Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Language vs. Speech

So, a while back I signed on to a listserv about general semantics, one not affiliated with the Institute of General Semantics, but a listserv that's been around for some time, and is populated by some long time general semanticists. The folks on this listserv have no background in media ecology, and I just recently tried to explain some basic concepts about orality and literacy to them. And to be honest, I don't think I was very successful, at least not in getting though to the two individuals that most of my exchanges were with--perhaps I made an impression on some of the lurkers, I can't say.

The problem is not that they are steeped in general semantics, I hasten to add. There are many of us who work in both worlds, and others who are mainly in general semantics but have the intellectual breadth and depth to also be receptive to media ecology, like my IGS colleagues Marty Levinson, Jackie Rudig, and Bruce Kodish. No, the problem has more to do with the difficulty folks from a variety of backgrounds have with understanding form as form, technology as technology (apart from the uses we put it to), media as media (apart from their content). My friend Joshua Meyrowitz has said that people who say they study media study everything but the media, because just studying media itself is hard.

Anyway, the interchange did give me an opportunity to explain some media ecology concepts in relatively simple terms, and to try to make connections to general semantics in doing so. And since I went to all that effort, if nothing else, at least I can record my comments here in Blog Time Passing, for anyone who might be interested in reading them.

I won't use the names of the other participants in the discussion, and won't quote directly from their posts, since I haven't asked them for permission to do so. The exchange started with one individual asking if anyone could explain the follow quote from Walter Ong: ”Human voices are different than written words because the voice always speaks of an interior, an inside. Interiority is not a property of the flattened, and printed page." Here's my response:

Voice comes from inside of us, it goes from inside, from the lungs and diaphragm, through the larynx and mouth, to the outside. It is an outering of the inner world. Because it comes from inside of us, it is inherently subjective, you cannot separate the speaker from him or her words.

Writing is an invention that represents, symbolizes the spoken work in visual form, typically on a flat surface. It is about surface, the outside, not the inside. The written word exists outside of the communicator, it is inherently objective, separating the knower from the known, making possible a distanced appraisal, reflection, and criticism.

The sounded word is always an event, it happens in time. The written word becomes an object. Writing turns words into things.

Aristotle is a product of the literate culture of ancient Greece. I mention this is the article that was just published in the January issue of ETC, "The Future of Consciousness"

Simply put, oral cultures are inherently non-Aristotelian, literacy opens up the possibility of Aristotelian logic, and electric and audiovisual technologies, being postliterate, open us up to non-Aristotelian/post-Aristotelian thought. It's no accident that general semantics is formulated in the age of radio and talkies, just as it's no accident that Milman Parry establishes the basic research on oral culture around the same time, or that McLuhan starts to understand media as television takes over from radio.


I admit it, throwing "Simple." in at the end was a bit cocky. I was half joking, and thinking of a tape of Marshall McLuhan where he says that at the end of an explanation. But I really didn't expect it to be as far off the mark as it turned out to be. And as it turns out, the response I got was along the lines of, I don't understand, could you please explain, etc. So here's my next response, which repeats some of what I had said previously:

what you wrote is not without merit, in that people have bodies (which is what nonverbal communication is all about) and bodies have feelings (internal states that emotions are symbolic and cultural expressions of), and voice cannot be separated from the human body, at least not until the relatively recent invention of sound technologies. Voice is often used in an abstract and metaphorical way to refer to an aspect of writing style, but this is not what Ong is talking about. He is talking about the human voice as a concrete, physical, oral/aural phenomenon. The written word has no voice, it is silent. It has no paralinguistic cues, although punctuation marks and the like are an attempt to compensate. But there is no human presence, no body present, typically. This makes writing impersonal and text unable to answer questions, as Plato points out in the Phaedrus. The written word in decontextualized, that is, taken out of the context of human voice, human presence, human dialogue.

Voice and sound are physical phenomena.

