[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 7, 1988/1 pp5-8]

Form and Reform: the Four Great Communicative Shifts.

Tom McArthur


Born in 1938 and a graduate of both Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, Tom McArthur has held varied educational posts: in the British Army, in schools in England, Scotland, and India, and at the Universities of Edinburgh and Quebec. He now edits English Today and is preparing a major new work: The Oxford Companion to the English Language. We here print with his permission an edited transcript of the talk with which he opened the Society's Fifth International Conference in July 1987.

0. Abstract.

This general description of a new way of looking at the history of writing will not provide a solution to all the problems of spelling reform, but may provide a framework within which traditional problems can be re-examined. The four great historical communicative shifts are:

1. the acquisition of speech, including its storage by mnemonic means
2. the acquisition of script, including the alphabet
3. the acquisition of print, with its appearance of perfection and standardizing tendencies
4. the acquisition of other media, esp. electronic, including keyboard and screen.

1. Public views of spelling reform.

Working with Cambridge University Press, my particular concern is the magazine English Today, which has if nothing else a variety of picturesque covers. It is what we call 'the international review of the English language', that is, its subject matter is everything conceivably to do with English. One of the topics that has emerged, not through editorial planning, but through the persistence of a variety of correspondents, is spelling reform. Reactions range from curiosity and in some cases respectful interest to total disdain and utter amusement.

As editor of English Today I am constrained and personally inclined to try to be nice to everybody. That means that I talk with the most radical and the most reactionary of people with views on what English should be and what people should be doing with or to English, and why other people should stop doing what they are doing to English. So we have had a rich correspondence on the subject of spelling, and almost every issue has a weird letter in it. It is weird not because of its content, but in terms of its presentation, because it is in somebody's conception of what a simplified or reformed spelling should look like, and of course every one is different. The readers see that every one is different, and certain readers draw certain conclusions from this. Some might say, isn't it fascinating, every one is different, and others say, isn't it stupid, every one is different.

I thought that the magazine ought to do something about simplified spelling at some stage, because it seems to be such a central issue in the English language.

Working with Oxford University Press, my particular concern is the Oxford Companion to the English Language, to stand alongside the very well known Oxford Companion to English Literature, recently revised by Margaret Drabble. We hope to publish in 1990-91. Again, one of the things I feel we have to do in that volume is describe the history and the nature of the spelling reform movement adequately and with respect.

2. A personal view.

This does not mean that I am personally convinced that spelling reform is either worth having or likely to happen. I think I can safely say that I have an open mind in the matter, but I am extremely curious about the attitudes involved, not only of those who are committed to spelling reform, but also of the majority of people with their very puzzled and often disdainful attitudes. I am interested in the reform movement as a phenomenon with all the ripples, all the effects it has, as it occurs in the late twentieth century.

In recent years, from the scholarly point of view, I have also become more and more interested in the history of reference materials, which has forced me as a linguist to become interested in the language and the formatting of reference materials over not decades or centuries, but millennia. I sometimes describe this approach as 'cosmic'. Some of the ideas are by no means my own ideas alone, although I like to think I have cornered part of the market, but they have come, and are coming, from a number of different scholars, most of whom do not know each other personally. A trend is developing.

3. Scholarly views: Eisenstein and Ong.

For example, we have the American scholar Elizabeth L Eisenstein who has published with Cambridge University Press a wonderful book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. She has said that lip-service has been paid to the importance of the printing press, but people have not seriously looked at why the printing press is important and at what social, cultural and psychological effects the printing of language has had on our activities and our mentalities.

Another seminal book is by a Jesuit scholar from St Louis, Walter Ong. He has written a number of interesting books on the subject, but the main one is Orality and Literacy. Walter Ong has in particular pointed out to our civilisation that we are "far-gone literates". We are almost so "far-gone" into literacy that we have forgotten the roots from which we come, which he calls "orality". It's not that we are not 'oral', it's not that we don't talk to each other, but he argues that we have become so committed to literacy that we cannot conceive the previous much longer span of time when people had no conception of literacy. We cannot conceive of that time except as a variant of literacy. He gives as one of his examples of this the phrase "oral literature", and he says it is a ridiculous term, and it is a ridiculous term. It is a hindsight term.

4. Text-bound thinking.

It is used when people look from the ivory tower or from the printing press or from the world of education outward to aboriginal ethnic types who haven't managed to get their foot on the ladder of literacy. They are thought of as illiterate, unlettered, or pre-literate, which is an interesting state, because to be pre-literate implies inferiority. Ong says, the concept of oral literature is projected backwards from literate societies, whose thinking is text-bound, on to people who had no conception of text.

