words

medieval scribe

A little history. I spoke my first word only minutes after coming into the world. At least that’s what my mother told me. She could  never remember what the word actually was, but she remembered that I spoke it loudly and clearly and that the midwife, Sister Brown, blushed.

Right from the beginning we teach our children to talk. No privilege here, no selecting this one or that one. Everyone has a right to words. An academic I met in Queensland considered that teaching children language meant humans were naturally democratic. Autocracy and aristocracy were aberrant ideas that only developed later.

Words come early, writing much later. I am writing fiction now, having once written for performance. In the theatre, the sounds of words were all important to me, and that importance lingers on in my writing. The visual pleasure of the words on the page is evident, but I want to hear the words I write, too. I read a chapter out loud, I imagine the novel being read out loud. One person reading to others, transcending the privacy of the text, making it social.

Through words are grounded in oral speech, writing tyrannically locks them into a visual field forever. A literate person, asked to think of the word ‘nevertheless’, will normally (and I strongly suspect always) have some image, at least vague, of the spelled-out word, and be quite unable ever to think of the word ‘nevertheless’ for, let us say, 60 seconds without adverting to any lettering but only to the sound. This is to say, a literate person cannot fully recover a sense of what the word is to purely oral people.

Ong, Walter, Orality and Literacy, Routledge, London, 1988.

The language of the world where things are done and made and sold looks at language from a practical rather than strictly logical viewpoint. The result is awe-inspiring, often daunting, linguistic over-confidence, sometimes cynical and exploitative, regularly immoral, irreverent, and greedy, but quick, clever, thoroughly alert to the possibilities of what can be done with words. Words are not pale isolated things but magical in their ability to evoke, shape, control things. To the eye of the philosopher it is all a vast swindle, but what privileges the casuistries of the philosopher over the evidence of all our lives to decide what is real and true? Words work in the world, they make people rich and poor, happy and sad, wise and foolish, and what better proof can there be of their meaningfulness and power?

Kernan, Alvin, The Death of Literature, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1990.

how can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?

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