The loss of formulas

Formulas get things done. They compress multiple thought operations into one. At a more fundamental level, they are an espresso of experience, a fine extraction of slow-rising, homegrown ideas and calculations.

Mathematical formulas are like this. They are shortcuts around advanced thinking which was done once and for all. They are the most condensed form of transmission of knowledge.

Mathematical, and then scientific formulas, emerged in the age of writing. What’s the point of doing maths when you can’t write? You may do a bit of counting, yes, but not much more than that. An unwritten algorithm is an impossibility. You may remember it by heart, but to get there it has to be written first. No chirography, no maths. No maths, no formulas.

Language formulas are much older than mathematical formulas and don’t depend on writing. They are the language clichés we’ve left behind when we’ve surrounded ourselves with writing. That is, when we’ve left our primary orality culture behind.

Formulas are features of an oral society. Oral performances are necessarily formulaic. Oral memory is formulaic. Communication in an oral environment depends on formulas if it is to have any chance of survival and permanence. Formulas help memorisation. There are formulas in poetry and song. Rhyme is a form of formula. A song with the same chorus and repetitive lines will stick more quickly and more permanently than blind, non- repetitive verse. Homer’s epic poems, the Old Testament and other compositions of the ancient world are products of a formula-rich oral environment.

Written formulas are interesting because they track the transition from an orality-dominated culture to one where writing takes over. The Middle Ages – and if you’re a frequent flyer on this blog, you’ll know how eager I always am to make it all about the Middle Ages – did not invent written formulas, but it was in the medieval period that formulas became widespread. It shouldn’t surprise us that written formulas were particularly popular in post-Roman Germanic kingdoms. It was these societies which were experiencing the clash between the oral and the written most violently. From a cultural point of view, medieval formulas, also called formulae, are rather paradoxical. They attempted to enshrine in writing what used to be up that point the province of the aural-oral. They are written oral instruments. A good example is the formulary.

The medieval formulary is a book of formulas, sample documents to help create new ones, like land conveyances, wills and other legal or ecclesiastical stuff. It is not unlike the template page of MS Word.

Formularies are more than books of model documents, and the formulas they set down are more than corporate talk. They are cultural takeovers. They attempt to remove the formulaic language of oral performance and move it into a written environment. Before a written formula emerged, land transactions, for instance, were made orally, in the presence of others, who guaranteed the reality of the transaction. Repetitive, formulaic, almost ritualistic language was used to make the event memorable to the interested parties. The written document lifts that event from its native soil and plants it in a more permanent milieu. For a while the oral, performed event and its written surrogate survive side by side, but in time the written record takes over the unwritten memorial.

The verbal contract, the set form of the official letter/email, with its hortative and valedictive formulas, the clichéd form of legal documents (and language) are related to each other. They are relics of a formula-rich oral experiencing a chirographic paradigm shift. We are the heirs of that shift.

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