Loading...

Talk to Text

Ancient Origins of Western Prose and the Transition from Oral to Written Culture

by Gwen Groves Robinson (Author)
©2020 Monographs XXVI, 486 Pages

Summary

If talking and hearing are ‘natural’ modes of human communication, how then, did the artificial art of writing come to substitute so satisfyingly for them, and with such deft and commanding authority? Talk to Text: Ancient Origins of Western Prose and the Transition from Oral to Written Culture examines the history of the writing skills that we now practice so casually. These skills were never a human entitlement. Our literary ancestors worked for them, starting from crude scratches on bone, stone, and pottery shards. Over centuries of corrective nitpicking, the Greeks, the classical and papal Romans, the sixth- to eighth-century Irish and Anglo-Saxons, and the Franco-Germanic peoples of the Carolingian renaissance all helped to make writing a flexible and powerful means of communication. Out of speech for the voice and the ear, they invented this secondary route for the transfer of thought—and that route was through the eye. The impact of this spectacular shift and the eventual, even thrilling, development of writing as an art form are the twin topics of this book.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Talk to Text
  • This eBook can be cited
  • List of Figures
  • Chronology
  • Focusing on Greek
  • Focusing on Latin
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Section 1: A Preliminary Overview of the Communication Process
  • Chapter 1: What Are We Talking About?
  • From Thought to Speech to Writing: What Goes Wrong?
  • A Word About Words
  • With Imagination the Gap Is Reduced
  • Convention: A Source of Comfort
  • About Grammar
  • About Agreement for Word Meanings
  • Some Diverse Linguistic Conventions
  • Some Interesting Features of Far Eastern Languages
  • Consensus for Textual Formation
  • Context
  • Section 2: Early History: Greece and Alexandria
  • Chapter 2: Literacy Begins
  • A Few Prealphabetic Considerations
  • Moving (Slowly!) Towards an Alphabet
  • The Greek Alphabet
  • The Joyful Athenians
  • Some Practical Considerations for Setting Pen to Paper
  • On the Powers of Grammar
  • Scriptura Continua: An Impediment to Literacy
  • Chapter 3: Orality—Its Characteristics
  • Oral Habits Have Deep Roots
  • The Ear-Eye Split, as Recorded in Punctuation
  • A Paean to Writing: The Tool That We Made Remakes Us
  • From Orality Into Literacy: The Full Sweep
  • A Jump Into the Future: Plato’s Spell on the Written Word
  • Chapter 4: In the Clinging Embrace of Orality
  • A Writer’s Key to the Garden of Eden
  • A Literary Dilemma
  • In Thrall to the Ear
  • The Word-Loving Sophists
  • Gorgias—in Every Sense of the Word
  • Chapter 5: Prose Claims Acceptance
  • Our Physiological Responses to Rhythm
  • Rhetoric Moves Onto the Page
  • Introducing the Periodos
  • Isocrates Constructs a Splendiferous Period
  • Chapter 6: The Other Lobe
  • Logical Perspectives
  • Discovering the Logic in Oral Epic Poetry
  • Logic in Early Judicial Oratory: Antiphon
  • Some Specifics About Particles
  • What Do the Philosophers Have to Say?
  • An Overview of the Historian’s Progress
  • Chapter 7: Fifth-Century Historians Give a Fillip to Prose
  • Three Ways of Structuring a Sentence
  • The Evolving Period and What It Tells Us
  • How Herodotus Sought to Control His Paratactic Floods
  • Two Assessments of Thucydides: One Modern, One Ancient
  • Comparing Thucydides With His Predecessors: A Review of Fifth-Century Historiography
  • A Telling Comparison of the Three Historians
  • Chapter 8: Moving Towards Perfection
  • ‘Attic’ Style Versus ‘Asiatic’ Style
  • Fledgling Notions for the Aeration of Text
  • Further Developments in ‘Attic’ Oratory: Lysias
