on reading and writing

Today’s speculation will venture I think into the weeds a bit, but it’s an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a while.

Speaking and listening are things that human beings have been doing, even before we were as human as we are today. Our cousins the Neanderthals also spoke and listened, and though this is tangential to the main direction of today’s speculation, what were the stories that Neanderthals told each other sitting around their fires at night? And wildly speculatively, do any of our oldest stories contain any echoes of stories our distant ancestors might have heard while sitting around those

Reading and writing are both much more recent. The mechanics of writing are relatively straightforward, in terms of alphabets used. But as we are all aware, written language is different than spoken language.

Written language carries much less of the tone of conversation that lives within spoken language, and none of the body language that is so important to face to face conversations. In this sense, written language is incomplete, in terms of the information it carries.

Beyond this, written language seems to follow a different set of rules than spoken language. It’s more formal, and perhaps this formality developed because of the lack of tone just noted. This is something that I’m sure someone has written on, and so this is something that I may try and explore going forward.

Reading is more interesting. I know that the mechanics of reading are a deep and fascinating area of study. For instance, despite what we seem to experience, our eyes do not move from one word to the next calmly along the page. Rather our eyes dance around.

What I find most fascinating are those visual images that demonstrate that we only need to see the top parts of letters to read, or studies that demonstrate that the order of letters in a word isn’t all that important.

These images and studies then lead us into deeper questions about how our brains make sense of the world around us, and how well we understand what our brains are doing. This last part is important if only because we need to have this understanding, so that we can defend ourselves against the tricks being waged against us.

I’m sure there is a good story about human psychology becoming an area of knowledge that we find ourselves not wishing to share with an extraterrestrial species with whom we’re in conversation, if only so that we don’t give them the keys to our inner kingdoms.

A final note on all of this, and I am aware that I have not even scratched the surface of what is a deep and fascinating area of exploration, is related to teaching. To what extent is it the case that how I retain information differs between when I listen to someone speaking and when I read something that someone has written.

So there’s a lot here for me to explore, and indeed for all of us to explore. Looking back, I can see that I am circling around some of these same ideas, and perhaps the time has come to stop circling, take a deep breath and dive in.

~ by Jim Anderson on 31 July 2019.

6 Responses to “on reading and writing”

  1. And how about the mechanics of writing? If I put fingers to keyboard the words seem to flow on their own – fairly slowly because I’m a hunt-and-peck typist. Yet I’m not sure I would write in the same way if I spoke the words aloud into a dictation programme. In fact I would find that verbalising my words would throw up a roadblock between my brain and the page. Verbalising is (almost) the last stage in my writing process. It comes after editing and spell-checking. I read my story/book aloud as a final check to see if my mouth stumbles over awkward phrasing or typos I’ve missed.

    • Dear Jacey – Thanks for the comment. I think the mechanics of writing are fascinating, and I suspect that there is an art to dictation that might be becoming lost over time. I can remember listening to people as they dictated, and they would pause relatively frequently, composing the next part of the message. But I think it’s also interesting that you do go back and listen to your writing as a final check.

      A related aspect of this whole question is handwriting versus typing. We still ask students to hand write their final examinations, even though I suspect that some have very limited experience of writing significant chunks of text by hand, as they will almost always have to type out their coursework (with a few exceptions, such as math problem sets). But I do wonder about the extent to which people will be writing by hand at all in a few years time.

      Cheers – Jim

  2. Jim, this is FASCINATING. Please continue your investigations, am interested in your further thoughts.

    And Jacey, this is also fascinating. As (both of you) could easily deduce from a superficial study of my fiction writing, I *start* with voices. I overhear my characters talking and write down what they say. I often have problems getting them to shut up and DO something. So there’s an interesting connection between my internal monologues (or more often, discussions, if not outright arguments), which are presumably speech-oid rather than accurate reproductions of realtime verbal communication (my internal voices don’t go um and er, for instance), realtime voiced speech, and written representations of verbal communication…

  3. Very early stories — cave art? I will check on this, but my memories of early European cave art are “hunting”. Beautifully observed and rendered pictures of prey species, “stick figure” representations of men with weapons, scenes of animal-killing. As I remember it, these scenes don’t include either tool/weapon-making, or post-hunt feasting, just the hunt — with dead animals and people.

    There are also handprints — Neanderthal handprints — and hand outlines.

    There are early statues of pregnant/lactating women, and if you believe Maria Gimbutas (spelled wrong?) there are early pictures conflating women and birds.

    • And yes, cave art! I think the story of cave art is becoming more complicated, as we develop a greater appreciation and greater knowledge of just how long the people we know as people, as opposed to cousins, have been haunting those caves. But they do seem to be an attempt to preserve something, to tell something to future generations, and that to me seems to be the soul of story.

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