Frank Einstein, alias John Scieszka, is quoted by Shelf Awareness as claiming “I’m here to tell you that listening to books is reading. I’m not kidding.”

Well I’m here to tell you it’s not, and I’m not kidding either. Not of course that there’s anything wrong with listening to books: it’s how it all got started after all. When there was nobody around who could read at all Homer and his fellow storytellers would recite their tales to us. To say listening to an audio book is reading is like saying a zebra is a horse. They are connected of course, but a is not b.  People who can’t read (the illiterate) can listen to an audiobook. Reading an e-book is reading. Reading a print book is reading. Reading a Braille book is reading. Reading The New York Times on-line is reading. Listening to the news on the radio is not reading though of course it may be delivering the same information. Well maybe Frank isn’t as bright as his more famous cousin. I hope his books do well though. They may equal serious fun, without having to equal serious fun reading.

To what extent is hearing a work different from reading it? St Augustine’s Confessions credits St Ambrose (4th century AD) with being the first person to read silently — we should not be surprised that reading aloud was the early norm — after all everyone back then was used to hearing text. We tend now to mock anyone who moves their lips while reading, but mouthing the words is a recognized way of appreciating verse. By shaping the words we seem to gain a deeper appreciation: once again the physical reinforces the mental. In a comment on “Greek”, Jeremy pointed out that in ancient Greece  “it is to be expected that in a predominantly oral society (about 10% functional literacy) their aural responses to the world are going to be different too. One interesting thing about the other famous Sappho poem is that she is moved as much by the sound of the girl she desires as by the sight and is herself affected in her ears (drumming) and tongue (disabled).”

James Harbeck has an interesting piece in The Week, which gives examples of the way things were pronounced in Britain, going back from Shakespeare’s England to the time of King Arthur. (Thanks to The Passive Voice for the hint.) Ben Crystal doing a Shakespeare sonnet sounds now Irish, now Somerset, now Northumbrian. But we’ve no reason to doubt that his interpretation is basically accurate. The main point is that Shakespeare didn’t speak with an Oxford accent. The Beowulf bit, which is in the video below, is particularly impressive, and tends to confirm the idea that in a pre-literate culture tonal and pitch emphasis will play a greater role in the way a language is used. It may be surprising to learn that Benjamin Bagby was born in Illinois — he sounds so Viking.

I wonder if there’s any tendency for pre-literate languages to use pitch and inflection more than literate ones. Of course all languages, except Esperanto I guess, are survivals of pre-literate languages. One can see how writing things down might lead to greater rigor and complexity in a language. Latin almost seems like computer code: the rules are so extensive and so consistent that one could imagine its being born not from people talking to one another, but from authorities writing things down in “the right way”. Of course this can’t really be true: there were Latins before there was writing. But maybe its spread across a vast Empire was facilitated by written text and led to some sort of leveling off as the language base grew wider and wider.

 

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