24 September 2010

Orality & Literacy; Gaelic & Patter

"Language is so overwhelmingly oral that of all the many thousands - possibly tens of thousands - of languages spoken in human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all. Of the some 3,000 languages spoken that exist today, only some 78 have literature."

So argued the Jesuit scholar, Walter Ong, in his work on Orality and Literacy (1982). I cannot speak to the historical or contemporary precision of this accounting, but even if the figures mentioned above are taken to be indicative and approximate, the thought is astonishing. I've always found Ong's central thesis -  that literacy comes to structure our consciousness - immensely thought-provoking, not least because I'm someone who lives in exaggerated intimacy with the written word. Ong seems to suggest that the transformation effected by literacy is basically binary - a little literacy going a long way to rearrange our consciousnesses. In our society, where the wholesale absence of any literate knowledge of language is an almost unknown phenomenon, Ong's binary distinction doesn't speak very eloquently to our existence and the continuing place of orality in our literate culture. Yet peer around any place of social congress and you'll find innumerable folk leading lives dominated by oral exchanges and for whom reading - and even more so, writing - is decidedly secondary. This always struck me particularly forcefully in Glasgow, with its famous patter and its idiomatic, witty formulas. For Ong, such proverbial tendencies are a hallmark of orality. Just as formulaic description recurs endlessly in Homer's Odyssey, so too the ensemble phrases of  Glaswegian patter might be seen to attest to the dominant orality of both forms of communication. This might also explain, in part, the charm of Michael Munro's The Complete Patter, which applies the technology of that great apotheosis of literate logic - the dictionary - to a field of language that had previously remained substantially uncodified. 

In my experience, different  vocabularies and patterns of Scottish speech are primarily attributed to class considerations, with your literate bourgeois taken to be the most "Anglicised" speaker of Scottish standard English. I undoubtedly fit into that category. However, Ong's analysis might suggest another pregnant and unanticipated distinction - between those Scots like myself, who learn to talk like books and those whose consciousnesses remain dominated by language understood primarily orally, who simply speak and for whom it would be a nonsense to say they are "speaking texts". Much more could be explored and said on the subject but the line of thought strikes me as a potentially interesting one.

These are just a few of the sideline Lowlander thoughts, provoked by this interesting piece over at BellaCaledonia by Alasdair Mac Gill-eain in response to a recent article in the Sunday Herald. Entitled Bad Language and Dodo Journalism, Alasdair isn't speaking about Scots, but instead about Gaelic and the Herald journalist's oddly imbalanced assessment of the importance of far-flung endangered languages in comparison to those we have it in our domestic power to nurture, preserve and foster. I'm not a Gaelic speaker myself. Indeed, I don't have more than a word or two. Alasdair quotes Dr Johnson to wry - but pointed effect - about some of the curious haughtiness and scorn which metropolitan Anglophone Scots fairly regularly express towards our Gaelic speaking friends. Its a curious phenomenon, one we would do well to unpick and attempt to understand and alleviate, lest in due time we'll have to echo the old walnut-faced Auden, lamenting...

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silence

Of dreadful things you did...


  1. I wonder if the learned Father included Ogham and Quipu in that list, both helped into extinction by his church...

  2. "Literature" seems to me to be a somewhat ambivalent phrase and I'm not sure if Ong would include the knotting figurations of Quipu in that concept. Interesting question, really. As to its suppression, no doubt like most modern Churchmen, he found himself caught between repentance and justification, harried by the ghost of Galileo and his bloodied companions.

  3. That is the point Lallands.

    Who knows exactly what was burned? The clay tablets of Mesopotamia started off as mere accounting-but developed.

    Imagine trying to recreate English lit from a handful of pay-in books and a Mills & Boon paperback...

  4. Perhaps I am away off the beam here, but permit me to provide a recent illustration of oral traditions colliding - the link below will take you to an extract from BBC North-West's 6 o'clock news on the occasion of the recent visit of Glasgow Rangers to play Manchester United - it appears that the Manchester-based editorial team has broadcast this wee snippet at 6pm without being fully aware of what the man from Glasgow had actually said -


  5. Reminds me of a friend being shown round his new workplace in Yorkshire.
    His new boss, friendly and outgoing at the start of the tour, was distinctly hostile by the end.
    The response to his questions on my friend's familiarity on a piece of equipment being "Aye ah ken it" interpreted as "Aye cunt"...

  6. Ha! Heaven knows what they thought he actually said. The hard "c" is quite distinct, making quite a stretch to hear "everyone". No doubt in part it was his entirely straight delivery which served to hoodwink them.

  7. That one made my chortle, Conan. I can just imagine his shocked expression, your guileless friend smiling innocently, they soldier on. He says it again. The boss's eye begins to twitch. Funny.

    To go off on a related tangent, inspired by your second comment Conan, I've wondered about reconstructions of the sort before, but about Churches. Imagine, if you well, the "Christian world" collapses in on itself, relegated to forgetfulness, the Gospels and the Old News charred to dust. Years after, some future archaeologist is chipping into a buried vault in what was once Rome - and uncovers a complete, preserved church. How would they interpret it? It occurred to me that the crucified Jesus might well be taken to be the executed husband of Mary - leaving her a single mother - and the fat child on her knee re-imagined as their only begotten son.

  8. I forget its name, but I vividly recall the interior of one of the churches I visited during a trip to Rome a few years ago. Used the the plainest of plain kirks, the excruciated, almost gangrenous painted Christ-figure hanging bodily from the wall was astonishing enough. However, the church walls were covered with a succession of images of the most brutal of Biblical sufferings. The theme was insistent across the building. An thoroughly instructive experience in the Catholic aesthetic, for this godless chap most familiar with the whitewashed woodiness of the Church of Scotland.