  • Xenophon of Athens
  • Demosthenes: Orator and Writer
  • More Speculations About the Period
  • Chapter 9: On Matters of Style
  • The Belated Advice of Aristotle
  • Two Centuries Later: Demetrius
  • A Quick Foray Into the Bogs of Inflection
  • Hyperbaton
  • Chapter 10: Alexandria Becomes the Hub of Greek Culture
  • Hellenistic Times in Egypt
  • Alexandria’s Analogy Versus Pergamon’s Anomaly
  • Alexandrine Scholasticism: Some Aftereffects
  • Dionysius Thrax
  • Section 3: The Literary Arts in Rome
  • Chapter 11: Early Years
  • When the Techne Hit Rome
  • Comparing Greek With Latin
  • On Roman Literacy
  • Civilizing Rome: Cato
  • Lusting for Culture
  • Chapter 12: The Development of Literary Polish
  • A Classical Education
  • Varro: A Meticulous Grammarian
  • Introducing Cicero: A Man of Genius
  • Cicero at Work
  • Cicero’s Thoughts on Rhythm in Prose Structures
  • Chapter 13: Relaxing the Rule
  • Cicero and the Developing Art Form of Letter Writing
  • Sallust: Man of the Hour
  • Catching Up on Matters of Style
  • Sampling the Output of Less Privileged Classes
  • The Senecas
  • Chapter 14: Latin Picks Up Steam
  • A Word or Two About Historiography
  • Livy as Historian-Historiographer
  • Quintilian: The Rhetorical Peacemaker
  • Tacitus: The Historian-Historiographer
  • Chapter 15: Winding Up in the Ancient World
  • Did You Hear From Pliny This Morning?
  • The Victim Reader
  • The Last Word Is Pliny’s
  • Section 4: The Roman Catholic Church
  • Chapter 16: Christian Influences on Latin Literature
  • Early Christian Scholarship
  • Donatus
  • Colometry?
  • Jerome: A Saint, but Not Saintly
  • Colometry in Action
  • Literacy: Its Decline and Tenacity
  • Augustine of Hippo: A Saintly Saint
  • Chapter 17: Sunblink in the Dusk
  • A Brief Hellenistic Renaissance
  • Boethius: A Victim of the Times
  • Cassiodorus
  • Priscian
  • Isidore of Seville: The Decline Accelerates
  • A Note on the Status of Bookmaking
  • Section 5: The Medieval Period in Western Europe
  • Chapter 18: Diving Into Pitch
  • An Historical Overview
  • On the Origins and Development of the Romance Languages
  • Sixth-Century Latin: The Crumbling of Classical Norms
  • Some Specifics of Change
  • Grammar: Queen of the Liberal Arts
  • Section 6: Moving North
  • Chapter 19: In the Lands of Mist
  • The Celts and Anglo-Saxons
  • The Church Is Established in Ireland: St. Patrick
  • On the Spread of Irish Ebullience
  • Britannia: Home of the Mysterious Gildas
  • The Ruin of Britain: A Primitive Snarl?
  • Some Resolutions (Perhaps) to Quandary
  • A Tentative Curriculum Vitae
  • About the Celtic Style
  • The Hisperica Famina
  • Chapter 20: England Bestirs Itself
  • Introducing the Great Aldhelm
  • Some Historical Background
  • Amongst the Bees With Aldhelm
  • Prose or Poetry? The Ambidextrous Master
  • In Northumbria With the Venerable Bede
  • Bede Passes the Torch to Alcuin
  • Section 7: The Carolingian Renaissance
  • Chapter 21: Northern Achievements Influence the Continent
  • Charlemagne Domesticates the Uncouth Franks
  • Alcuin and the All-Too-Brief Carolingian Renaissance
  • What the Carolingian Regeneration Did for the World
  • In the Years After
  • Section 8: The Scene Today
  • Chapter 22: A Quick Review of the Writing Arts Today
  • A Comparison: Now and Earlier
  • Chapter 23: Termination
  • How Will We Know When We’ve Reached the End?
  • Index

Gwen Groves Robinson

Talk to Text

Ancient Origins of Western Prose
and the Transition from
Oral to Written
Culture

About the author

Gwen Groves Robinson is a wide-ranging, world-traveling scholar of language, with a BA in Greek from Bryn Mawr and an MA in English from Houston University. A former academic journal editor, she has authored a book on Tokyo, four novels, and ten articles on punctuation.

