Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Today's Reading: Paul Saeger: The Space Between Words: The origins of silent reading, Stanford University Press, 1997.

First, a game:

Click on the first passage, and try to determine what the passage is about in 6 seconds. Then click on the second and try the same thing

[ first | second ]

Now, try the first one again, but read out loud.

What a difference a space makes.

To most of us, reading silently seems like the most natural and obvious way to read a text. But it was not always so. Even something so humble and seemingly simple as reading has a history, and this history can be affected by the very techniques we use to read and write.

Distinguish three aspects of reading and writing:

  • a) the structure of language
  • b) the "technology" (the script)
  • c) the social context of use

Saenger's biological argument.

Saenger bases some of his research on psychological studies of reading speed and eye movement. He suggests that there are certain physical limits to what the human body can do, and therefore 'cultural' limits on the kinds of texts people can read aloud or silently.

Not all languages in the world need spaces. Why?

Some types of technology and some technical terms.

  • a) Alphabet: representing sound (phoneme)
  • b) Syllabary: representing syllables (morpheme)
  • c) Logography: representing whole words (lexeme)

Several languages are similar in speech but use completely different scipts. Exanples: Vietnamese, Chinese, and Tibetan all have completely distinct scripts, but the oral language shares many words and meanings. Similarly Hindi and Urdu. Compary this with the difference between English and Turkish. Same script, almost no words in common, even many sounds are different. Why not try these examples, from Luis d'Antin van Rooten's Mots D'heures: Gousses, Rames. Or a more provocative examples from Xu Bing (1 | 2).

History of scripts.

(Overview Diagram of some famous scripts)

Not all scripts in all languages have developed the same, and it is hard to know exactly why. Some combination of the structure of the language, the script and the social context can be used to explain some of it. Ancient Greek and Latin readers, according to Saegner, preferred reading aloud, focussing on a few important texts, and had little need for "reference reading" until around 900-1000 A.D. Stranger still, in the earliest stages, Greeks used spaces but not vowels. After adopting the Phonecian script and introducing vowels, they got rid of the spaces! Why?

Ancient readers, as we will see later in the class, lived in a world where oral memory, rhetorical rules, and excellent imaginations were far more important than skills associated with reading. The very idea of "literacy" seems to be quite different for the ancient scholar than for the modern.

Some examples of scriptura continua

The Middle Middle Ages (1000-1200) and the Late Middle Ages (1200-1400)

The late Middle Ages in Europe are generally known for the explosion of logical philosophical writings (often perjoratively called scholasticism ). As we learned from Saenger, this explosion was made possible in part by the introduction of spaces. Medieval Latin, which is significantly different from Ancient Latin, became the de facto language of scholarship throughout Europe.

Saenger disagrees with Eisenstein. Many of the things which Eisenstein suggests the printing press made possible, Saenger suggests were already occuring in scribal culture amongst scholars: Revising and rearranging, indexing, cross-referencing, comparison of texts etc. For Saenger, the separated script, which allows for faster and better silent reading was the sine qua non of a scientific revolution. How shall we assess these competing historical explanations?

Add social context. Saenger and Eisenstein are still largely concerned with elite scholars, a small percentage of the total population, but a percentage whose impact and importance is proportionally enormous. The adoption of silent reading led to changes in the presentation of texts (such as chapter headings and divisions) which in turn led to changes in silent reading. Eventually, the practice of reading and writing was tranformed from a primarily oral activity supplemented by texts to a primarily written activtity supplemented by speech. In each case the meaning and use of writing and speech has changed.

In addition this led to changes in commerce (the emergence of stationers and the pecia system of copying texts); in library architecture (around 1300) where now silent readers needed reference books (chained to the desks) and also needed silence. Libraries have not always been quiet places...

Imagine the experience of being in a lecture where the only source is the person speaking. Being able to read silently changes that dynamic. It is perhaps similar to the possibility of having a connection to the internet in the classroom...

What about privacy in reading? Is the imagination freed or captured by silent reading?

Up next: Dick and Jane... Written culture in the Middle Ages and the rise of literacy...

More words...

Lexical Access Time
Parafoveal Vision
eye-voice span
ocular fixations
Logogram, pictogram, ideogram
word order
Reference Reading
Virgil in Scripta
Christopher Kelty
Last modified: Fri Apr 25 09:10:29 CDT 2003