It is interesting that Ong and others have not offered an alternative expression for oral literature. There are people in the business of discussing orality who continue to use the expression 'oral literature', although Walter Ong indicated that they should not. I am fascinated that two different people in two different parts of the world, myself and a scholar at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, have invented the same word at almost the same time for what people are calling oral literature (see below).

5. The historical perspective.

In addition to Eisenstein and Ong there are such commentators as Antony Smith in Goodbye Gutenberg - the Newspaper Revolution of the 1980's who is concerned with newspapers, with the printing press, and with orality in these matters, and Roy Harris at the University of Oxford who is concerned with the origin of writing. Each of them recognises that they are dealing with part of a matrix, a cluster of much larger issues, all of which are dependent on each other.

I approached the same issues from the point of view of a maker of dictionaries. My profession tends to take the dictionary as given, it doesn't think too much about it, it tends to look at the last one and then prepare the next one. Over the fifteen years or so in which I've been involved in lexicography, however, I began to delve further and further back into its origins, and finally produced, published by Cambridge, Worlds of Reference, which is much more than just a book about dictionaries. I found that I couldn't talk about dictionaries without bringing in encyclopedias. I began to be curious about why we have books at all, and whether their shape was the only shape the human race had tried. Parchments and papyrus and clay tablets and various other things came into the circle of my interest. But not only those, because all of those were successful in some sense. I also became interested in the failed technologies. There have been a number of failed structures for the presentation of knowledge described in Worlds of Reference.

6. Revolutions and shifts.

In the process I tried to synthesise two conceptions: one was the word 'revolution', especially in the phrase 'communication revolution', and the other was the word 'shift'. 'This led to the idea that you could have an enormous upward movement in the experience of the human race, as if we were lifted from one rung to another of a ladder (which sounds dangerously like Social Darwinism). Because there's a ladder, people who are one rung higher up tend to look down with smug condescension on the people on the rungs below, whether they still exist, or whether they were there in the past.

Out of this I tried to create a model of what I call the four great communicative shifts. This is not a platonic ideal model. I don't believe that somewhere up in a comer of the galaxy there are chiselled among the stars the four great communicative shifts. This is just a model. It is useful or not, it is more useful or less useful, it is simply something to help us reflect on this particular phenomenon.

7. The first shift.

The first of the great communicative shifts happened so long ago that it is almost pointless trying to date it. Let us suppose it was something like 50-100,000 years ago. The acquisition of speech is interesting because all the equipment was there long before speech itself evolved. In the anatomical and physiological arrangement of the human being, you have the primary apparatus for breathing, eating, drinking, spitting, grunting; and over a long period of time this primary apparatus acquired a secondary set of functions. It took a long time, but compared with the much longer duration of physical evolution this first shift was short and sharp.

Within that shift there was a subshift, which I call 'storage speech'. We can store our speech today by using modern technology, but at the time of the original first shift human beings had no external means of holding on to anything that you could call knowledge, except possibly through cave art and the like. Our ancestors and the diminishing oral societies around the world today needed storage speech.

8. Storage speech and orature.

I think one can describe the phenomenon of storage speech in some detail, but I'll only mention one or two of the main points here. Stylisation is a marker of this kind of speech, as are rehearsal and training. You don't normally stylise conversation. But when I give a formal talk, I'm doing various things which are quite stylised, although they're fluent. My body movements are synchronised with my speech in a conventionalised way. What I do as such a performer goes back to the creation of storage speech thousands of years ago. It is something human beings have learnt to do and have transmitted down the generations, and as Walter Ong says, we have not been able to think about it enough because the other shifts get in our way. Storage speech is stylised, rehearsed, formulaic, and repetitive; it is fitted together with formulas, as for example most obviously in poetry.

Storage speech is rhythmic. I don't use storage speech when I give a talk; I use something which the Greeks called rhetoric: a delivery system. But if we didn't have any other supports, I couldn't give a talk in quite that way. Instead, would be reciting in the way I was taught Homer's Iliad in Glasgow many years ago. But even the way I was required to memorise Homer was not the style of the ancient Greeks. When I recite, I'm regurgitating text. But before there was text, people bolted formulas large and small together, and no second or third performance was ever the same. They had no yardstick, nothing permanent, yet they created enormous projections of genealogy and epic and other cultural databases, plot driven, to enable their cultures to survive, and to believe in themselves, to value themselves, and maybe to wage war with their neighbours who had a different set of plot-driven techniques.