About the book

If talking and hearing are ‘natural’ modes of human communication, how then, did the artificial art of writing come to substitute so satisfyingly for them, and with such deft and commanding authority? Talk to Text: Ancient Origins of Western Prose and the Transition from Oral to Written Culture examines the history of the writing skills that we now practice so casually. These skills were never a human entitlement. Our literary ancestors worked for them, starting from crude scratches on bone, stone, and pottery shards. Over centuries of corrective nitpicking, the Greeks, the classical and papal Romans, the sixth- to eighth-century Irish and Anglo-Saxons, and the Franco-Germanic peoples of the Carolingian renaissance all helped to make writing a flexible and powerful means of communication. Out of speech for the voice and the ear, they invented this secondary route for the transfer of thought—and that route was through the eye. The impact of this spectacular shift and the eventual, even thrilling, development of writing as an art form are the twin topics of this book.

ADVANCE PRAISE FOR Talk to Text

“High-spirited and deliciously erudite, Talk to Text is a fascinating journey through what Gwen Groves Robinson calls the ‘turmoiled development of prose.’ She makes clear that the art of writing prose didn’t just appear full blown; it had to be invented, and ‘the history of prose’s sluggish take-off is full of drama and conflict—and all too often sheer nuttiness.’ Robinson’s sly wit, clever phrasing, and vivid examples, from Greek and Latin literature and beyond, restore grammar to its long-lost etymological cousin, glamor.”

—Christopher Benfey, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English,

Mount Holyoke College

“Gwen Groves Robinson’s Talk to Text is a substantial and fascinating book. It traces the transition from orality to literacy in Ancient Near Eastern and Greek cultures, and then more explicitly the ways in which the characteristics and strengths of spoken language were preserved in texts, making literature something deeper and more beautiful than mere literacy. With thorough scholarship, dealing with authors famous and not so, it traces this and related themes in ancient Greek through Latin culture, deep into the Western Middle Ages. There is much of historical interest, much of contemporary relevance.”

—James H. Stam, Scholar-in-Residence, Philosophy,

American University

“Though writing is the craft of artificially representing speech, it now competes with speech for clarity and precision. In Talk to Text Gwen Groves Robinson traces the contentious and often misguided trajectory of writing from the earliest visual symbols to the most complex and nuanced contemporary sentences. With grace and humor, she analyzes the contributions of our most influential authorial ancestors, so that all those who write can appreciate this precious literary inheritance—and how, in our technological age, we are throwing it away.”

—William T. La Moy, former editor of Printing History and curator of rare books and manuscripts, Syracuse University and the Peabody Essex Museum

“Robinson’s sly wit, clever phrasing, and vivid examples, from Greek and Latin literature and beyond, restore grammar to its long-lost etymological cousin, glamor.”—CHRISTOPHER BENFEY, MOUNT HOLYOKE COLLEGE

Talk to Text…traces the transition from orality to literacy in Ancient Near Eastern and Greek cultures, and then more explicitly the ways in which the characteristics and strengths of spoken language were preserved in texts, making literature something deeper and more beautiful than mere literacy.”—JAMES H. STAM, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY

“With grace and humor, [Robinson] analyzes the contributions of our most influential authorial ancestors, so that all those who write can appreciate this precious literary inheritance—and how, in our technological age, we are throwing it away.”—WILLIAM T. LA MOY, SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY AND THE PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM

This eBook can be cited

This edition of the eBook can be cited. To enable this we have marked the start and end of a page. In cases where a word straddles a page break, the marker is placed inside the word at exactly the same position as in the physical book. This means that occasionally a word might be bifurcated by this marker.

