AEPL Presentation

The speech/writing dichotomy

What are the “idiosyncratic affordances” (Kress) or “potentialities” (Elbow) of speech and writing? We all have our lists, what Sterne calls the “audiovisual litany.” This is just a small bit of “the list.”

  • Speech is ephemeral/ Writing preserves language over space and time
  • Speech is subjective/ Writing is objective
  • Speech is temporal/ Writing is spatial
  • Speech is affect/ Writing is intellect


Challenging the dichotomy

Are speech and writing always what we think they are? Can speech be spatial? Chat speech be preserved over space and time? Consider a few examples that might alter your own audiovisual litany:

Phonautographs/ Phonograms

In the presentation that follows, Patrick Feaster talks about deriving sound from printed texts. Sounds to be looked at. Inscriptions that are preserved, carried across space and time.You can learn more about sound from print at and

Speech-to-Text/ Text-to-Speech

The dichotomy between speech and writing seems to collapse in the context of speech-to-text and text-to-speech technologies. Printed and spoken words merge into each other, both becoming objects that we can manipulate and observe.There are abundant examples of these text/speech technologies, but here are just a few to explore:

Selena Gomez uses a DynaVox on a late-night talk show. She has prepared written responses, but she is incorporating them into the context of a conversation. This is also a great example of temporarily-abled bodies (TAB), the reality that we all will likely encounter disability (temporary or permanent) in our own lives.

Roger Ebert’s TED talk about losing and remaking his voice. Ebert has written his speech, but uses Apple VoiceOver’s Alex voice and the voices of his wife and friends to “speak” his writing.

Blind and low vision computer users rely on text-to-speech technologies to read computer screens (which would otherwise to be blank or obscured). In this video, Neal Ewers demonstrates the use of a screenreader (note that the sound is much, much slower than the average screenreader user will employ; the speed of typical screenreader use is usually unintelligible to inexperienced users).

Non-speech sounds: auditory icons, earcons, spearcons

Writing is not only about transcribing speech. As Harris explores (and Elbow cites), writing was initially invented to keep records, to account, to inscribe information that couldn’t necessarily be captured in speech. Writing is letters but it is also punctuation, spacing, formatting and the like. How can sound capture these non-alphabetic elements of writing? You can explore these concepts in the Sonification Handbook (text and sound examples):

This is just a very small sampling of technologies that trouble speech/writing dichotomies. We need to challenge these dichotomies because they are based a normate/ ableist stance. Just because speech and writing work in certain familiar ways for most of us, doesn’t mean they work that in those ways for all of us.

What about the writers and readers who cannot hold a pen, who cannot see printed letters on a page, who cannot vocalize a word? Do speech and writing remain what they have been, what we have made them with that normate lens, or do we challenge them, remake them? Speech and writing are technologies. We can challenge them, change them, make them what they need to be to accommodate the unique abilities of anyone who wants to access them.

A final word, a story from my friend Ken. “I’m illiterate,” he says. But here’s what Kenny does on an average day: he creates power point files for presentations with organizations from a local college, maintains a Kenny is fully blind, with no light perception. He was blinded suddenly after a severe heart attack put him in a coma. Kenny spent his sighted life with a learning disability, and reads far more now than he did before he was blind. Why does he consider himself illiterate? Partly, he says that he is illiterate partly as a rhetorical device, to highlight the ways in which traditional forms of literacy don’t work for him, but he also says he’s illiterate because this is the dominant view of the blindness community which he’s from. Braille is considered “the only true form of literacy” for people who are blind. The National Federation of the Blind has declared loudly and publicly, “listening is not literacy.” That someone who reads and writes every day for a range of specific purposes considers himself (and is considered by others) to be “illiterate” screams that we need to change our definitions of literacy.

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