Voice is produced by filling the lungs with air, and exhaling with the air passing through the larynx and mouth. Voice comes from inside the body and is sent outside of the body. The sound of your voice is at the center of your being, intimately bound up with your identity. Oral cultures, in which language only comes from within, do not separate words from the person speaking the words, in the way that we become accustomed to.

Writing, as a physical act, occurs outside of the body, through the use of tools such as a pen and paper. The written word exists outside of the writer, writing is written on a writing surface such as paper, or a wall. It is about surfaces, the outside rather than the inside. And once written, the text exists independently of the writer, and in this sense takes on a life of its own, and makes it possible to separate words from their author, knowledge from the knower.

Sound is a product of vibrations traveling through a physical medium like air, picked up by the ear as a sense organ, and of course processed by the brain. This physical process works in a significantly different way from that of vision, which is a product of light rays (particles/waves) traveling through a physical medium like air, picked up by the eye as a sense organ, and of course processed by the brain. All sound is surround sound, we listen in a 360 degree radius, occupying the position of the center, which is a subjective position. Vision, unlike sound, is directional, we cannot see all around us, we have to choose which direction to look, and for that matter, we can close our eyes but not our ears. When we look, we often look at "things" whereas sound is a kind of scanning of the environment in toto. And when we look, it is as if we are outside of the picture we are seeing, voyeurs on the outside looking in. This is an objective position.

And while we use all of our senses, the way that we use them and the balance among them is subject to change. When we evolved from walking on all fours to walking erect, our sense of smell atrophied, because our noses were no long close to the ground, and our sense of vision became more important to us. Before writing, when language could only take the form of speech, our senses worked in a relatively balanced way, and the sense of hearing had special emphasis because of the importance of speech. After writing was invented, but more so with the spread of literacy and its increasing prominence, more and more emphasis was placed on vision, while the activity of reading amounts to eye exercises that changed our use of vision. The result has been termed visualism, an emphasis on the visual and the written that first appears in ancient Greece and Roman in limited fashion, and takes full hold of western culture after Gutenberg's invention of the printing press. Visualism has gone into decline during the past century because the electronic media include sound transmission and recording, and otherwise work counter to literacy.

Once again, what Korzybski terms Aristotelian can only be produced by a literate culture (and does not have to be). Oral cultures are inherently non-Aristotelian, in the same way that they are naturally more attuned to Einsteinian relativity rather than Newtonian physics. Electric technology and audiovisual media also open up the possibility of non-Aristotelian thinking. I think that rather than the Aristotelian/non-Aristotelian dichotomy, we might think instead of pre-Aristotelian, Aristotelian, and post-Aristotelian.

There also was a second comment from this person about the distinction between oral and written communication not being physical like the parts of a spider, which I answered by saying:

Oral and written communication are physical phenomena as much as parts of a spider. Speech is a physical action, writing is a physical action that leaves behind a physical object. We can assess the differences between these two forms of communication, and look at how they relate to the differences between cultures that have speech but no writing, and cultures that have both speech and writing.
And then I responded to a further series of questions with:

Speech is a physical action, writing is a physical action that > leaves behind a physical object.
To the question of what physical object remains after speech, I said

None, that's a key distinction between them, that's the point I was making in that sentence. Both speech and writing are physical actions, but the action of writing leaves behind a physical object, the text, while speech does not. Ong puts it quite eloquently when he says that "Sound only exists as it is going out of existence." If you have never read Ong, you are missing out on something absolutely essential. His book Orality and Literacy is a popular summary, and the earlier work The Presence of the Word is his response to McLuhan's Understanding Media.
Then there was some further questioning on my comment

We can assess the differences between these two forms of communication, and look at how they relate to the differences between cultures that have speech but no writing, and cultures that have both speech and writing.
The argument being made by this other person was unclear, so I wrote

