Literacy in the Persianate World: Introduction (2)

Continuing ...


15. "Linguistics is a relatively recent arrival in the academic curriculum. As the scientific study of language it has defined its subject matter primarily in terms of speech. ... Our understanding of the history of written language and its relatioship to society has been further confused by a failure to ascribe any significance to the difference of medium, and to be alert to possible differences of dynamic between them."  (p.27)


16. "On one hand writing facilitated remote communication beyond local face-to-face interaction, enlarging the arena of interaction, both spatially and temporally. On the other hand, however, since writing was a skill that had to be acquired, its acquisition depended on relationships, and relationships could be controlled. In fact, writing ... facilitated both the formation of larger communities and (perhaps more significantly), the formal differntiation and discrimination within and between them. Before (or without) writing, social differentiation was based exclusively on criteria of descent and territoriality. Writing made possible a qualitatively new form of differentiation. ... As a vehicle of documentation it also led to the development of a sense of time, of history, which fed into ideas of legitimacy. Writing provides a communicative framework that facilitates and may socially encourage uniformity (though not equality) and build standards. Societies without writing are tribal ..." (p.27-28)


17. "Meanwhile, the implications of literacy have played out very differently in different cultural traditions. Such differences as are recognized are generally assumed to derive from differences in the relationship of the written form of the language to speech: the extent to which it is phonetically analytical. But this seems not to fit the Persian case." (p.28-29)


18. "Three major script-familities have played particularly important roles in world history: Arabic, Latin, and Sinic. (Some may wish to add Brahmi or Sanskritic, which we have not been able to include here.) Many languages have been and continue to be written in each. Languages written in the same script are historically related, whether or not they are also genetically related. They may therefore share features of areal convergence. ... But very little academic attention has been given to the comparative study of languages written in different scripts." (p.29)


19. "... languages belonging to different script-families are likely to exhibit greater differences between their textual traditions than languages that use the same script. What we may learn from the study of reading and writing in one language may not be valid for the study of others, especially where the script is different. Because of the Persian preference for nasta'liq and shkasta styles of the Perso-Arabic script, with their distinctive combination of diacritics and multi-letter pen-strokes, we will argue that even differences in the style of script can be significant." (p.30)


20. "But beyond this appreciation of the similarity between speech and writing as media of communication, we became impressed more and more by what we perceived to be differences between writing and speech as media. The more we considered the specifics of writing, the more we saw that our understanding of it (and therefore also of our historical sources) had suffered from lack of attention to its distinctive medium. We noted how little it had been investigated beyond the textual issues that were dealt with by philologists. Over the past fifty years the study of written language has been neglected, while the study of language generally has forged ahead with a focus on language, and languages, as spoken." (p.30)


21. "In this sense writing is not simply a skill, or a means of expanding memory and awareness. In addition to these important features it is an institution, in the sense of being a component of a larger organizational system, and it is one of the key institutions of society as we know it, from the Ancient World to the present. ... To be accepted socially as a writer it is essential to write correctly according to established models that must be learned and certified through socialization and apprenticeship with the right people. As our modern writing becomes further removed from the social conditions in which our historical sources were produced, we stand in greater and greater need of a comparative diplomatics that would allow us to go beyond the translation of the words in the text of a document and understand the information that is embedded in the organization of the words on the page and the sociology of its production." (p.31)


22. "In any given case it is assumed (depending on the date and discipline of the speaker) either that the spoken is an imperfect and ephemeral instance of the written, or that the written is a dead, fossilized version of living spoken language. The former opinion prevailed in the 19th century; the latter appeared a hundred years ago and has predominated since the middle of the 20th century." (p.32)


23. "One important result is that only in the past half century, with rates of literacy approaching 100 percent in many parts of the world and few areas left below 50 percent, the ability to read and write has begun to lose its social value, so that where we used to expect people to speak the way they wrote (and make sure they wrote correctly), it is now becoming normal to write the way one speaks. We are going through a period of re-accommodation between writing and speaking." (p.32-33)


24. "The acceleration of social change and the increased demand for reading materials that facilitated the spread of printing set this relationship in the West on a new trajectory some five or four hundred years ago. In the Islamic world on the other hand, and possibly elsewhere, it appears to have been specifically the culture of writing that inhibited the adoption of printing." (p.33)


25. "... it must be remembered that it does not take account of the way textual models may influence, and perhaps inhibit, change in written languages. ... until recently in any of the major script traditions written language has been considered more authoritative than speech. ... Every text needs an interpreter."  (p.34-35)


 26. "One of the major disntinctions between writing and speech in premodern times was that writing followed models ... In this way writing is comparable to ritual: innovation endangers its efficacy, but interpretation of what has been written, as of what is acted out in ritual, may change with time. ... Any action that is repeated to the point where it becomes by nature repetitive takes on the quality of ritual." (p.35)


27. "With the demise of the Western Roman Empire, the Sasanian Empire in western Asia, and the Sui Dynasty in China, within a period of less than 200 years, the quality of writing everyone changed ... and was reborn wiht similar differentiation in the medieval world of the Holy Roman Empire, the Caliphate, and Tang China. These were three distinctly different, but historically related, textual communities. They were textual communities in the sense that being a part of them involved acknowledging an administrative framework that depended on writing. The new situation has been well described by Stock (1984:18): "What was essentail for a textual community, whether large or small, was simply a text, an interpreter, and a public." (p.39-40)


28. "Writing not only becomes ritual, but gradually subsumes all ritual." (p.41)


29. "It is generally assumed that the number of people reading and writing in a particular society is a function of the intellectual difficulty of acquiring the skill. This assumption derives from another: that reading and writing becomes easier as modes of writing become closer to straightforwardphonetic analysis of speech. But this argument ignores the statistical evidence of the past century (which shows high rates of literacy in, for example, Japan and Kerala), as well as any comparison between the spelling of English and French which do not spell phonetically on the one hand and (for example) Italian or Turkish on the other, which do. It also ignores the historical example of Attic Greek." (p.41)


30. "The minor reform of English spelling by Webster in the early 19th century provides a similar, though less sensational illustration. It is obviously more important to English speakers in different parts of the world that they should be able to share written material than that they should write the way they speak." (p.42)


31. "But the social organization of the uses of reading and writing and of recruitment or induction into classes of readers and writers has been a much more important factor historically thatn the nature of the relationship between written and spoken language." (p.42)


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