrast, most dialects can only fulfil a narrow spectrum of functions and are, subsequently, regarded as minority varieties. Furthermore, the chapter addresses the question of how the mass literacy of a society might be conceived of as both reduction (writing is not able to express all the characteristics of spoken language, e.g. intonation) and expansion (writing opens up new communicative possibilities). Mass literacy for a society and the associated development of a standard variety leads, in the opinion of Coulmas, to a de-valuing of dialects and less widely used language varieties. It is within this context that he positions the concept of diglossia.

The focus of Chapter 4 (‘Literacy and inequality’) is on the effects of mass literacy within modern societies in terms of power, of social participation, and of social and economic resources. The ability to read and write is closely connected with social and economic success. Coulmas deems the institution that teaches literacy to be key: “What institutions provide literacy to whom, to what end, and at what cost?“ (62) Whilst teaching literacy was formerly the role of the church and monasteries, today the task falls to schools, who do not manage -- in spite of a universal educational mandate -- “to eradicate economic and social inequalities“ (62). Coulmas discusses these interconnections between mass literacy and social stratification, race, gender and ethnicity. Mass literacy, as Coulmas concludes in this chapter, has two facets: on the one hand, it should advance social participation and equal opportunities; on the other hand, it functions as an indictor of social differentiation and thus creates new inequalities (79).

Chapter 5 (‘The society of letters’) reprises and extends a discussion begun in the previous chapter on the institutions that have a particular affinity with written language. On the basis of three institutions, i.e. government, religion and school, Coulmas probes how these institutions avail themselves of more specialised, often very conservative and not easily accessible literal practices in order to legitimize and to preserve themselves as institutions. This leads to communication based on a division of labour between institution and individual which often requires a mediator.

In Chapter 6 (‘Writing reform’) Coulmas proceeds from the idea that literality must be considered a public good. This can be seen particularly clearly when there are attempts to reform the writing or spelling system within a writing community. A range of reform efforts are presented from linguistic, social, political and economic perspectives in a variety of countries (e.g. Korea, China, Japan, USA, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Vietnam, Germany). In spite of the significant cultural differences, Coulmas believes that it is possible to observe commonalities: e.g. the fact that spoken language is continually changing whereas written language preserves old language forms. This leads to a divergence between the two codes or to a situation in which written language can easily be deployed as an artefact for symbolic manipulation. Reforms can be seen to have a predominantly instrumental and symbolic function.

The final chapter (‘Writing and literacy in the digitalized world’) discusses the changes in communicative practices with the rise of computer mediated communication (CMC), and their impact on language and culture. New types of register, stylistic variations and literal practices are presented only briefly; the focus of the chapter is on the question of the democratising potential of the new medium, which transforms the public sphere to an interactive space for the purpose of political debate.


To bring together two research traditions, which had until then seldom been considered jointly, is a considerable challenge as it barely possible to do justice to both areas. And, indeed, the strengths of the book lie not in a comprehensive theoretical account of sociolinguistic methods or of theories of writing typology-- this would also not be in keeping with the character of an introductory work. The persuasiveness of this book is that it manages to present a plausible case not merely that it might be beneficial to consider writing and written language from a sociolinguistic perspective, but rather that it would be akin to wanton neglect to ignore this perspective. However, the success of this endeavour is due primarily to the way in which Coulmas illustrates his hypotheses with numerous examples from a variety of language cultures and epochs -- which makes for highly inspiring reading. One particularly positive aspect is that so many examples from different writing communities are drawn upon as to avoid the trap of a Western-centred account, although perhaps one or other of the chapters do not quite fully meet this requirement, e.g. Chapter 5.

Not quite as persuasive is the weighting of the individual topics. It was conspicuous, for example, how much space is given over to the historical discussion of inscriptions from ancient times (20 pages in Chapter 2) in comparison with the space allowed for a discussion of school as an institution (3.5 pages in Chapter 5); furthermore the chapter on school in fact repeats much that is contained in the sub-chapter on ‘Diglossia’ (Chapter 3). However, the issue of education also has a role in other chapters, for example in the chapter about literacy and inequality. And still this imbalance is problematic when you consider the significance of school as a place of writing instruction and of socialisation. Here, there is a critical need for a more in-depth and detailed examination. There are, for example, convincing studies within the framework of New Literacy Studies (Heath 1983; Janks 2009: 132) that have demonstrated that dominant literal practices of children from educated families are more highly prized at school, and, consequently, prove to be barriers for children from non-educated backgrounds in their school career. In short, an extra chapter dedicated to writing socialisation would have been desirable to afford school appropriate consideration.

Finally, the question remains as to whether this book is suitable for use as a textbook. This question must be answered with both a “yes” and a “no”. Certainly, “Writing and Society” is not a book for first-year students, rather for those who already have a certain degree of linguistic knowledge. Only these will be able to follow Coulmas’ argumentation to the fullest extent. However, the clear theses and rich illustrative material should provide a solid basis for lively seminar debates and should also prompt a desire to further pursue the topic -- a fitting qualification for an introductory work.


Bernstein, Basil. 1966. Elaborated and Restricted Codes: An Outline. Social Inquiry 36,254-61.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power, trans. G. Raymond and M. Adamson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gee, James P. 1990. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. Critical Perspectives on Literacy and Education. London: Falmer Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1962. Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit. Untersuchungen zu einer Kategorie der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.

Heath, Shirley B. 1983. Ways with words: Language, life and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Janks, Hilary 2009. Writing: A Critical Literacy Perspective. In: Roger Beard, Debra Myhill, Jeni Riley & Martin Nystrand (eds.): The SAGE Handbook of Writing Development. London: Sage Publications Ltd. 126-136.

Landry, Rodrigue & Richard Y. Bourhis. 1997. Linguistic Landscape and Ethnolinguistic Vitality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 16(1), 23-49.
Mirjam Weder is a lecturer for German Linguistics at the University of Basel, Switzerland. Her research interests include writing and spelling as cognitive processes and social practices, as well as language routines and collocations.

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