March 7, 2018

"It is a myth that the ancients only or normally read out loud - a myth we appear to want to believe, since the evidence against it is strong...."

Wrote James Fenton in The Guardian, back in 2006. (I'm reading it today, because Arts & Letters Daily linked to "Literature Shrugged/Worse than hatred of literature is indifference," which linked to it.)

Many people are affected by a passage in St. Augustine's "Confessions," describing Ambrose reading silently: "His eyes traveled across the pages and his heart searched out the meaning, but his voice and tongue stayed still."
Scholars have sparred for decades over whether Augustine's offhand observation reveals something momentous: namely, that silent reading--that seemingly mundane act you're engaged in right now--was, in the Dark Ages, a genuine novelty. Evidence abounds that ancient and medieval readers relished giving voice to their favorite texts in order to appreciate more fully the cadences of Homer and Lucian. Of course, we equally enjoy reading poetry aloud. The question is: Could the earliest readers literally not shut up?
Fenton says:
What shocked Augustine was that Ambrose read silently in front of visitors and refused to share his reading matter, and his thoughts, with them. But Augustine was perfectly capable of silent reading, and describes a key moment in his conversion as a moment of silent reading with a friend. As Gavrilov concludes: "... the phenomenon of reading itself is fundamentally the same in modern as in ancient culture. Cultural diversity does not exclude an underlying unity."

28 comments:

Rob said...

"Cultural diversity does not exclude an underlying unity." Bushwa! Obeisance must be paid to cultural diversity. And dear Christ, what about intersectionality? There's a heckuva lot to be unpacked here. Fenton's glib dismissal of these important concerns must be seen for what it is, typical cis white male dominance. Resist!

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

"...a myth we appear to want to believe." We? Appear how?

In what language did Augustine write? Amazon has a paperback of "Confessions of St. Augustine: The Original, Classic Text by Augustine Bishop of Hippo, His Autobiography and Conversion Story" No sample pages is shown, but I wager the book is in English and have grave doubts that Augustine originally wrote in English.

Point is, up until some age, Latin was written without punctuation or spaces between words. This would make reading aloud as difficult as reading aloud the typical Associated Press article or blog. Silent reading, where the eyes can flick back to disambiguate pronoun antecedents, etc. would be easier.

Nonapod said...

People love to impute all sorts of weird notions to "the ancients" only to have them debunked and then de-debunked (rebunked?). They generally only read out loud? That's weird. Next you'll be telling me that they generally believed the Earth was the center of the Universe.

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

Well, the solar system, maybe

FIDO said...

Many interpretations.

One could show off one's erudition and speaking skills by reading aloud.

One could graciously be offering the illiterate access to books by sharing ones time.

One could be offering entertainment in a selfless way.

One had a social obligation to declaim edifying literature to the masses.

It is like depictions of medieval combat today. Hollywood would have you believe that large waisted, out of shape men slowly swung large swords at one another. It makes the current age feel 'superior'.


Perhaps. Perhaps not.

FIDO said...

Ugh! Yes. The Carolingian reforms of writing. God bless Charlemagne and his monk!

WRITINGUSEDTOBELIKETHISWITHOUTANYSPACESPUNCUATIONORSPACINGITWASVERYDIFFICULTTOREADANDWASHANDWRITTENTOBOOT.

I wonder if reading such text aloud was easier than silently. I have seen stylus' to point to words on a page. They make much more sense in a world without punctuation.

Thai is currently written like that and it makes learning the written language an enormous chore.

buwaya said...

"Of course, we equally enjoy reading poetry aloud."

No, we don't. Who does that anymore?
They very rarely even do it in school.

Ann Althouse said...

The second liknk in the post has something to say about the lack of spaces between words.

buwaya said...

On "Literature Shrugged" - comments

Literature is indeed at a low point. Probably going lower.
The great American middlebrow is nearly gone, and the highbrow disappeared up its own anus. Worst of all the audience has run off.

We have some of that despising of literature right here - PB&J, Anti desitter space, or whatever that entity calls itself.

