January 21, 2007

Verba volant, littera scripta manet.

In English: Words fly away; written letters remain.

After the proverbs I've cited in the past few days both about writing and about speech, I thought this would be a good proverb for today. A related form of this saying is Verba volant, scripta manent, "Words fly away; written things remain."

The world we live in is so powerfully permeated by writing that it can be hard for us to appreciate that the invention of writing was a tremendous change in the history of human culture, which had flourished for thousands upon thousands of years without written records of the miracle of human speech. There are a couple of books I always recommend to people who want to ponder some of the mind-blowing implications of the differences between the spoken word and the written word: Walter Ong's Orality and Literacy and, more recently, Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. If you are especially interested in the study of orality and literacy in the classical Greco-Roman world, a wonderful introduction is Eric Havelock's The Muse Learns to Write.

These are all marvelous books, and I had to read them all in my "spare time," because they were never part of the curriculum of studies in all the many years I studied literature and languages at various universities. I've always been amazed and surprised at the lack of self-awareness on the part of the writing-centric university regarding the nature of writing itself. I think it's that lack of self-awareness which has made the university especially slow to grasp and understand the advent of new digital technologies which take the phenomenon of writing to a new level, making it possible to digitize and record human communication in all kinds of new ways - audio, video, and the unparalleled dissemination of images, images and more images, using digital technologies.

One of the most striking things I have noticed about the writing done by my students is that the problems they have with writing are strictly related to the problems that are unique to writing, and which are not factors in spoken speech. For example, they struggle with capitalization - not surprisingly, since we make no distinction between upper- and lower-case letters when we speak. They cannot manage punctuation, even basic punctuation such as commas and periods and apostrophes, because we speak perfectly well without punctuation. They cannot spell, and using a spellchecker really does nothing to improve spelling skills even though it can help you identify potential mistakes; the only way to really learn to spell is to read and read and read, something my students are not very likely to do in a world where video rules, absolutely.

I continue to attempt to teach my students writing skills exactly because the written word remains. When they go to look for a job, the traces they will leave behind with potential employers will be written traces: resumes, webpages, and so on. Oral skills are enormously valuable in person, but when you have to represent yourself in a more "permanent" fashion, you need to be able to use the written word to do that. Will written resumes and letters of intent be replaced by videocasts? Perhaps... but until that does happen, I'll keep trying to help my students master the mysteries of the written word.

Meanwhile, in that weird invisible permanence of digital audio, you can listen to today's proverbs read out loud:

1555. Verba volant, littera scripta manet.

1556. Verba volant, scripta manent.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

If you are reading this via RSS: The Flash audio content is not syndicated via RSS; please visit the Latin Audio Proverbs blog to listen to the audio. You can also hear this saying read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyraz?w obcych i zwrot?w obcojezycznych (weblink).
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mormorion said...

We pluck a flower and throw its petals to the ground, and yet its subtle fragrance remains in the air. That's the secret of written letters.

Laura Gibbs said...

What a lovely metaphor! Thank you for your comment. It is especially apt for the lyric songs of ancient Greece, preserved, silently, in the Greek Anthology (Flower-Gathering). :-)

miki said...

The history of literacy in Europe is fascinating! After disappearing with the advent of Christianity and despite localized attempts to remedy, illiteracy remained the lot of the vast majority-plebes and noble alike. Martin Luther attempted to somewhat remedy, sporadic attempts to teach individuals to write or read their own names can be recounted, and only with the Enlightenment and the introduction of public schools was the situation reversed. Interestingly enough, among the Jews the literacy was an accepted way of life. Moses received the Law orally and while still on the mountain attempted to chisel it out on stone tablets for all to see and read. One of the most important and primary of all religious commandments of the Jews was the demand for literacy. There were no illiterate Jewish men in Europe over 2000 years since all male children were sent to school from the age of three in order to be taught the Hebrew alphabet and to read. Without broaching the subject of anti-Semitism, one of the reasons that the Jews were hated stems from the very fact that in many localities, only the Jews could read the edicts coming from a far off monarchy written often in a different tongue, thereby enabling them to be coerced into positions of tax collecting, debt collection, and as the bearers of ill tidings.

Laura Gibbs said...

Great comment, Miki! And on that same topic it is probably worth mentioning that the alphabets of both the Greeks and the Romans were derived from Semitic alphabets! My Greek students were often completely flabbergasted to find out that the names of the letters of the Greek alphabet, enshrined in the names of their fraternities and sororities, alpha beta gamma etc. were very similar - and not by accident! - the names of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph bet gimel... :-)