Chronology

Focusing on Greek

Anaximander 610–546/545 BCE

Anaximenes fl. 545 BCE

Heraclitus 540–480 BCE

Aeschylus 525/524–456/455 BCE

Pindar 518/522–438 BCE

Hecataeus fl. early 5th century BCE

Sophocles 496–406 BCE

Protagoras 485–410 BCE

Herodotus 485/4–430/420 BCE

Euripides 484–406 BCE

Gorgias 483–376 BCE

Antiphon 480–411 BCE

Socrates 470–399 BCE

Democritus 460–357 BCE

Thucydides 460–404 BCE

Aristophanes 450–388 BCE

Lysias 445–380 BCE←xv | xvi→

Isocrates 436–338 BCE

Xenophon 431–350 BCE

Plato 428/27–348/347 BCE

Demosthenes 384–322 BCE

Aristotle 384–322 BCE

Zenodotus fl. 280 BCE

Demetrius fl. 2nd century BCE

Dionysius of Halicarnassus fl. early 1st century BCE

Dionysius Thrax fl. 1st century BCE

Focusing on Latin

Plautus 254–184 BCE

Cato 234–149 BCE

Terence 195–159 BCE

Varro 116–27 BCE

Cicero 106–43 BCE

Julius Caesar 100–44 BCE

Sallust 86–35/34 BCE

Livy 64/59 BCE–17 CE

The Emperor Augustus 63 BCE–14 CE

Seneca the Elder ca. 55 BCE–ca. 39 CE

Seneca the Younger 4 BCE–65 CE

Quintilian 35–96? CE

Trajan 53–117 CE

Tacitus 56–120 CE

Pliny the Younger 61/62–113 CE

Hermogenes 160–ca. 225 CE

Donatus d. 355 CE

Jerome ca. 347–ca. 420 CE

Augustine of Hippo 354–430 CE

Patrick late 4th century–ca. 460 CE

Theodoric 454–526 CE

Boethius 470/475–524 CE

Cassiodorus 490–585 CE

Gildas early 6th century–570 CE

Priscian b. late 5th century←xvi | xvii→

Columcille 521–597 CE

Augustine of Canterbury d. 604/605 CE

Columban 543–615 CE

Isidore 560–636 CE

The Faminator fl. mid-7th century CE

Aldhelm 639–709 CE

Bede 672/673–735 CE

Alcuin 732–804 CE

Charlemagne 742–814 CE←xvii | xviii→ ←xviii | xix→

Preface

If talking is the ‘natural’ mode of human communication, how did the artificial mode of writing come to substitute so deftly and satisfyingly for it? Talk to Text: Ancient Origins of Western Prose and the Transition from Oral to Written Culture attempts to answer that question. Starting from crude messages scratched on bone, stone, and pottery shards, writing has become a man-made extension of our birthright of speech, and has reached an astonishing level of capability over time. Centuries of corrective nitpicking have repaired and refined its early awkwardness and rendered it up today as a robust adjunct to our powers of communication. How did it happen that a mere handful of alphabet letters came to be so richly efficient at conveying description, argument, and wit? The story is replete with both heroes and fools. The historic struggles and arguments that impeded writing’s quick advance were often well intended, but just as often mulishly wrong-headed.

I first began thinking about these matters some 40 years ago when, as the editor of the Syracuse University Library Associates Courier, I found myself championing (on grounds of sound sense and accuracy) the British management of quotation marks—without success, of course. Being much stirred by these matters, however, I proceeded to write 10 articles on the developing potentials of punctuation, whose beginnings in the ancient world had not been←xix | xx→ a popular consideration. During my years of working with writers, I became more and more involved in the hows and whys of what constitutes clarity, and so it was that I gathered my thoughts for this volume of Talk to Text.