That's where we all came from, that is orality. But there are certain kinds of storage speech which need to be called something more delicate than that. The word that the lady in Kenya and I simultaneously created is 'orature': which is a blend of oral literature. It overcomes the idea of literature being superordinate and oral literature subordinate, because orature came before literature. There is no question of superiority.

9 The second shift: script and scribal culture.

Normally people talk about the second shift as being the invention of writing. I would like to be more specific and talk about it as the invention of the technology of script. We have a strong tendency in our society to talk about writing, and use it as a generic term to include print. We talk about reading and writing, not about reading and typing, or reading and typesetting and so on. Writing is a useful generic term, but I'd like to talk about script and scribal cultures, following Eisenstein and Ong.

Eisenstein said it is very difficult for members of a print culture to imagine what the world was like before print. Scribal cultures are marked by many things, but one of the most important points about them is that nobody in a scribal culture expects universal literacy. The idea of universal literacy doesn't come until late in the third shift. In a scribal culture it is a matter of pride and expectation that only a very small number of people, almost entirely male, and eventually religious males in many cultures, is responsible for recording on surfaces. They were also responsible for the copying - they controlled whether it was done individually as in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, with a single copyist making a single copy, or whether someone dictated and twenty copyists took it down, all slightly differently, all doing their best, all getting it slightly wrong. This is how the idea of corrupt texts came into the world.

10. The alphabet.

The second shift had a subshift that is of particular interest to spelling reformers. The second shift began round about 3500 BC in Sumer in the south of Iraq. Quite a long time passed until about 1500 BC, 1000 BC, when half way between Egypt and Babylonia the alphabet was created.

The alphabet arose in three main stages, from the ideogram, through the syllabogram, to what we call a letter. An ideogram is an idea expressed in a symbolic fashion. The number 5 is an ideogram, because it can be pronounced cinq, cinco, five, fünf, whatever you want, and you interpret it as the Chinese interpret their ideograms, according to your own phonic system. First there were ideograms, and in a kind of evolution you move to syllabaries, syllabograms, and then comes the breakthrough.

Evidently this breakthrough only occurred once in the history of the world. Only one basic clutch of primitive alphabets arose, around Phoenicia and Canaan, but they were the key to the future. I would like to suggest that the alphabet was a bit like the creation of the computer. It spread in all directions. All the alphabets derived from that one source, as far as we know.

The alphabet achieved a particular impetus when it reached Greece, because the Greeks put vowels in. We have often wondered how the Greeks managed to develop so rapidly round the sixth, fifth, fourth century BC. A major factor that facilitated the creation of Greek philosophy, logic, grammar, and a whole range of other things, was the availability of alphabetic writing. We have been so impressed with it that many of us in the western world think that an alphabet is the supreme writing system, and that because alphabets are rather good, syllabaries are a bit suspect, and ideograms are useless. We therefore dismiss the Chinese with their 40,000 ideograms; and the Chinese today have said that they will have to do something about them.

11. Printing.

The second shift lasted for quite a long time, from the fourth millennium BC up to 1450 AD, when Gutenberg is credited with inventing the printing press. The remarkable thing about movable type was its beauty. The calligraphy of the scribes was beautiful as well, but the printing press was beautiful in certain rather special ways. You could produce enormous numbers of copies, and none of them was corrupt unless the original was corrupt (and you could argue about that). You could also create in stages: you could start using longhand, then you could process it into the first copy, and it could be proofread, and then it would come out looking beautiful.

This vision of unaltering type has had an enormous impact on our own culture, because for the first time in human history we had a clearcut conception of 'proper' language-proper language not just for the little guild of scribes, but for anybody who claimed to be educated and anybody who claimed to use the standard language.

12 Orthography and standard languages.

The idea of a standard language was largely influenced by orthography, which means 'the right way of writing'. Not long after the word orthography entered our culture, so did the word orthoepy. Most people have never heard of orthoepy because it died out, but one of its cousins, elocution, still survives. The idea of orthoepy was that if the printed page could be so beautiful, so could the spoken word.

Those languages that dominate education - in the western world at least - are the languages which got into print first, and stayed there. Dialects, junior languages like Scots and Gaelic, Catalan and Occitan and so on, got into print later and had much more trouble staying there. Of course the idea of a standard print language made the alphabet much more interesting than it was before - you met it everywhere you went.

