The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 20 Feb 2006

Oral and non-oral reading

I am browsing through the Right Reverend John Wilkins' book Mercury: The Secret and Swift Messenger, published in 1641, which is a compendium of techniques for cryptography and steganography. (I had supposed that the word "steganography" was of recent coinage, but it turns out it dates back to the year 1500, when Johannes Trithemius wrote a book titled Steganographia. (You can find it online, but it is in Latin.)

The following passage appears on page 3:

How strange a thing this art of writing did seem at its first invention, we may guess by the late discovered Americans, who were amazed to see men converse with books, and could scarce make themselves believe that a paper could speak; especially, when after all their attention and listening to any writing . . . they could never perceive any words or sound to proceed from it.
I find this plausible, since as far as I know none of the aboriginal peoples in the part of the world colonized by the English had writing, and because writing does seem strange and astonishing to me. Also, it seems that many other people found it so. For example, in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (which I am sure will turn up here again) Jaynes quotes examples of letters written by the Assyrians. The standard form of such letters was to address the messenger who delivered them, like this:
To Babu-aha-iddina, governor of Eridu, say thus:

You have not sent me the blueberry pie recipe you promised; why haven't you sent it? . . .

So says Tukulti-Ninurta, high king.

This form arose originally because the recipient was unable to read, and the messages were sent orally. A messenger would memorize the message at the source, and recite it from memory at the destination. So the message is written as an instruction to the messenger who would deliver it: "To Babu-aha-iddina, say thus..." and ends with a closing statement, also to be made by the messenger, that "so says Tukulti-Ninurta." But in later times, the form was still followed even when both sender and recipient were literate, and then it becomes an instruction to the letter itself to "say thus".

The idea that it is the letter itself that speaks seems to be a natural one. Wilkins tells a story of an Indian who is sent to deliver a letter and a basket of figs to a man in the next village. The messenger ate half the figs on the way, and was surprised to be found out upon his arrival when the quantity of figs he delivered did not match the quantity described in the letter. He responded by cursing the letter as a false and lying witness. On the next trip, he was careful to bury the letter under a rock while he ate the figs, so that it would not be able to accuse him when it was delivered.

Written and spoken language are only a little bit separate. Nearly all written language is a written representation of spoken language. Uninformed people call Chinese characters "ideographs", but this is a misnomer, because it suggests that the characters represent ideas. But they don't; they represent the words of whatever particular variety of spoken Chinese the writer uses. (Examples may be found on p. 149 of Geoffrey Sampson's excellent book Writing Systems, which may appear here in more detail in the future.) Very little writing is actually ideographic. One example is the symbol 3, which does not represent the word three or the sound "three" (nor does it represent the words or sounds "drei" or "sam" or "tres") but rather the abstract notion of three. Many mathematical symbols are similarly ideographic.

Children first learn to read by pronouncing the words aloud and hearing them; when they hear, they understand. Hearing is much easier than reading, and I think this is one reason why people like to attend lecture classes instead of just reading the book. People who "move their lips when they read" are widely ridiculed. But reading aloud is a good strategy for anyone faced with difficult material. When I can't make sense of a difficult paragraph, especially a long and confused one, I always back up and try reading it aloud, and this often resolves the difficulty. Even when I have forgotten the words at the beginning by the time I get to the end, I find that I still retain the sense of them. Reading aloud is also a good exercise for writers. If you read aloud what you wrote, you are much more likely to notice when it doesn't make sense. If you are too self-conscious to read aloud, or if the sign says QUIET PLEASE, try subvocalizing; it is still a big help.

Some kinds of literature should always be read aloud. Poetry, of course. If it is good poetry, it loses a lot of its value when read silently. I find that humor also loses its savor for me when I read it non-orally. When I first read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas myself, I thought it was just stupid. When I heard James Woodyatt read it aloud, it was riotously funny. Lorrie and I found that Louise Erdrich's stories and novels, which can seem unrelievedly depressing when you read them alone, when read aloud became rich, complex, funny, sometimes bitter, sometimes joyful, and often sad—but never depressing.

Someone once told me that some famous scholar, I think perhaps Thomas Aquinas [ addendum: it was Ambrose; see below ] was the only one of his contemporaries to read non-orally, that they were astonished at how the information would just fly from the book into his mind without his having to read it. Their failure to understand non-oral reading may be surprising today, when everyone is expected to do it. But I can remember making the same mistake myself. I was sitting on the floor, reading (aloud) the Sunday comics pages one evening, and I remarked that grown-ups did not actually read; they only looked at the pictures. My mother told me that they did read, but they did so silently. This was the first time I had encountered this idea, which I immediately adopted. I can't remember a time before I could read, but I do remember that occasion of my first silent reading.

[ Addendum 20120611: It turns out that there is a story collected by the Brothers Grimm, but unpublished, which recounts the lying letter story. It is "The Poor Boy in the Grave": "As he again was so extremely hungry and thirsty, he could not help it, and again ate two grapes. But first he took the letter out of the basket, put it under a stone and seated himself thereon in order that the letter might not see and betray him." ]

[ Addendum 20141202: The story about the famous scholar who astounded his contemporaries by reading silently was not Thomas Aquinas, as I said above, but Ambrose. Augustine, in his Confessions, says:

But when he was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest.
I missed by eight hundred years!  ]

[ Addendum 2010406: Keshav Kini directed my attention to chapter 2 of Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, “The Silent Readers”, which discusses the history of silent reading in some detail, and notes that silent reading greatly facilitated the spread of heresy. The chapter is available online, probably without the appropriate permissions.  ]

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