To put your quill where your mouth is

Aix-en-Provence, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 7

Each one of us is an archeologist, a witness, active or passive, of the history of the material and immaterial culture around us. We don’t have to be academically-minded grave-diggers or shovel-wielding students of antiquity to exercise our archeological sense. An archeologist is someone who understands that he or she is surrounded by ghosts, and wishes to get to know them.

I’ve always been fascinated by the ghosts of language – how language, among the many things it can do, generates, with every instantiation, a snapshot of the culture in which it runs. Language is culture and culture is language, no doubt, and language creates and sustains the culture which in turn makes it possible for language to exist in a certain away.

The language we use betrays the culture we are. I don’t think we have a certain culture, I think we are it, just like I happen to believe that we don’t have bodies, but that we are the bodies we have. You know, embodiment and all that jazz. But that’s something for another day. Now, I just want to say a few words about language and literacy.

Not every language user is literate, but every literate person is a language user. And more importantly, our language reveals the measure of our culture’s literacy (or lack thereof).

One of the many fascinating things about Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey is that there are no references to the written word. Two poems so finely constructed, in a metric arrangement (dactylic hexameter) that we’d need piles of A4 paper to reproduce on our own, are devoid of anything which might betray the use of written language. The ghost of literacy is missing. It is fascinating, but not curious. Scholars agree, and it is now common knowledge, that the Homeric poems were sung and performed long before they were written down, and writing them down was never the author(s)’s design. Moreover, the Homeric world is a script-less universe, the gods are illiterate and the heroes certainly act as though the sword is mightier for lack of competition.

Now, imagine that in 2000 years from now, in a world which will have lost knowledge of its distant history, historians discover some audio recordings of everyday English spoken in the 21st century. How likely are they to conclude that the 21st century was a chirographic or post-chirographic age, in any case one strongly shaped by the printed word? What will they think when they hear us say that we ‘read between the lines’, or ‘want to highlight or underline an idea’, or see the ‘writing on the wall’, or think that someone is ‘an open book’?

Our languages are suffused with traces of writing, haunted by the ghost of literacy. Not all languages, obviously, are like that. There are still oral languages out there, but if you’re reading this, yours most certainly is haunted. The Homeric speech acts, if I may call them such, ignored the written word. Our own speech acts can’t do without it. We are as much shaped by the word on the wall as the word was invented and shaped, literally, by us before we put it up there.

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