Guest Andrew Moore Posted January 28, 2004 Share Posted January 28, 2004 A mailing list to which I subscribe has recently seen some discussion of language and technology. The posting that follows is a response to some things I saw there. It's easy to be confused by what happened when. The printing press was not at first the means of mass production that we may assume - Gutenberg spent years setting up, and taking down, and resetting, the type for his Bibles. It's interesting that after the invention of press, the number of manuscripts produced by groups of scribes increased in much of Europe. And the luxurious printed books were illuminated by hand. It's only in the 18th, and more so, the 19th, centuries that printing becomes highly mechanized and affordable to a wide public. Writers like Dickens (especially in the cheap magazines he edited, and in which he published his novels first, serially) both help, and benefit from, the technology. William Blake is interesting - he's a printer, but uses handwriting, rather than movable type in many cases. The scene in Shakespeare in Love, where young Will keeps screwing up sheets of paper is deeply implausible - it was far too valuable a material for that. (To see just how much our forebears re-used and recycled, we need only look at the account in Our Mutual Friend.) Yet also it proceeds from an anachronism - we suppose that writers need to draft on paper. But any competent poet of the time would do all this mentally. Much later, Wordsworth tells us that he composed Tintern Abbey while out walking. There is a further corollary. I lose patience with school inspectors (in the UK) who insist on seeing lesson plans on paper. It seems not to occur to them that anyone can hold a complex or developed set of structures in his or her head. (I think it makes as much sense as asking a stand-up comic to show his or her "plan" for a performance - the point here is that the mental plan can respond, in real time, to the contributions or questions of the learners or audience - and it is impossible to find a piece of paper big enough to show the possible permutations of that.) It may be that some of the new technologies (voice telephony and broadcasting, say) will restore some of the primacy that the spoken word undoubtedly had in a society where many intelligent people were not formally literate. In Romeo and Juliet Old Capulet gives Peter a written message - he does not suppose that a servant will be illiterate. Peter, looking for someone who can read, knows that gentlemen, distinguished by their dress, may be able to help, and asks Romeo and Benvolio. Shakespeare's plays are full of messengers - but we should think of them not as postmen before their time, so much as message speakers. (Macbeth sends his wife a letter, but only because what he says is unsuitable for delivery by messenger. Sometimes the recipient of the message is honoured by the status of the messenger - so Duncan sends Ross to tell Macbeth of his new title.) Teachers often use Chinese whispers to "prove" the fallibility of the spoken word. But there are many societies today, and others in the past, where the accuracy of transmission would be far greater, if not exact. What that test really proves is that there are a few people to whom you should never entrust an important message. But when you appoint your town crier, you choose someone with a decent verbal memory. When the Player King arrives at Elsinore, Hamlet is able to choose from a wide repertoire - the players carry all of these plays in their heads. There's more to writing than paper... Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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