Word of Mouth

Edmund Leach

  • The Interface between the Written and the Oral by Jack Goody
    Cambridge, 328 pp, £27.50, July 1987, ISBN 0 521 33268 0

Jack Goody took early retirement from the prestigious post of William Wise Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and is now in a highly productive phase of his career. Indeed, if Cambridge University Press had not put many of his recent writings into a single series, it would be hard to keep track of all the things he has been up to. ‘Studies in Literacy, Family, Culture and the State’ so far contains eight titles, and in every case Jack Goody is author or editor. In four of these works the discussion focuses almost entirely on the problem of how ‘literacy’ affects the structure of a previously ‘non-literate’ society.

This is not of course a new theme. L.H. Morgan, the archetypal, stage-by-stage social evolutionist of the late 19th century, saw the great divide between Barbarism and Civilisation as marked by ‘the Invention of a Phonetic Alphabet, with the use of writing’. A hundred and fifty years earlier Vico had claimed that the hieroglyphic writing of the Egyptians was the first language: it belonged to the age of the Gods and was sacred and divine. Although Goody does not refer to either Morgan or Vico, he is very much concerned with whether or not the invention of some form of writing does or does not mark a major divide in the history of civilisation. Over the past twenty – five years he seems to have become increasingly sceptical on such issues.

Most of the text of The Interface has been published before in shorter ‘working papers’ in English, French and Italian, but the author has not hesitated to modify his opinions. The book can be, and perhaps should be, read by itself, but there are difficulties in so doing. In the first place, the original papers were not designed to form a unity, so that the argument is disjointed. Secondly, parts of the discussion are much more sharply expressed in the symposium volume Literacy in Traditional Societies (1968) and in The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977). Finally, the blurb advertises the book as forming ‘a natural complement’ to The Logic of Writing and the Organisation of Society (1986). In what follows I shall not attempt to assess the whole of this elaborate corpus but will confine myself to those parts of it to which The Interface makes a contribution.

The debate about the social consequences of literacy started off with a paper by Jack Goody and Ian Watt first published in 1963 (reprinted as Chapter One of the 1968 symposium). This, and the essay by Kathleen Gough which follows it, should certainly be read by anyone who wants to assess the pros and cons of the overall argument. The Goody/Watt thesis has subsequently been modified but key points have survived. The 1977 volume added some important themes, notably the observation that lists and tabulations are characteristics of literary texts rather than of off-the-cuff oral utterances, and therefore represent a change from an oral to a literary ‘mode of thought’.

As it now stands, the essence of the argument seems to be that the language of written texts is quite different from that of spoken utterances. Goody is concerned to identify these differences and to generalise about them. Chapter Two of the present work is explicitly concerned with such differences.

I feel happier when Goody is discussing what he really knows about (i.e. contemporary North-West Africa) rather than when he relies on distinguished (but not infallible) ‘authorities’ to explain such topics as the use of cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphic. Fortunately, he constantly comes back to the myth of the Bagre (current among the Lo-Dagaa of West Africa), which he personally recorded and which he originally thought was a standardised text. Later he discovered that the text varies substantially over short distances of space and short periods of time and, probably, in accordance with the precise circumstances in which the myth is told. The ‘discovery’ of the flexibility of the strictly oral Bagre story leads Goody to doubt the purely oral basis both of the Homeric sagas and the Hindu Sanskrit Vedas.

Another important observation is that literacy gives great power to the literati who thereby become the bureaucrats, lawyers and priests of large-scale political systems. This perhaps is fairly obvious, but it has the corollary that in such systems the literati have a vested interest in preserving their monopoly of literary skills, and in consequence jealously guard their prerogative. One common technique for such ‘guarding’ is to make it a major sin for anyone to learn to read and write who is not born a member of the élite and to insist that the most sacred texts are ‘secret’ and must only be recited orally (never read from a book). This intensifies the ‘mystery’ of sacred texts. But we cannot and should not assume that just because a particular text is recited orally it is part of an ‘oral tradition’ which has emerged from the mists of time. The Vedas are recited orally, but you cannot infer from this that they are ancient. In some parts of the Middle East the Qu’ran is regularly recited by blind mullahs. But a tape recorder would not support the belief among the listeners that these recitations are 100 per cent accurate reproductions of the original literary text.

Goody might perhaps have made more of the fact that it is only very recently that it has been thought plausible that the whole of a society, including the working class, should be fully literate. In the early ‘literate societies’ only a very small middle and upper-class sector had access to literacy, but the breakdown of this élitism perhaps owed more to the spread of printing than to any other cause. This would help to explain why literacy among the Chinese seems to have been much more widespread than anywhere in Europe from quite an early date.

In the course of his presentation Goody makes a number of generalisations which arouse my scepticism. Despite the comments of his critics, Goody still greatly exaggerates the technical difficulty of learning to read and write seemingly complicated scripts such those employed by the Ancient Egyptians and the modern Chinese. He overlooks the fact that in both cases there were/are shorthand versions of the scripts which are no more difficult than Pittman. It may turn out to be the case that in the end the whole Chinese population will be persuaded to speak a single language, but this will be as a matter of administrative convenience rather than the technical difficulty of learning to write Chinese characters. I cannot for the life of me see why there is anything intrinsically superior about writing the English concept of SENTENCE as a syntagmatic chain of eight letters in preference to the Chinese character of five strokes which, in the Beijing dialect, would be pronounced CHU but in other dialects is something quite different. We Europeans do not read alphabetical scripts one letter at a time.

There are other problems with his generalisations. Where literacy exists at all, a literate caste or class tends to seize all bureaucratic offices. But this does not imply, as Goody appears to suggest, that large-scale political systems require a literate bureaucracy. Great empires existed in pre-Columbian America, and although Goody (following Murra) implies that the Inca quipu amounted to a form of literate accountancy, this seems to stretch definitions rather far.

It is consistent with his direct observations regarding the Bagre that Goody should be sceptical of the belief, widespread among Indologists, that the Vedas – in particular, the Rig-Veda – could have been composed a millennium before they were written down and then preserved unaltered by a succession of teachers who never referred to a crib. But that is the mythology, and the prestige of professional Sanskritists depends upon it. Goody argues, in effect, either that the Vedas were nothing like as standardised as is supposed or else that all along there was a secret written text which provided the basis for standardisation.

The book contains much else besides: just how much else is indicated in the short final chapter of nine pages entitled ‘Recapitulations’ which in fact drags in a whole set of themes which have not previously appeared at all. But Goody still has plenty of time to tie in the tag ends of his argument.