I'm not sure of your point here. Yes, we are making generalizations, just as scientists do. Without writing, you cannot look anything up. Without writing, you have no choice but to rely on memory. Without writing, it is very difficult to achieve verbatim memorization, because there is no text to check against. Without writing, you need to "think memorable thoughts," as Ong puts it, which tends to be in the form of concrete drama, actors performing actions, rather than ideas and concepts, and tends to be in poetic form, structured by rhythm and meter. Without writing, the tendency is to think in relativity concrete form, rather than utilize the higher level of abstraction that literates are accustomed to. Without writing, it is difficult to maintain large scale social organization, beyond the size of a tribe or village. Without writing, it is difficult to form a large army and exert command and control from a distance. Without a writing, there are no empires. Without writing, or numerical notation, it is difficult to go beyond the barter system in economics, and establish the idea of money. Without writing, there is no codified law, and judges rely on parables, sayings, precedents, not on abstract rules to settle conflicts. Without writing, there is no religion in the sense of a doctrine that you must accept or reject in either/or fashion, as there is no sacred text, no conversion, no heresy, and no abstract concept of monotheism for that matter.

I could go on in this vein, but I think that's sufficient for making the point.

At this point, there was a comment from another listserv member, a highly respected senior gs-er, who has had some exposure to media ecology, who made a connection to Deleuze and Guattari's concept of "deterritorialization", and Korzybski's "elementalism." This was a little bit of a tangent, and my response in turn was

In regard to intellectual history and patterns of influence, Deleuze and Guattari come after McLuhan and Ong, as do all of those poststructuralists and postmodernists, and were significantly influenced by media ecology scholars such as McLuhan and Ong, although they don't always acknowledge it, and by Korzybski, who of course preceded McLuhan and Ong, and have an effect on their thinking, albeit not as much as on Postman, McLuhan and Ong being more strongly influenced by Sapir, Whorf, and Dorothy Lee, and Vygotsky and Luriia.

At this point, the person who first posed the question about Ong's quote brought up the concept of "voice" in writing, which prompted the following comments from me:

Writers need to find their "voice" (or so some critics and teachers say). Writers have no voice because the written word is silent, unless someone reads it out loud, voices it. How absurd it would be to say, Speakers need to find their voice. There is no speech without voice. And the voice they use to speak with is obviously "their voice" (and if I read your words out loud, I am reading them in my own voice). One of the side effects of literacy education at an early age, as is the norm for us, is that we lose the important distinction between speech and writing, and it becomes hard to learn how to recognize it again.

At this point, this person marveled at how literal I was being, and insisted that speakers also need to find their voice! So I countered with the following:

you asked what Walter Ong meant. I tried to explain it to you. Yes you are speaking on another level, you are using "voice" as a metaphor, and that particular metaphor is in some ways a confusing one, because it obscures the important distinction between writing and speaking, and implies that they are essentially the same. The fact that so many people use "voice" in this abstract, metaphorical way without giving any thought to where the term comes from or the historical context is a sign of confusion.

Looking for one's "voice" as you put is a great way to catch the IFD DIsease. Idealize the abstraction of "voice" and go looking for it, never knowing when you've found it because there is no operational definition for it, which leads to frustration and demoralization for those learning how to write. The best writers I know generally reject the idea of voice, because their writing is not limited to one particular style.

At this point, the other person conceded some points, admitted ignorance in regard to Ong's work as opposed to McLuhan's, and questioned the validity of claims about a return to an oral culture, claims I don't recall making, hence my reply:

McLuhan had the popularity, while Ong was a very widely respected scholar, a scholar's scholar. He also served as president of the MLA.

No one really says that we return to an oral culture. Rather, many aspects of electronic culture either undo some of the effects of literacy and typography, or are themselves homologous with what Ong terms primary orality. We have not returned to a preliterate state, we are now postliterate. Big difference. Korzybski only considered the vertical dimension of abstracting, higher and lower levels or orders of abstraction. What needs to be added are qualitative differences on a horizontal axis, distinctions relating to the mode of abstraction. Put another way, the process of abstraction is one aspect of the process of mediation

So now, for some reason I can't quite determine, this person brought up the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, so I added this:

McLuhan did get into the brain hemisphere distinctions, especially after his brain surgery. I believe he was influenced, in part, by Julian Jaynes. If you find this interesting, you might also be interested in the book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess, by Leonard Shlain who recently passed away. Len was a surgeon and media ecologist, and he gave the 2007 AKML. A summary of the argument appeared in ETC, and was reprinted in the recently published General Semantics Bulletin.

