The Grapholect

“Total and sudden transformations of a language seldom happen; conquests and migrations are now very rare: but there are other causes of change, which, though slow in their operation, and invisible in their progress, are perhaps as much superiour to human resistance, as the revolutions of the sky, or intumescence of the tide.”
Samuel Johnson, Preface to the Dictionary (1755)

Grammar – Archimboldo

Grammar – Archimboldo

In the great dispute between grammar and usage, no one is right. Dialects are not ungrammatical, yet there clearly is such a thing as ‘correct usage’, hard though it may be to define and, sometimes, to defend.

There is, however, a possible compromise, in the form of the grapholect. A grapholect is a language that is detached from any particular dialect. Standard English arose from the dialect of English current in south Mercia and Wessex and known to us as East Midland dialect, just as Standard Italian arose in Tuscany. These geographical origins, however, are rapidly left behind, and the standard form becomes the language of power, academia, the law, and so on.

The grapholect is rooted in writing and the written language (for all that it can be pronounced: received standard pronunciation is another matter), while dialects are rooted in orality. This does not render dialects ungrammatical (any language must by definition be structured). Nor is it to disparage the expressive power of a dialect.

However, while an oral exchange between two speakers of, say, Jamaican patois is perfectly intelligible to those involved, it must take place with reference to a particular context, in a given time and space; it is locked not only to its culture but to the precise coordinates in which the exchange takes place.

The grapholect, by contrast, floats free of specific contexts, and in the end has a range and power no spoken dialect can ever match. The grapholect can analyse dialects, but the reverse is not true. Grapholects have all the resources of the dictionary and the history of cultures at their disposal; their parts are carefully, precisely articulated. Dialects are rooted in the here-and-now.

And while both change, the grapholect changes more slowly. New forms appear in the dialects we speak all the time; they are subsumed only slowly by the grapholect.

It remains true that the grapholect is an object of power (and dialect, frequently, a form of resistance to that power) and a bastion of elites. They are also, however, a demonstration of language at its greatest range and power, far exceeding the reach of any one practitioner.

The question remains, of course, whether we teach our students dialect or grapholect. But perhaps that is a post for another day.

The grapholect is a concept developed by American linguist Einar Haugen