Language is an oral thing


Language is an oral thing. Socrates lamented the invention of writing, saying that it robbed language of its life. This was approximately 400 BC. Since then, congruent laments have been uttered over the work of scribes in medieval monasteries, the development of the printing press, radio, television and, most recently, the internet. It is good though, to have that fundamental reminder: language is an oral thing.

We had such a reminder last night, at the Senior School Recitation Evening. Every student in the Senior School has to prepare a recitation and deliver it to classmates; last night, in the Copeland Lecture Theatre, 30 students were selected to perform for the SMUS public. It was definitely entertaining, and for just about everyone there, it was also thought-provoking. Imagine: an evening set aside to observe and experience the power of the spoken word.

In Socrates’ day, the recitation of the Homeric epics was still commonplace. One imagines the time of Homer, approximately four hundred years earlier than Socrates, when the spoken word appears to have reached its pinnacle in the Greek world. His two great stories would have been known to everyone who spoke Greek. The anger of Achilles, the honours and dishonours that contaminated the lives of humans and their gods: these themes of The Iliad provided the history Greeks were familiar with. Similarly: the solitary and epic journey of Odysseus, whose wiliness and weakness buffeted him around the Mediterranean while he strived to return to his wife and son in Ithaca: these themes of The Odyssey provided the most complete exploration of human nature available in that same Greek world. Plenty of food for thought, one imagines, when people gathered for their communal, convivial moments at the end of the day.

I am alternately amused, entertained and moved by the recitations of these students of ours, in this modern, technological setting on a Thursday night at our School in November. When a student delivers a piece – a poem, a monologue, a dramatic set piece – using the sole device of the voice and a few gesticulations, the communication is powerful because of its simplicity. I have to thank these students for enacting this long and rarely honoured tradition.


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