Now, another listserv member left a comment using the term "verbal" instead of "oral" and bringing up the general semantics concept of time-binding, agreeing that writing enhances that function, to which I replied:

In referring to the distinction, we use terms like oral, aural, spoken, sounded, acoustic, auditory, etc. While verbal is sometimes used to mean the same thing, its basic meaning and root meaning has to do with words in general, as opposed to nonverbal for example, and not to speech or sound. In regard to time-binding, writing is more effective for information storage, yes, but also for the process of evaluation, because it allows us to step back from our words, literally view them and re-view them, and in separating the knower from the known, allows us to reflect on our words and criticize them.

He in turn responded that it seemed as if I was only referring to non-technical writing, and that he hoped I was also referring to math and physics. This led to yet another participant commenting on mathematics as a symbol system, and some further comments from the person who first brought the subject up. And my next post was this:

I don't believe I have made any statement that suggested I was only discussing one type of writing, as opposed to writing in general. I have been referring to writing in its totality, as a technology or medium, and as McLuhan says, the medium is the message.

Korzybski for the most part wrote about language is general, and symbolic communication in general, about words and symbols as media.

The concept of language itself is an abstraction of speech. To the best of our knowledge, all human societies that exist now and that have ever existed have speech. Only a small minority of them also have writing. Speech is hardwired into our biology, in the structure of the brain, of our throat and mouth, and in the genetic predisposition to begin babbling in infancy as a first step towards language acquisition. While no one knows when speech first appeared, as sound leaves no fossils behind, some estimates date it back to the first appearance of homo sapiens some 100,000 years ago, others to the creative explosion in prehistoric art that began some 30,000 years ago (there are theories that place it further back and others that place it more recently, but the range of 100,000-30,000 seems to be the general consensus). Writing first appears about 5,500 years ago, and was not widely used until the printing revolution less than 600 years ago.

Scholars of writing define it as a secondary symbol system. Writing consists of symbols that stand for other symbols, specifically, spoken words. Every word you read is a symbol that stands for the sound you would make if you read the word out loud, and that sound you would make if you read the word out loud is a symbol that stands for some concept.

Writing is a map, and speech is the territory. Writing is structurally similar to speech, but it is not speech. The written word is not the spoken word it represents. The written word does not represent all there is to represent about the spoken word. Writing being symbols of symbols, is a form of self-reflexiveness.

Writing abstracts speech out of the context of human presence and interaction. Writing, being itself an abstraction, opens the door to more abstract forms of thought that previously was possible or at least common. Writing allows us to step outside of the system of spoken language. You cannot fully understand or evaluate a system form within, Korzybski argued that non-Aristotelian language was needed in order to understand and critique Aristotelian language for example. Writing makes it possible to study speech (indeed, it is not possible to study anything without writing, which provides some "thing" to study), which makes possible the study known as rhetoric in the ancient world, and for that matter the entire trivium of grammar and logic/dialectic.

Writing does not just abstract language, it also transforms an acoustic phenomenon into a visual one. Writing uses visual symbols to represent oral/aural symbols. This shift in the use of sense organs has profound effects, as this gives language a permanence it never had before, making it available for study, evaluation, and criticism, and opening up the possibility of objective distancing. Even the relatively recent invention of sound recording technologies cannot duplicate all of these functions. The transformation from acoustic to visual is a qualitative change of immeasurable implications.

