Birchbark Documents Against the Background of the Ontogeny of Written Language

Ekaterina Schnittke, University of California, Los Angeles

A cursory comparison of early birchbark letters and letters written by modern-day children reveals numerous similarities ranging from the appearance of the texts and typical mechanical mistakes to specific aspects of the epistolary genre such as address and coda formulas. The proposed study investigates these palpable similarities along with those that require a more sophisticated linguistic analysis of syntactic and discourse structures. The paper starts by examining the non-structural phenomena which include (i) page layout characterized by block letters; (ii) the manner of punctuation; (iii) typical mechanical mistakes, such as omissions and reduplication of linguistic items, reverse writing of letters, etc. I proceed with comparing the textual organization of birchbark documents and children's letters, paying special attention to opening and closing formulae.

After this I focus on the possible ways of evaluating syntactic complexity of the texts being examined. In doing so I draw on the latest research in writing development. Finally, I address the issues of discourse structure. Research in writing development has maintained a certain order in the employing of different types of cohesion by children of different age categories. I am going to examine what types of cohesion are typical for birchbark letters.

An attempt is made to explain the similarities between the two text varieties by claiming a typological parallelism between the ontogenetic processes of literacy acquisition and the development of written language in the historical perspective. To avoid a simplistic view of such a parallelism, the paper will discuss the functional and cognitive differences between writing practices and strategies used by incipient adult writers and children. Acknowledging the similarities between the processes of literacy acquisition by different subject categories and identifying patterns can provide an indispensable tool for our understanding of the pragmatics of texts from the remote past.