Among mankind’s greatest inventions, few are as useful, ubiquitous, and unifying as language. Few inventions, too, exist in two spheres, seamlessly interlocking to serve a common purpose. Indeed, the twin pillars of language – the spoken tongue and written word – are often used in tandem as vessels for human ideas. While the twin pillars of language are seldom divorced, I believe that, on the balance, the written word is more important than the spoken word, for it is more indispensable, matters more to us, and is more beneficial.
Humans speak and write out of a desire for self-expression, to share our thoughts with the external world. The importance of the spoken language vis-a-vis the written word, hence, can be gauged by how indispensable they are in serving this critical function of communication. The spoken language, to many ancient civilisations, formed the bedrock of their oral tradition of cultural transmission. The foundations of their culture and traditions were mostly transmitted to posterior generations verbally, through stories, plays, and songs. Just as these ancient civilisations fed themselves with a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, their cultural sustenance sprang from a mouth-to-ear tradition. The spoken language had the effect of not only communicating ideas, but also of entertaining and engaging the audience concomitantly. The dramatic lines of dialogue uttered by actors; the euphonic lyrics of folk songs; the carefully constructed tales crafted by masterful storytellers all enthralled their audience, soaring beyond mere tools of communication. These works of performance art played a crucial role in capturing society’s interest in their cultural lore, ensuring its continuity.
In comparison, however, the written word played an even more significant role in preserving these cultural and traditional artefacts. The oral tradition placed the weight of history upon the shoulders of a few storytellers, playwrights and songwriters, relying on them to continuously tell the stories of the past. With the emergence of the written word, this rather cumbersome need was obviated by introducing a new system of storing and preserving information. We know about the culture and traditions of the Mayan civilisation, for instance, not because a wizened, Mayan storyteller whispered them in our ears, but instead because their cultural practices were recorded with the written word, allowing people to access them centuries later. The spoken language is often lost in the folds of time and space, while the written word, if properly preserved, can immortalise our thoughts and ideas without any distortion. Moreover, the written word, especially in today’s internet age, can easily reach out to an audience far wider than the people within our earshot. Hence, the written word, as an efficient and powerful tool for self-expression, is more important than the spoken language.
Yet another measure of importance is how much the spoken language or written word matters to us. The spoken language is often taken as sign of sincerity, whether between individuals or governments. To individuals, conversing verbally allows one to gauge other’s emotions and responses in real time, making our conversation more heartfelt and less prone to miscommunication. Additionally, speaking allows for a more nuanced mode of communication; the interplay between our words, our inflection and body language allows us to be more expressive, establishing intimacy with our audience. To governments, participating in talks and conferences are a crucial diplomatic tool, widely seen as a expression of commitment to build friendly relations with other countries. At the recent international peace talks at the United Nations, the invitation for Iran to participate raised eyebrows across the world, and many nations questioned this decision, with the Syrian Opposition even threatening to withdraw from the talks.
The spoken language may be cherished for the sincerity and respect it represents, but the written word still carries more gravitas and commands more weight. Individuals working together often view the written word as a serious and formal mode of communication, particularly for documenting important information. In many workplaces, after copious conversations during meetings or conference calls, it is de rigueur to craft ‘meeting minutes’, recording the discussion that has just transpired. Clearly, we still place greater trust in the ‘black and white’ of the written word. Governments also rely on the written word to enforce laws and contracts. No amount of talks and discussions, no matter how impassioned or sincere, can achieve real change without being drafted into law or written in formal contracts. After the Sandy Hook shooting, President Obama spoke at great lengths about the need for tighter gun control, but little has changed since then, as his words came against the immovable force of the US constitution. Hence, the written word still matters more to people and governments, and is more important than the spoken language.
Finally, we should measure the benefit provided by the spoken language and written word. With unflaggingly high illiteracy rates in developing countries, the written word remains as an unaccessible realm for many impoverished people in need of quality education. The written word remains tied to prestige and power, out of reach to the 774 million illiterate adults globally, as estimated by UNESCO. The spoken language, thus, seems to be more beneficial mode of communication and education simply by virtue of the fact that it can understood by more people.
However, the quality of education provided by the spoken language is greatly dependent on the competence of the teacher. In many developing countries, teachers are in short demand, and the few teachers available often lack the ability to teach at advanced levels. Hence, relying on the spoken language to educate those in the developing world would hardly seem like a viable option. To those with basic levels of literacy, the written word is a more effective way of expanding one’s horizons. The world we see – or hear – from the spoken language is limited by the people we interact with. There is no limit to the world we can explore by reading books, as each book opens a dimension to the thoughts of the author, allowing us to peer at societies vastly different from ours at the touch of our fingers. Underfunded schools may not be able to hire Nobel laureates to teach and inspire their students, but providing students with the books written by those Nobel laureates would be a significant step towards helping students access the minds of great thinkers. Hence, the written word is certainly a highly beneficial tool for education and for the transmission of great ideas.
Each day, thousands of words escape our lips as our minds dances fleetingly from thought to thought. Amidst this state of flux, perhaps the greatest invention man has made – the invention upon which countless other inventions can be developed – is to develop a system that gives eternal form to our amorphous, abstract ideas. Ludwig Wittgenstein once famously proclaimed that ‘the limits of my language means the limit of my world’. The written word, which transcends time and geography, truly has the power to blow away the limits of our world, making us more efficient communicators and better learners.