Why is Speech So Special?

2 Feb 2016 19:30 Dr Gerard Kilroy - University College London


Early societies prized their bards as story-tellers, historians and poets; Socrates asked his awkward questions before Plato turned them into dialogues; the greatest literature, like Sophocles and Shakespeare, has emerged from societies of the spoken word; and our democracy, like the Athenian, is based on a parliament. Yet much of our communication is now by email, text or tweet. Are we in danger of losing some sacred and irreplaceable good? Why is speech so special?

Words are where we live as human beings and as moral and spiritual agents.

Viva voce philosophical discussion is the purest human activity, and the best vehicle of truth.
Iris Murdoch

Western European culture has, for some time, given primacy to the written language: understandably since verba volant, scripta manent [words fly, texts remain]. The importance of major texts, whether in print or manuscript, has tended to support the idea that what matters is language on the page – in, for example, Plato, Augustine or Shakespeare – that one can dissect and analyse. Yet Plato’s dialogues grew out of his master’s relentless questioning; without Socrates, there would be no Symposium. Augustine’s Confessions has been a core text for nearly two millennia, but the key moment of his conversion is poised between speech and book, when Augustine heard a mysterious voice saying: tolle, lege, tolle, lege: take up and read. Are we right to give so much attention to the written word when the spoken word is what we all hear first?
Recent studies have shifted the emphasis to oral cultures. Within the last fifty years, studies of Homer have revealed that both his major poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, developed as oral poetry for more than two centuries before being written down. The great fathers of tragedy, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, wrote plays to be performed in large public theatres with dance, masks and action. Recent work on Shakespeare tends to show that there is no such thing as a fixed text of Hamlet or King Lear: rather records of particular moments in the history of a play being performed. The London population of his time, foreign visitors often noted, went to more plays than we can possibly imagine; while many of them could not read, all attended sermons as long as plays (about two hours), which interpreted the Bible in complex metaphorical ways. Theirs was an oral culture in which great literature was born and flourished; they talked, argued, disputed, shouted, hissed, preached, recited, and listened intently.
In our own time, much of that communication of the pulpit and stage has been replaced by electronic substitutes: tweets, blogs, texts, facebook and Youtube. Children now spend an average of three hours a day online; many adults are addicted to their mobiles, reading their text messages as they cross the road or drive on the motorway. Is this solipsistic world a substitute for conversation, for the subtle and flexible mode of communication that occurs when human beings meet and talk? Many studies have shown the beneficial, even healing, effects of talking; that children recognise intonation before words; that talking to babies markedly improves their intelligence; and that children who speak two languages expand their brains. The communication of dolphins seems barely indistinguishable from language, and has certainly been effective at healing human beings. Language itself is a mysterious and complex affair.
Language, we might agree, is good for us, but are we allowing it to die slowly of neglect? Has our assumption of the primacy of the written word allowed us to slide into accepting imperfect electronic substitutes and, in particular, the rise of abbreviated texting and anonymous, sometimes offensive, blogging. How precious is language? How important is good conversation? Does it matter that most debates in parliament are now attended by only a handful of Members; when the chamber is full, for Prime Minister’s Questions, there is more sound and fury than reasoned debate. How worried should we be about the decline in speaking, in conversation, especially in reasoned, viva voce discussion?