That and those which change life - not science, but technology, not scientists but technologists, not people who hypothesize but empirical sorts, who as always make things work.

Ken B said...

Repeat after me: everyone who lived before I was born is an idiot, a racist, a sexist, a child molester, a nail, a rapist, a hypocrite.

Luke Lea said...

I read recently that Julius Caesar impressed his contemporaries by being able to read silently without moving his lips. I believe is was written by a neuroscientist who was talking about how adjacent areas of the brain can be trained to take over from each other, or something like that. Human's certainly weren't originally designed to be able to read silently. The question is, could they do it from the beginning? I don't know.

Rick Turley said...

"In what language did Augustine write?"

Latin

traditionalguy said...

Those ancient civilizations wrote short hand notes like a dictation that could remind the people of what was heard spoken. But spoken words were the goal because that was how passages were memorized by being repeated out loud enough times. The Torah was memorized and spoken 1000 years before it was reduced to written scrolls. So Moses did not write them, but he was their author.

traditionalguy said...

All memory comes from repeated speaking out loud that imprints the brain with the sounds and sequence we hear as we speak it word by word . That triggers the next word. That is how we learned our ABCs and learned the words to the songs we sung out loud. Just reading them silently does not Make a memory. No one remembers the other song verses word for word by reading silently, we just remember the first stanza that we sung out loud over and over.

Rabel said...

Atwaterhoweverwassincetheendoaseriousinvolvementsomeyearsprioralsoallbutcelibateand tendedtobeextremelykeyedupandambivalentinanytypeofsexuallychargedsituationwhichunless hewasoffbasethisincreasinglywaswhichinretrospectwaspartlywhyinthestormyenclosureofthe rentalcarwiththepulverizinglyattractiveAmberMoltkehehadcommittedoneofthefundamental errorsinsoftnewsjournalismaskingacentrallyimportantquestionbeforehewascertainjustwhat answerwouldadvancetheinterestsofthepiece.

Makes sense to me.

The Godfather said...

And imagine how difficult it is in Hebrew, which is written backwards and without vowels. When I was a kid, my Jewish friends spent YEARS in Hebrew school, for the primary purpose of being able to read a passage from Torah at their Bar Mitvahs.

Hammond X. Gritzkofe said...

buwaya reports: "Literature is indeed at a low point. Probably going lower.
The great American middlebrow is nearly gone, and the highbrow disappeared up its own anus."

traditionalguy: "All memory comes from repeated speaking out loud that imprints the brain with the sounds and sequence we hear as we speak it word by word."

Stru. Amana* member that. Itlhepma panunciatn nylisena tv.

Sadly, many bloggers and newspaper writers today write as they hear English spoken on television jabbershows. Highbrow writers take pride in writing convoluted, lengthy sentences.

*Present tense conjugation of the verb "amana" (indicating intent to perform a future act):

SINGULAR PLURAL
1st pers. amana weguna
2nd pers. yuguna yuguna
3rd pers. heguna theyguna

YoungHegelian said...

namely, that silent reading--that seemingly mundane act you're engaged in right now--was, in the Dark Ages, a genuine novelty. Evidence abounds that ancient and medieval readers relished giving voice to their favorite texts in order to appreciate more fully the cadences of Homer and Lucian.

1) Augustine & Jerome were in no way "Medievals". They were men of the late Western Roman Empire, even at the earliest dating of the start of the "Middle Ages".

2) I have never heard the assertion that always reading aloud continued into the Middle Ages. True or false, I have always heard that it applied to the Greco-Roman world only. Needless to say, the development of monasticism no doubt provided a need for silent reading.

If the Greco-Roman Ancients did always or often read aloud, they may have done so as an aid to memory. Reading aloud brings "muscle memory" & auditory experience into the mix as aids to memorize a text. Our ancestors, until not that long ago, emphasized the memorization of texts as a vital part of education. For example, poems such as the Iliad or the Odyssey were delivered by performers, "rhapsoids", completely from memory. Books were not books -- they were scrolls. Expensive, delicate, & difficult to store, it was just easier to recall a passage from memory than to try and look it up in a scroll.