My plan was to go back to the origins of literary prose, that is, to writing whose goal is a pleasing and clear expression of the thought that conceived it. In searching through early texts and manuscripts, I was amazed to discover that the history of prose development was so full of uncertainty and conflicting opinion. Propriety, style, and beauty of expression dominated ancient literary discussion as much as did word meanings, pronunciation, spellings, and pedagogy—and all of it seemed subject to unending correction and redirection. The writing skills that we now practice so casually were never a human entitlement. Our literary ancestors worked hard for them. Out of speech for the ear, they found a secondary route for the transfer of thought—and that route was through the eye.

The psychological impact of this shift from ear to eye proved to be spectacular. The result of the eye’s participation in the act of conveying and receiving information was the refinement of word-use. Vision put the focus on accuracy and hence on precision of meaning. The progress was bumpy, drawn-out, and frequently misdirected—yet withal, it was thrilling. The impact of the eye’s exacting perceptions, and its influence on the developing artistry of prose writers are the twin topics of this book.

Knowing something of the ancient Greek and Latin languages, I initiated my plan with a study of the literary beginnings in early Greece, where the development of the easy-to-learn and handy-to-use alphabet redirected the goals of communication away from the ear’s fondness for metered sound to the niceties on offer by sight—hence, away from the music of intoned poetry towards the press of hard thinking into script. It was fascinating to witness writing’s slow breakthrough towards fluency and precision, and to meet the various literary personalities as they wrangled over matters of style and set the rules for grammar, spelling, pronunciation, and the various aspects of manuscript copying. In the early years of writing’s development, it seemed that no detail was unworthy of argument. The tug of war between beauty and clarity set the scene initially. The follow-up natter of background commentary could be rancorous as well as sharp and effective. When all is considered, what Greece did for written communication and the polished literature of subsequent generations is astonishing.

Rome followed in the footsteps of Greece. In admiration for all that the Greeks had done, it maneuvered its own less flexible language to the forefront of Western literature. It was the Latins who codified grammatical rules so expertly that their language would last and spread throughout Europe to←xx | xxi→ become the long-lived, sacrosanct paradigm of perfection. When barbarians invaded the continent and the levels of literacy declined, it was the Celts in the North, with their strange syntax and passion for words, who saved the Western world’s cultural inheritance and exported it back to the continent. There, under the rule of Charlemagne, literacy thrived briefly once again.

This is a vast area for study. The cast of characters is large and multifarious. While some are quite jolly to know, others are clearly beyond the pale. The history of prose development includes names that most are only vaguely aware of—Thucydides, Gorgias, Varro, Cassiodorus, Gildas, Aldhelm, and Alcuin—and yet we owe them much, for they advanced the capabilities of the written prose that we enjoy today. They, with many better known others (I think of Herodotus, Cicero, Seneca, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and Bede), turned writing into a flexible and powerful means of communication, and thereby encouraged the growth of reading, both for information and for pleasure. Against habit and ignorance, some by example and some by dictate, they bequeathed to us a treasure that we should sincerely thank them for.

Obviously, the materials for such an extensive undertaking must include names and concepts that are not broadly familiar. In aid to those who are new to this undomesticated monster subject, the opening chapter introduces and explains a number of concepts needed for later chapters—along with their accompanying, perhaps unfamiliar, vocabulary. Throughout the book I have tried hard to supply all the uncommon terms with explanation and example. I have tried, too, to provide the relevant historical background for each step forward, along with the apposite opinions of recent psychiatrists, psychologists, physiologists, professional linguists, physicians, academic cognitivists, and both ancient and modern literary critics and writers. In and amongst, I have pointed out current rhetorical ploys that derive from early oral-aural days, and illustrated their continuing use with modern examples.

