Dialect and literacy

Dialect and literacy: An examination of language. By Lucy Silver. Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2011. Pp. 309. ISBN 1439266867. $15.

Reviewed by Michael Cahill, SIL International

This book, self-published, is a potpourri, covering everything from language origins to all major branches of linguistics to dialects to a history of writing and current literacy, citing scholars from Piaget to Montessori to McLuhan. The larger purpose of the book is unclear, but one of its salient themes contrasts literacy and spoken language.

Fourteen chapters are grouped into four larger sections. The first (‘Communication, thought, imagery and language’) focuses on the relation of intelligence to language, explores basic subdisciplines of linguistics, and discusses first-language acquisition. The second section (‘Writing and civilization’) provides an interesting account of the history of writing, including a brief history of the English language, and also traces the development of the English alphabet.

The third section (‘The development of literacy’) makes the often-overlooked point that scripts of the world are often tied to religious systems, not language families. The author discusses educational systems throughout the centuries. Definitions of levels of literacy are useful, as well as statistics on the current state of education in the United States. The chapter on the history of American education, including the challenges of student diversity, leads naturally to discussion of the role of dialects in the classroom.

The following section (‘The oral connection’) examines African-American and Hispanic English (‘Spanglish’) speech in detail, stylistically, grammatically, and phonologically. The concluding chapter revisits social stratification and dialects, and raises the question of how electronic media (e.g. Twitter) are redefining literacy in terms of being closer to speech than previous written norms.

This book could be described as ambitious. It is difficult to find a book that covers so broad a range of topics in linguistics, theoretical and applied, but the book lacks focus. The author presents a lot of valuable information about language and literacy but does not connect this information systematically. One particularly positive point of this book is its many charts, some of them of the author’s own devising. These include pages of Greek and Latin roots and affixes which have descended into English, pages of Germanic and Latinate sources for modern English words, and charts of cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Mayan logograms, runes, and symbols used in many orthographies today.

The layman or undergraduate will find this book interesting and informative. However, the book contains a significant number of errors. In the first section, we find an uncritical acceptance of ‘ape language’, saying ‘our [ape] cousins can learn to use symbols at the level of a two-year-old human’ (17), an English phoneme chart (43) with at least three errors, and a listing of both /e/ and /ei/ as English phonemes (44, 65). Later, the author claims that only five percent of the world’s languages have ever been put in writing (87), refers to cuneiform as a language rather than a script (89), and claims that /i,u,a/ are common to all human languages (100). In spite of details such as these, the book is enjoyable to read.