The curious thing about these forms of language is that people tend to canonise or classicise or divinise them. Just as Homer came to be thought the greatest epic writer ever, and just as people worship Shakespeare, so also many people worship the earlier forms, not only of literature, but of orthography. Those forms were created for practical, technological purposes by printers in collaboration with writers - Caxton was a good example of this. They created and filtered and processed and finally fixed. Fix was a word loved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They 'fixed' the written language, and Samuel Johnson wanted to and was encouraged to 'fix' the spoken language, but discovered he couldn't do it. Dictionary-makers and others continue to try. Writing does have an effect on the standard language at least.

In the course of time with any language, as it becomes the language of print, its orthography is either created for that purpose, or the existing orthography is polished a bit, and then freezes, and becomes holy. And if not holy, it becomes familiar. That is one of the biggest single obstacles to spelling reform.

13. The fourth shift.

The fourth shift is actually a whole cluster of subshifts, the central one of which is the computer. There is photography, cinematography, the telephone and telecommunication, television, radio, audio-recording, the whole battery of high- technological activities which have blessed the twentieth century. Social Darwinians believe that all this is a process of continuous improvement, but it can also be argued that you lose things along the way.

The centrepiece of the fourth shift is the computer, a most demanding instrument. It will do wonderful things for us, it terrifies us and it excites us, and we haven't begun to discover its full potential - we're still on the edge of this new shift. The fourth shift enables us to see the other shifts more clearly. Here at the end of the twentieth century English spans the globe (like Latin during the second shift in Europe). English spans the globe and so does the computer; they go together: English is the primary language of the computer. That is something which must be extremely important in any discussion of the adaptation of spelling.

14. Reform or re-form?

The title I gave this talk was Form and Reform, but we could put in a hyphen, giving us Re-form. Reform means there's something wrong with what went before, but some people insist there's nothing wrong with our English spelling as it is: they say that it is beautiful, it has been polished over the generations, it is a heritage we must hand on, and in any case, how can you change all the existing literature? I suspect that reform is less likely than re-form.

Just as storage speech declined in value when script was created, and that is a technological matter, just as script declined in value when print was created, and that is a technological matter too, so print and the orthographies traditionally connected nowadays with print and script may cease to be as interesting and as important, as we move into a world where writing and computers become inseparable.

At the moment computers can cope with the peculiarities of English or French spelling, because the computer is not being asked to do anything truly human. But as time goes on we shall be asking computers to do things that resemble more human activities, one of which is voice recognition, and the translation of the voice into computer language. Another thing we shall ask computers to do is not simply to present language that we have already given to them, but to create language responses of their own. It may turn out that the people who prime or program the new technology for such purposes will discover that our orthography is not good enough. They will not primarily be interested in education or logic. They will be interested in whether the machine can do the job, just as people were interested in what a printing press could do, or what a scribe could do, or what a Homeric bard could do, in days gone by.

15 Technological motivation for reform.

Such bodies as the Simplified Spelling Society are logically concerned with the shaping or re-forming of English orthography for practical purposes like education and international communication. I suspect we should be thinking towards the day when their aims coincide ' with commercial and technological need. I suspect that only technological pressure will make any difference. Reform will come when that pressure is so great that the commercial and technological people who want things done will want to talk with people like the Simplified Spelling Society, for their own reasons. In the process, the Simplified Spelling Society might get done some of the things that it wants done, for its reasons.

16. The Japanese factor.

I would like to finish by pointing to one community in the world which is becoming obviously important now in a way that ten years ago was not so obvious. That community is the Japanese, who are extremely interested in high technology. The Japanese are also among the people in the world who use ideograms - kanji, minimally adapted from Chinese. If you can read kanji, you can read a lot of Chinese. That is one of the bonuses for learners of Japanese: they learn to read a bit of Chinese.

The Japanese have got kanji, or ideograms, as well as two sets of syllabograms, the kanas. One set, hiragana, is for traditional syllables of Japanese, the other set, katakana, is for foreign words in the Japanese language, which are syllabified in the Japanese style. Written Japanese mixes all three, kanji, hiragana and katakana. This isn't apparent to the foreigner who has not learnt to read Japanese, but the Japanese themselves see the three running together. This affects them neurologically, psychologically, culturally, in ways of which we have little conception.

The Japanese are also experimenting with romaji, that is, representing their language in our roman alphabet, so that they end up with four sets of symbols. And a very large number of Japanese learn all four. Which if you think about it is a great deal more than Westerners do. They're doing it by the million, they have a lot of money, and they have a lot of computers. We should watch them. They are learning English in equally large numbers, and may well have a say in the reformation, if and when it comes, of English orthography.

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