Commentary 1 “I Have Spoken”

In his essay “I Have Spoken” Hochbruck talks about the use of oral traditions in written texts.  He discusses how using the standard rhetorical closing formula of “I Have Spoken” brings to mind some notion of orality and authenticity to the reader and the problems with this.

The use of oral forms in English literary works has been problematic.  They can be seen in two ways according to the author.  Either as a contribution to the colonialism that is helping to bring about the end of many oral traditions, or as a way of continuing them (Hochbruck, 1996).  The use of English, or another colonial language, which is often not the first language of indigenous authors, can mean that already some authenticity is lost.  Using the language of the colonizers perpetuates the idea that the colonizing power is somehow better and that the colonized peoples should conform to their way of thinking and expressing themselves.  On the other hand it is still important for the indigenous peoples to express themselves, if that means using a language which is a language of oppression but also allows a great deal more people to access and gain information about their culture, then that can be seen as a good thing.

Hochbruck notes that when oral traditions are included in written texts much of the subtleties of the original are dumbed down or simply left out.  Transcribers also rework the original to work with pre-existing literary devices (Hochbruck, 1996).  This can effectively neuter the original meaning or even re-purpose it to reinforce the cultural norms of the colonizing culture.  However, he argues at the end the essay that the use of orality in literary works should not be abandoned but rather more deeply explored and understood.

The author goes on to discuss the widely held belief that a culture is either in an oral or literate stage is much too superficial of a viewpoint.  Oral and written traditions can co-exist and even feed each other, for example the case of an oral performance that follows written rules.  The two forms are not mutually exclusive.  However in many written works the inclusion of oral tradition serves to clarify and differentiate, for the reader, the identity of the origin of the information (Hochbruck, 1996).  The reader then brings in their cultural norms in the interpretation of this text, although it is both text and something more than text at the same time.

According to Hochbruck there are no easily seen distinctions between oral and written text, except for the medium and our own minds.  This distinction is recognized in scholarly circles as evidenced by the great divide theories.  These theories are based on the assumption that there is some sort of:

“dichotomy between different kinds of society or human experience: ‘primitive’ vs. ‘civilized’, ‘simple’ vs. ‘advanced’, ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’, ‘concrete’ vs. ‘scientific’, ‘oral’ vs. ‘visual’, or ‘pre-literate’ vs. ‘literate’. Such pairings are often also regarded as virtually interchangeable: so that modernity equals advanced equals civilization equals literacy equals rationality and so on.” (Chandler, 2000)

This whole idea that the oral and written are somehow divided feeds into our need to separate both our cultures and ourselves.  To prove to ourselves, and others, that our society is unique and somehow better.  It is an underlying assumption for much of western thought; as a result it finds its way into many facets of our daily lives without us thinking about it too deeply.  This is exactly what the Hochbruck is trying to say.  We should continue to use orality because it brings the issue to our attention, we can use this to start a discussion about our underlying assumptions and by doing so come to a greater understanding of how we see and interact with the world.

To see just how deep these assumptions are we need to look no farther than the planning documents for the teaching of English put together by the Ministry of Education in British Columbia.  It was not until 2011 that the Ministry included three new courses that focused on English for First Peoples.  Prior to this there were no options for First Nations people to get a culturally relevant education in the English language.

While oral language is important in the study of English, the focus is entirely different in English 10, 11 and 12 and English 10, 11 and 12 First Peoples.   The Ministry explains that

“the emphasis on oral language and on the study of oral texts is particularly important in EFP 12. The maintenance of oral tradition is considered critical in virtually all First Peoples cultures, and effective implementation of English 12 First Peoples will include a study of oral tradition and will allow students to experience oral texts first-hand. In this way, students will come to fully appreciate the significance of a living oral tradition.” (British Columbia Ministry of Education).

Although late in entering the curriculum this acknowledgement that oral traditions are important in First Nations cultures is very important.  It is a shame that this emphasis does not cross over into the regular English curriculum.  Our dependency on the written word, and our almost blind acceptance of its validity, are taking away something from our use and enjoyment of the English language.  There is much to learn from other cultures, Hochbruck says as much, but we can only learn after we start the conversation.  Without looking at our basic assumptions about language and knowledge we will never come to a deep understanding of other cultures.

 

References:

British Columbia Ministry of Education. (2010). English 12 First Peoples. Retrieved from http://www.bced.gov.bc.ca/irp/pdfs/english_language_arts/2010efp1011.pdf

Chandler, Daniel. (2000). “Biases of the Ear and Eye” Retrieved from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral1.html

Hochbruck, W. (1996). `I have spoken’: Fictional `orality’ in indigenous fiction. College Literature, 23(2), 132.

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