Reconsidering the Relationship Between Writing & Speaking

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of speaking, and especially talking, in contemporary society, and that has led me to think back over the rise of writing and its relationship to orality. For the next couple of weeks, I’m going to do some reviewing of that relationship here, in installments. Here’s the first:

Now that writing’s primacy has been waning for some time, I wanted to remember--just how did writing become so dominant, the seeming be-all and end-all of communication? This nagging question took me back to the ancient world, in which the spoken word was king (and queen). It took me to Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and his student, Phaedrus, written in the 4th century BCE. During their conversation, Socrates tells Phaedrus a myth that features Theuth, Egyptian god and inventor of many arts, including geometry and astronomy--and writing. Theuth brings these newly-invented arts to the god Thamus, who was especially impressed with letters, which Theuth assured him would make Egyptian people wise and improve their memories. 

In Socrates’s telling, Thamus contradicts Theuth, saying that as the “parent” of the art of writing, he is not the best judge of his offspring’s usefulness. In fact, Thamus continues, writing “will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls; they will trust the external written characters and not remember themselves. [Writing] is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.” As he always does, Phaedrus obsequiously parrots what Socrates says as “most true,” and then Socrates continues, saying that writing is, unfortunately, “like painting” which imitates life but is not alive: like writing it just sits there mute if you try to ask it a question. This deeply flawed art Socrates then compares to speech, “the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is no more than an image.” 


Jacques-Louis David's, The Death of Socrates (1787)Jacques-Louis David's, The Death of Socrates (1787)


This passage is no doubt familiar, and it’s one that draws me back over and over, especially in light of recent work in AI and what has been called “the voice revolution,” when we can ask whether digital assistants like Alexa or Siri or bots like ChatGPT whisper to us is “the living word of knowledge which has a soul.”

But first, I’m returning to a time before writing achieved hegemonic status, a time when orality—in the western world at least--was the primary means of creating and sharing knowledge. In doing so, I want to avoid any distinct binary between writing and speaking: alphabetic writing, after all, arose around 3500 BCE, and written codes can be traced back to the 8th century BCE—not to mention the “writings” in caves that were drawn many thousands of years before. So writing and speaking co-existed for millennia, as indeed they do today. Yet during the golden age of Greece, speaking was powerful; speech had “a soul.” 

And speech continued to be highly valued from that time through the medieval period (I remember learning hat Augustine is startled, almost alarmed, when he sees St. Jerome reading biblical texts silently: how, he wonders, can we know what Jerome is doing—he could be “saying” anything, and his refusal to give voice to the words is a cause for suspicion.) Indeed, oral communication held great value well into the 18th century. We should also remember that before the printing press made written text increasingly accessible, and for some time after, people who were not themselves “literate” could participate in literacy by way of listening to those trained to read texts aloud, thus bringing “the word” to the people and making them a part of those words.

It’s sometimes hard, given the ubiquity of print culture today, to take ourselves back to these earlier times and earlier ways of communicating, to remember how central the spoken, embodied word was to all parts of society. As recently as the first half of the 18th century, orality (and rhetoric) held great cultural capital. To be educated meant—in addition to being white and male—being steeped in oral communicative practices, in the law, in government, or in the church. In colleges of the time, students strove to master the oral exercises characteristic of the Progymnasmata (exercises that began with storytelling, progressed through forms like maxims and encomium and invective (!) and ended with extended argument),; they performed in debate and speaking clubs, presented declamations, orations, soliloquies: in U.S. colleges of the time, students advanced from year to year on the basis of oral performances of knowledge, not written tests (a practice we may return to given the rise and rapid development of generative AI). 

Women’s roles were, of course, limited in the seventeen hundreds, though as the century progressed, they increasingly made their way into the schools: Catherine Brewer became the first woman to graduate from college – at Wellesley in Georgia; Mary Jane Patterson was the first African American woman to secure a degree from Oberlin (in 1862) and Augusta Stowe Gullen the first woman to receive a medical degree from U Toronto (1883). In college, women sought to join the oratorical culture but faced many obstacles. While male students made oral presentations on graduation, women were discouraged from doing so: in one instance, Bob Connors reported that when a woman earned the highest honors, the college dropped the tradition of having that person deliver a special address altogether—rather than having a woman do so. 


Photo of painting via Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.