A distinction can be made between writing, which is understood as a medium for representing speech, and more limited systems of notation, which may be precursors to writing. Numerical notation precedes writing, and the first writing system, cuneiform which is invented by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, was developed by accountants. Some also make the distinction between literacy and numeracy. But as numerical notation leads to writing, it evolves the abstract conception of number in and of itself, as opposed to number as an adjective that can only refer to something concrete being counted. Writing then goes hand in hand with the development of mathematics. When the Semitic alphabet reaches India, and was adopted and adapted there, it led to the invention of zero (a higher level abstraction than other numbers, as the null set implies awareness of the set as a whole as opposed to the individual members of the set), and the invention of positional notation. Numerical and mathematical notation is generally considered a separate symbol system from writing (note the fact that while we use alphabetic writing, which is a phonetic representation of speech, numbers are logographic, aka ideographic, as you do not pronounce the numeral 2, it is not like letters which are combined to form words, it stands for a word in its entirety, and can be pronounced as two/too, or as dos, deux, zwei, shtaim, etc.). But numerical and mathematical notational systems have a close relationship with writing.
I want to interject that a lot of what I'm saying in these posts are things I say when I teach classes on this subject. Anyway, the original questioner now questions the idea of writing as a secondary symbol system by pointing to pictorgraphs, with Chinese writing as an example, as not being phonetic. So this prompted me to provide the following explanation:

The first writing systems to appear are all logographic, meaning one character stands for one entire word. This includes cuneiform in Mesopotamia, hieroglyphics in Egypt, Linear A in Crete and Linear B in Mycenaen Greece, the first writing system in India, Mesoamerican writing, and the Chinese writing system, which has been in continual use for thousands of years (it has not been abandoned because China has numerous, mutually unintelligible languages, and their writing system can cross linguistic divides much the same way that numerals do).

Logographic systems (aka pictographic and ideographic systems) are not considered phonetic, but they are still writing systems, secondary symbols systems where each character stands for an entire sounded word, that is, each character stands for a meaningful utterance. A lographic system, because it requires a different character for each word, has to have thousands, and tens of thousands of different characters.

Logographic systems usually start to add phonetic elements, but in a few instances a breakthrough occurs and the writing system is replaced by a syllabary, that is a system in which the characters no long stand for entire words, but for the sounds that are combined to form words. A syllabary would have one symbol for the sound "ba" for example, another for "be," another for "bi," another for "bo," another for "bu," etc. With a syllabary, we only need hundreds of characters rather than thousands. When the Babylonians took over from the Sumerians, they developed a syllabary, and this coincides with Hammurabi and the begining of codified law. The Japanese today have a syllabary, although they also learn Chinese writing and the western alphabet.

Phonetic writing is more abstract than logographic writing, because phonemes are abstracted out of morphemes, the sounds of speech out of the spoken word as a whole. The alphabet is an even more abstract from of phonetic writing. While vowels are syllables, consonants are not. The Semitic alphabet appears around 1500 BC, and is composed of 22 consonants. Consonants are on a higher level of abstraction because they are not syllables, they are not sounds, they are only potential sounds that only become souns when a vowel is added to them.

While logographic and syllabic writing may well have evolved independently in different places at different times (but may not have, we don't know for sure), the alphabet was only invented once. At present, the first apperance seems to be in the Sinai desert, and in its wake we get Moses and monotheism, and the second great instance of codified law. It is used by various Semitic tribes, including the Phoenecians, who sailed the Mediterranean, and introduced it to the Greeks. The Greeks called it Phoenecian writing, from when the term "phonetic," and they changed some of the letters to vowels to reduce ambiguity, and perfect the invention. A few more letters were added to the first 22 over the centuries, the Romans changed things around to create our own Latin alphabet, the Semitic alphabet evolved into Hebrew/Aramaic writing, and then Arabic, and diffused over to India where they developed their own version, another version of the Greek alphabet was brought to the Slavic peoples by St. Cyril, and the Koreans adopted the alphabet while using letters that resembled Chinese characters.

In sum, all writing stands for speech. Logographic writing uses characters that stand for an entire word (although in the process define what is and is not considered a word). Syllabic systems use characters that stand for the syllables that are combined to form words. Alphabetic systems use letters that stands for parts of syllables.