The history of language and its push towards a clear transmission of thought requires a wide canvas, for so many things need to be taken into account. The expression of meaning begins with the brain as it spins its holistic contents into strings of wordage, first for speech and then for the page. This process being still not entirely understood, my tale will necessarily embrace both fact and speculation. In almost every area of this immense topic, scholars of history and language will wish to delve more deeply. But I have chosen to address my gleanings to all those who write, and while writing, might wonder about the origins of their craft: about what they are actually doing and why they are doing it this way instead of some other way.←xxi | xxii→ ←xxii | xxiii→

Acknowledgments

If I were to thank all the people who have encouraged me to battle on through the thickets of this vast topic, I would have to write another book-length treatise. This I do not propose to do. Therefore, like so many before me, I will confine my expressions of appreciation to those who through many years of searching and reading labored to keep me on track: who hunted down sources, located books, checked through my many drafts, corrected my various errors, remodeled my explanations, and discussed, endlessly discussed, the various aspects of my chosen subject.

At the very top of any possible list must be my classically trained, electronically skilled, and philosophically inclined husband. He fed my energies and disputed my ideas. He sharpened my thinking. He introduced me to word-processing and gladly labored to resolve my computer entanglements. For all these reasons and so many more, I am dedicating the finished result of my efforts to him.

Other members of my family have been generous as well. To my daughter, Gwen Owen Robinson, who from her early teens shared my hobby of grappling with the meanings of words, and to her husband, Hartmut Kuhlmann, for his ready wisdom and knowledge, I owe immense gratitude. Their interest in books and writing, their willingness to seek out materials, suggest resolu←xxiii | xxiv→tions to snarls, and all too often, rescue me from ruination were unfailing. My son Hugh Robinson has nobly overseen the acquisition of illustrations. He first accompanied me to the Parker Library in Cambridge, England (a wonderful experience for us both), and later elicited the aid of Dr. Anne McLaughlin (Sub-Librarian, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College), who has so willingly responded to my needs. My eldest son, Alan Robinson, and especially his wife, Margaret, despite their busy lives, have throughout the many years of gathering materials been unendingly helpful in expediting my access to the collections of the Five College Libraries, clustered near Amherst, Massachusetts. Phoebe DeVries, my granddaughter, has essentially ‘been in charge’ of untangling my more recent computer snarls, while improving (though I doubt that she noticed) my formatting skills along the way. My grandson Peter Richer and granddaughter Theodora Richer have joined in the effort of educating me in the sublime potentials of the computer.

Primary among the many others to whom I am indebted are Christopher Benfy, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mt. Holyoke College, and Professor James H. Stam, Scholar in Residence, Philosophy, American University in Washington, DC. Both of these gentlemen took time out from the more important aspects of their busy lives to read my manuscript and generously proclaim its one or two virtues. Jennifer Hoit is another to whom I am obligated. She was immensely helpful in organizing the Greek and early Roman sections of the original drafts. I am very grateful, too, to my wise and generous consulting editor, William T. La Moy, who was the curator of rare books and manuscripts at Syracuse University and at the Peabody Essex Museum, where he also served as director of publications. With tremendous kindness he volunteered his expert help in reviewing the final manuscript, making suggestions, and then helping to organize it for publication.

But it was Mary Beth Hinton, my editor, and a friend of many years, who read the manuscript in raw form, persuaded me to work it into shape for publication, and then connected me to the Peter Lang publishing house. I am blessed beyond measure for her wise advisements regarding the current endeavor. She has been exceedingly patient, incisive, kind in her criticisms, and unerringly able both in spotting errors and suggesting improvement. For all of that I owe her my very sincere gratitude. Happy the moment when she first walked into my office in the approximate year of 1989!←xxiv | 1→

Details

Pages
XXVI, 486
Year
2020
ISBN (PDF)
9781433161520
ISBN (ePUB)
9781433161537
ISBN (MOBI)
9781433161544
ISBN (Hardcover)
9781433161513
DOI
10.3726/b14652
Language
English
Publication date
2020 (February)
Published
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXVI, 486 pp., 4 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Gwen Groves Robinson (Author)

Gwen Groves Robinson is a wide-ranging, world-traveling scholar of language, with a BA in Greek from Bryn Mawr and an MA in English from Houston University. A former academic journal editor, she has authored a book on Tokyo, four novels, and ten articles on punctuation.

Previous

Title: Talk to Text
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
514 pages