Reading and the Spoken Language
The Spoken Word: The Base For Writing and Reading
Consciously or unconsciously, we recognize that language has rules and infer those rules. We learn rules of sentence structure, such as how to use pronouns to replace noun phrases or the order of adjectives before a noun.
Reading and the Spoken LanguageThe language we learned first, the spoken language, remains our base throughout life. We use the model of spoken communication as the basis for much of our inferences when we read.
As readers, we imagine the written language to be a transcription of speech. We draw on this model when we imagine ourselves talking to someone as we write, or when we talk about what an author “has to say” in an article. When we run into trouble reading, we sound out words and read sentences aloud. When discussing the spoken word, we refer to a speaker's tone of voice. Is he or she angry? Ironic? Or perhaps serious? If the language is jarring, we say the tone is harsh. In doing so, we infer emotions on the part of the author.
Ultimately, the underlying reason for relying on speech as a model for writing may actually lie in the nature of human understanding.
The core of psychological understanding revolves around the notion of motive—desire, want, wish, reason. We understand an action when we know what motivated it. The motives for action are usually clear, since action itself usually indicates the motive that prompts it. Why am I paying money to the cashier in a supermarket? So that I can buy food and eventually eat it. We generally act in order to fulfill our manifest wishes. Sometimes the motives for action can be obscure, as when you see me searching frantically in a drawer and don't know that I left a lot of money in there and now can't find it. Motives are internal mental states that cause action and that make sense of actions; action is seen as rational in the light of motives that lead to it. We apply this reasoning to both the motivation for the ideas of a text as well as to the author's motive for writing that text.
Readers, just as listeners, infer intent, motive, purpose, tone, mood, and
point of view as a way of making sense of a text. We claim to understand a
text when we can identify a clear purpose and intent. We think beyond the
words of the text to what might make sense in terms of a communication between
specific people in a specific situation.
What Did the Author Really Mean?Viewing texts within the model of spoken language is a useful technique, but it is not without its dangers. On the face of it, the author of a text is a figment of the reader's imagination, a mental image constructed from prior knowledge of the real-life author (accurate or not) and the remarks on the page.
Questions about the real author and his or her purpose in writing a particular text can be answered only by talking with the living author. Racists can write non-racist texts and vice versa. Even then we cannot be entirely sure what an author truly intended. An author might not be forthcoming about his or her purpose. And whatever the author's intentions, he or she may not have successfully communicated that intended meaning within the text.
When we ask what an author meant, our reference to “the author” is really a metaphor for the text: what might the text mean? Inferring an author can be a useful tool for making sense of remarks within a text, but we must not make the jump from analysis of evidence within the text to speculation about a person who is not present. While we cannot know what an author intended, we can try to figure out what meaning makes the most sense given all we know from the evidence of the text, about the author and the situation at the time, and the social context.
Readers must exert the same caution when discussing the audience of a text as they do when discussing the author. Readers may infer an audience to whom they imagine a text might appeal. As with the notion of the author above, the notion of an audience for a text is essentially a tool for describing and explaining features of a text. It may or may not actually indicate people for whom the text might have been intended.
Learning to Read and Write