Writing abstracts and is associated with elementalism. In oral cultures, there is no concept of "word" as we understand it. Rather there is an utterance, which may be a signle word, or an entire epic poem. Writing abstacts out of utterance individual words, isolated as characters, and this is a form of elementalism. In normal speech, people do not go around saying "Cat. Dog. Sun. Moon." etc. Words are not isolated out of a speech situation, or out of the flow of conversation. Phonetic writing abstracts sounds, phonemes, out of words, breaking words down into syllabic elements. And alphabetic writing abstracts part of the process of making sounds out of the sounds themselves, reducing words to elements that cannot even be uttered as syllables for the most part.

So now this person asserted the traditional and erroneous idea that each character in a logographic system stand for an idea. And ok, I admit it, at this point I was getting fed up with this person, and the discussion, which was reflected in my reply:

At the risk of being blunt, you are wrong. The terms ideogram and ideographic are misnomers. So are the terms pictogram and pictographic, which is why no one could figure out what hieroglyphics meant, even though they are little pictures, or ideas, if you like, until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, which provided the exact same text in the Greek alphabet, in hieroglyphics, and in an Egyptian cursive script.

I do appreciate your curiosity.

This was my last post. The person who first asked about Ong did post an URL that led to a website on the topic of visual communication which had a list of definitions, including some of the traditional definitions of pictograms and ideograms that have been shown to be misleading. I was tempted to say something about the difference between a website with no citations or author, and my summary of the thinking of leading scholars studying the history and nature of writing for the past half century, But it just didn't seem worth the effort. And the other person who brough up mathematics insisted that mathematics is about concepts, and again I had lost the motivation to respond along the lines of how without spoken language, there is no such thing as mathematics, etc.

The problem, I think, is that if you only look at the meanings we make, or the semantic reaction to use genersal semantics terms, then sure, anything can be a symbol and stand for a concept. But there is are fundamental differences between symbols that are abritrary and conventional, and signal that have a direct and causal relationship to what they represent (and we can have signal reactions to symbols, and symbol reactions to signals, but that's another story). In semiotics, there is a fundamental difference between a symbol, an index (essentially the same as a signal), and an icon which resembles what it represents. Likewise, Susanne Langer differentiated between presentational and discursive symbols systems, and also among the many different art forms that fall within the presentational category. And there are fundamental differences among speech, writing, print, and the electronic and audiovisual media.

Maybe the problem is that form easily becomes transparent for us, as we become used to it, fluent and literate. In this sense, it becomes routine, taken for granted, and fades into the background, becoming part of the invisible environment. That, maybe, is why it took about 30,000 years of artistic activity to arrive at modern art, especially abstract expressionism, with its obsession with pure form, color for color's sake, paint for paint's sake, etc. An obsession that was quickly abandoned, I might add.

Or maybe it's me?

Nahhhhhhh. Couldn't be... could it?


Mike Plugh said...

Wow! First I have to say that I am reminded of the great loss I've experienced in having finished my work at Fordham. Were there a PhD program...alas.

Second, I honestly aspire to having the command of those details that you've shown and the facility in employing them freely like this. A lot of work ahead of me.

Last, in simple terms, it occurs to me that speech and the process of communication are circular in form. Leaving electricity aside, speech requires co-presence and also the full presence of mind of both sender and receiver. This naturally works more successfully in building and maintaining relationships thanks to the proximity and relative proximity of the parties involved.

Writing is something which begins within the writer and ends on the page. There is never any guarantee that there will be a receiver to process the messages, or that the context in which the message is finally received will even be understood.

Robert K. Blechman said...

I had no trouble following your discussion, but maybe that's just me. I would add that many preliterate peoples believed that consciousness originated in the lungs, not the brain (see Richard Onians, 1954). Since breath for speech also comes from the lungs, speaking was literally a type of thinking, an exteriorization of thought, as it were. It could be argued that writing permitted us to think with our brains, not our lungs (or guts), and led to the head/heart dichotomy we are still debating today, including distinctions between immediacy and reflection, acting and contemplating, knowing and believing.