Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Speech passes, print endures

Our distinguished ancestors, the Romans, once put into writing their thoughts about writing:
Verba volant, scripta manent.
In rough translation from Latin, this means: spoken words are here now, gone forever, written words are here now, and forever. An alternative translation gives something like the title of this post.

The Romans wrote this to perpetuate not just a statement that they deemed worth perpetuating, but also their persuasion that written language topped other language modes: things set in print (or in stone, in a variant of the same persuasion) thereby acquire an aura of authority. The assumption, I presume, is that no one would otherwise take the trouble to set them in this way.

I don’t know how their reasoning would work out nowadays, because the Romans had no access to sound and video recorders, on the one hand, or to email, the internet and social networking, on the other. The former preserve language in ways whose accuracy is quite distinct from printed accuracy, a point to which I’ll come back in future. The latter encompass printed forms of language whose raison d’ĂȘtre is not necessarily to endure. And I don’t want to even think about how the Romans would have encrypted their cybermessages by means of their Roman numerals. Maybe that’s what prevented them from inventing the internet. If, by the way, you’re interested in Latin as a living language, check out Nuntii Latini, a news service based in Finland that has broadcast news in Latin since September 1989.

In any case, like with the Ancient Greeks before them, we also seem to have learned this ancestral lesson well. Many of us are still persuaded that printed language means “the” language, and that speech should therefore match print. It would certainly be fun to hear people say things like Dear Sir or Madam and Yours sincerely to each other, or pronounce the print in night, through-threw or bread-bead-beard. Not so long ago, one of my students told me that the word blog is bad English because it’s not in “the dictionary”, a copy of which he waved in class to make his point. I forgot to ask which “the” he meant, I confess, but I was interested in his need for imprinted evidence of “the” language. And speaking of teaching, the reason why so many lecturers consistently send their audiences to sleep might also have to do with idiosyncratic interpretations: the (Latin) word lectura means ‘a reading’, that is, speaking according to something that was printed beforehand.

In communities where the use of printed language is widespread, its prestige accompanies it. Literacy, the exploration of its mysteries, expectedly takes a prominent role in schooling. I suppose I am not alone in having been told, when I first faced alphabets and alphabetisation in school, that letters (in the case of my languages) are the faithful mouthpieces of sounds, syllables and other bits and pieces that, as I was also told, were constitutive of my languages. Printed forms of language are said to have been meant to do just this, reflect and “preserve” speech, as the Romans noted. How well they do it will be, as said, the topic of another post. But the underlying assumption that languages do contain constitutive bits which can be rendered in print has turned from a working hypothesis shared by some linguists into a “fact” shared by all of us, and duly set in stone: not only do these bits “exist”, they are “psychologically real” within us, to use popular phraseology about this issue. 

Characterising representations of sounds and syllables as imprinted in the brain instead of in papyrus, paper or computer screens also means that these assumed language bits must somehow “exist” regardless of languages. I’ll have some more to say about this in my next post.

© MCF 2011

Next post: (Im)prints in the brain. Saturday 8th January 2011.

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