Literacy in the Persianate World: Introduction (1)

Almost finished this book edited by Brian Spooner and William L. Hanaway published in 2012. Interesting collections of essay -- even though not quite as aggressive as Sheldon Pollock work on Sanskritization / Vernacularization, still quite provocative in its fundamental viewpoints, articulated in the lengthy introduction written by the editors.


Key Quotes from the Introduction:


1. "This book is based on the hypothesis that the relationship between spoken and written language differs according to historical context, that the differences are not all usefully explained by the linguistic terminology associated wiht the phenomenon of diglossia, and therefore the dynamics of change in written language may be different from those of spoken language in some cases." (p.4)


2. "It is worth noting that Greek writing did not support a professional class; neither did Latin, but Chinese did." (p.10)

Note: I think this is controversial and probably not fully accurate - Latin did support the clerical class in the medieval Europe; and Greek was the ruling class (soldiers) in the Seleucid times; and in China, literary Chinese is for the bureaucracy, but also at least for the monks, and essentially anyone educated that ended up not getting absorbed into the government (lots of those in late Imperial period).


3. "In the age of Greek, which at its pogee under the Seleucids extended from the Mediterranean into Central and south Asia, ..." (p.11)


4. "It is important to remember, however, that in the pre-Islamic period under the Achaemenians and the Sasanians writing may have been used only for government activities. Religious texts were transmitted breast to breast (sina ba sina). No one thought of writing them down until well into the 3rd century AD. The point was to know them by heart (Tafazzoli 2000)." (p.12)


5. "Althought the relationship has not been static, Arabic and Persian were more intimately intertwined down to the 19th century at least than even Greek nad Latin in the Roman Empire, or Latin and English in the 17th-19th centuries, or English and French in early modern international diplomacy. Not only had Persian adopted its Islamic vocabulary from Arabic but Persian (in its Middle Persian form) had influenced Arabic before Islam, and both languages had been influenced by Aramaic. (...) Moreover, the written forms of both Arabic and Persian were standardized during the same period in closely related and overlapping communities of writies." (p.14)


6. "One of the consequences of the emergence of mass writing has been a steady reduction of the social value of being literate." (p.15)


7. "The long-term stability of Persianate language and culture over such a vast area was made possible, perhaps uniquely in world history, not by a power center or other political institutions, but -- to list the significant factors in the order they emerged -- by a combination of bureaucratic heritage, the status of a secretarial class, a universally accpted legal framework (the shari'a), and a literary canon." (p.16)


8. "The curcial role in these networks was that of the munshi. Munshis constituted a professional class wiht high social status, political involvements, literary talents, and wealth." (p.18)


9. "Are there factors specific to reading and writing Persian in the nasta'liq or shekasta styles of the Perso-Arabic script that should be taken into account in assessing the history of Persian? ... For this reason the relation of penstroke to word is not always one-to-one as it is in a fully cursive Roman hand. ... But the experienced reader does not read analytically. However reading might have been taught, mature reading is always in practice not analytic but pictographic. ... What it takes to produce the succession of strokes in a configuration that a reader will scan with ease differs with different scripts. ... Persian stands out in the following ways: each stroke forms one or more letters ...; many letters take up very little if any space because they are implied in the form of the pen-stroke that encompasses several (mostly one to four) letters ... Handwriting was not just putting spoken language on paper. It was the writing of particular words and phrases that were institutionalized for particular purposes ... The academic discussion of Persian writing has been complicated by the distinctive cultural value of calligraphy..." (p.18-21)


10. "Language is a cultural artifact." (p.23)


11. "The language of texts written in the 9th century was still readable and recognized as standard in the mid-20th because although the canons evolved, the rate of change was slow." (p.23)


12. "Compared to Latin and Greek, the community of Persianate writing was smaller and highly fragmented but much more widely distributed. ... Complementary to these literate classes were the non-literate majority who knew Persian and listened to it being read out or recited, but did not write it, and whose lives were framed by the texts they did not read, but whose cultural status they recognized and subscribed to." (p.24-25)


13. "The essence of adab is its service in the role of ensuring the security of public interaction. Herein lies the essential difference between Persianate culture and the Western cultural environment of our discussions, which make it very difficult for Westerners to interpret Persian behavior correctly (medieval or modern). Althought our society has changed in recent generations, our heritage is that of a society in which everyone knew their place, and most people stayed in more or less the same social position thorughout their lives. It was a stratified society, with a structure derived historically from land ownership. The stability of Persianate society rested on different principles, which were egalitarian rather than hierarchical. These principles were enshrined in Islamic law. It was rare for any family to retain high social status for more than three generations. Public life involved continuous competition for status. The forms of behavior that fall under the general heading of adab not only provide respectability but disguise the underlying competition." (p.25-26)


14. "The particular cultural flavor of adab is centered in a form of civility, discernment, good taste, and the golden mean, which above all respects the privacy of the individual and avoids open public friction. The giver should be grateful to the recipient, not vice versa." (p.26)



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