When you read, for example right now, you will probably have a kind of feint voice going on in the back of your mind. Perhaps this seems like a dubious concept. It kind of should. There's no actual noise coming off the black squiggly things you're looking at right now. So maybe we need to explore this idea. Let's consider the following:
You may have noticed that those words rhyme. That's extremely weird. What does that mean - they "rhyme". It means that the sounds at the ends of these words are the same. But why do you think about this when you're reading? You're looking at squiggly marks. You aren't hearing sounds. These words seem to not just indicate meaning; they very specifically indicate sound to you (unless, perhaps, if you're deaf). And in a very immediate way. The shapes of writing on its own don't have quite the same echoic effect:
These words don't have the same effect for you as the ones further above. It may even be that the fact they look similar makes them more difficult to read well.
Because you can speak English, you will also get a sense of rhythm from the words that you're reading - even though this does not stem visually from the squiggle in front of you:
- clear dream states fly straight green stones
- Georgie Porgie pudding and pie
The lines above will have a very different rhythmic effect, even though you're reading. And in order to get the rhythm from those lines you need to internally translate them into sound.
Now as it turns out, this does not seem to be an entirely illusory phenomenon. When you read you may physically have increased activity in the auditory cortex - that part of your temporal lobe that processes auditory information. In addition, when silently reading you will be making very small involuntary movements of the muscles associated with speaking (known as subvocalisations).
What does this all show in relation to the current question? Well, it would seem to show that the written word involves the encoding and decoding in some sense of speech, or sound over time. In other words we are translating, to a certain extent, squiggles into the sounds and articulations that we use to communicate with the spoken word.
It may also be pertinent to think at this point about the way that we learn language. All healthy people without some health condition can speak language. The same is not true for written language at all. We learn to speak without any direct tuition, but we need some form of tuition, however minimal, to master the written word. We also need to know some form of language before we are able to start reading. Written language is the encoding of another dynamic language system.
So then, the fact is that is that we psychologically translate written language into spoken language. Although written language has an effect on spoken language, spoken language is more pervasive, more universal. It is in many ways more primary, more biological, more primordial than written language.
Does this mean that spoken language is superior to written language? I don't even know what that means. Writing, of course, has had an enormous impact on human history and culture and our ability to communicate across time and space. Understanding written language is hugely important to understanding human beings and human history, civilisation and culture.
However, I think that what the linguists Brian is citing are angling at is that spoken language is more biologically, cognitively, humanly primordial. It is what we have to psychologically translate writing into to understand it. Spoken language also has a greater impact on diachronic change in written language than the other way round.