The Treasure of our Tongue

The biological-historical fact is that homo sapiens have as a species, since time immemorial, used oral speech, manufactured by the larynx and sounded through the mouth, to communicate. Nature has defined man as an oral communicator; he is naturally neither a writer nor a reader. I mean to express the single thesis that all of Western thought is informed by a profound shift in the kinds of ideas available to the human mind occurring at the point that Greek philosophy converted from an oral to a literate form. My thesis is an expression defining the amorphous field that studies transitions from orality to literacy.
* * *

English to be written well, T.S. Eliot wrote, needs to be written with a certain animosity: a withholding of assent from all the things its words want to say unbidden. These are local things, things bespeaking a people, a climate and a local history, self-congratulator like all histories. Late in the twentieth century since Christ and the eleventh since the Venerable Bede, speaking and reading a dialect of what has become the worldwide language of air-control towers, we easily forget how rooted its simple words once seemed. Conrad’s oaken, for instance: an oaken table is understood to be substantial, well and truly constructed, old enough to have been cherished by one’s grandfather.

Beckett’s Mr. Rooney, in an old cracked voice speaks of having been in the Men’s, “of Fir, as we call it now, from vir, viris, I suppose, the v becoming f in accordance with Grimm’s Law.” Amid the wind and rain he fears being wet “to the buff. From buffalo.” Hearing a voice fondle pedantries like these is like watching a face in a photograph disintegrate into dots, human urgency and human discomfort obliterated alike by a system of signals as elaborate and as arbitrary as the rules of chess.
* * *

There is nothing like the syllogistic habit for giving rise to a writer’s paranoid thinking. I give the following four stage (I hope succinct and cogent) example to argue this mental process:
1) Atomics. In the study of atomics we discover that everything is composed of small particles (too numerous to mention and too infinitesimal to delineate) of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles. . . . These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms.
2) Identity. For example take a sheep, a sheep is only millions of little bits of sheepness whirling around and doing intricate and concentric convolutions inside the sheep. What else is a sheep but that?
3) Perfusion. Do you know what takes place when you incessantly strike a bar of iron with a good heavy hammer? The bar will dissipate itself away by degrees if you persevere with hard wallops. Some of the atoms of the bar will go into the hammer and others into the anvil or whatever is underneath the bottom of the bar.
4) Upshot. The gross and net result is that people who spend much of their lives riding iron bicycles over rough roads get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each with the other, and you would be surprised at the number of bicycle-riders in these parts of California who are a part people and a part bicycles.


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