Feste said...

... Socrates, rot deservedly in silent hell, for much-talk murdering Inspiration as Rhapsode in Ion ... silence, better our first language ...

Caligula said...

Reading aloud seems at least a plausible alternative in the pre-printing era, due to the high cost (and thus scarcity) of books. And perhaps the labor of manipulating a book written on a scroll made private reading not only a pricey luxury, but really, not a luxury at all compared with the pleasure of having someone else deal with all that and just listen to the book? Sort of like books-on-tape/CD/download without the automated reader.


BUT, what's with the scriptio continua? Without at least caps to separate words, how could anyone read that stuff?

Char Char Binks said...

It never occurred to me that the ancients only read aloud.

Quaestor said...

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes was first published in 1976 and has never been out of print since then. It was one of the seminal works of teenaged Quaestor's intellectual awakening. Very briefly Professor Jaynes theorized that from the dimmest begins of humanity up to the end of the Bronze Age Homo sapiens was an unconscious being, essentially an automaton at the command of the right cerebral hemisphere whose unspoken directions were perceived by the left hemisphere as auditory hallucinations, or more succinctly the voices of the gods. In Jayne's prehistory, the left hemisphere was illiterate, while the right half-brain received and internalized whatever education was available. When a literate half-brain encountered writing, the contents were recited to the left brain in the form of an auditory hallucination — in effect whenever a text came before the eyes of unconscious yet literate humans the seen text boomed out within the perceptual space of the left-mind with all the authority of the gods, thus giving scripture its special significance.

Mark said...

Only the idiot academics could come up with the idea that "Augustine's offhand observation reveals something momentous: namely, that silent reading [was] a genuine novelty." Or that that time was the "Dark Ages."

That seems to be part of the whole plan though -- throw out some inane strawman idea and then spend your time knocking it down, thereby justifying your existence in academia.

FullMoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clark said...

"It is a myth that the ancients only or normally read out loud - a myth we appear to want to believe, since the evidence against it is strong...."

I have dipped into this debate a couple of times. I do not think it is fair to say that there is strong evidence against it. There may not be strong evidence for it, but that doesn't amount to strong evidence against it.

Kirk Parker said...

Rabel,

OK, now do it in all-caps. And boustrophedon, while you're at it.

Caligula, difficult or not, that's how they did it. Oh, and stopping when a line was filled up, without respect to whether it was the end of the word or not. That's the other inaccuracy in Rabel's example.

I.e. it should be like this:

ATWATERHOWEVERWASSINCETHEENDOASERIOUSINVOL
VEMENTSOMEYEARSPRIORALSOALLBUTCELIBATEANDTE
NDEDTOBEEXTREMELYKEYEDUPANDAMBIVALENTINANYT
YPEOFSEXUALLYCHARGEDSITUATIONWHICHUNLESS

Or, if Rabel takes up my further challenge:

ATWATERHOWEVERWASSINCETHEENDOASERIOUSINVOL
ETDNAETABILECTUBLLAOSLAROIRPSRAEYEMOSTNEMEV
NDEDTOBEEXTREMELYKEYEDUPANDAMBIVALENTINANYT
SSELNUHCIHWNOITAUTISDEGRAHCYLLAUXESFOEPY


Lewis Wetzel said...

I think Saenger is correct. The evidence that the ancients did not, by preference, read silently, is strong. Words to them meant something different than they do to us moderns. They were alive, speaking them pushed them into the world. They were more than information.
Genesis:
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

The "spirit of God" was His breath, His aspiration, His spoken word.

Cf. the beginning of Genesis with the beginning of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Lewis Wetzel said...

Greek Linear B was not a nuanced form of writing. It was used for making inventories. While there is evidence that it was partly syllabic (e.g., it could be spoken), much of it is not syllabic. It was not meant to represent the spoken word, any more than modern mathematics is meant to represent the spoken word. Sure, you can speak out what the symbols mean, but it is clumsy.