Writing Affecting Speech

There is a fundamental assumption in which Katherine Hayles grounds part of her work, and with which I find a slight rankle. When referencing Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs in Electronic Literature, she refers to the work as able to “be understood as a reenactment of the history of literacy through different media as it moves from sounds present in the environment to written marks (orality/writing) . . .” (73).

I have no problem at all with her interpretation of Birds Singing Other Birds’ Songs or with the work itself, and indeed I would be hard-pressed to justify any such problem since I have not experienced Birds; rather, my problem lies in the assumption Hayles makes, that speech affects writing and not the other way around.

I’m speaking anthro-linguistically here, in terms of the origins of different languages and writings. Common thought dictates that writing was a product of and influenced by speech – after all, humans could no doubt speak (make utterances with just there body) before they wrote in any way (which requires some degree of technology, whether it be carvings or drawing in sand). However, there are linguists who argue differently, that speech was actually affected by and in many ways crafted and organized by writing.

David R. Olson, in “Writing and the Mind,” states that, contrary to an evolutionary story which assumes progress and that writing was an attempt to transcribe speech, “writing systems are developed for mnemonic and communicative purposes, but because they are ‘read,’ they provide a model for language and thought” (110).   He says that ancient writing systems started out with images like totems, which represent things, not words (so an eagle totem would represent an eagle itself and perhaps a certain tribe, but not a word).  The major difference between these and more advanced systems is that “A script that can be taken as representing both syntax and the words combined by the syntax produces a canonical writing system, one that is capable of in principle of representing everything that can be said” (113).

Taking the theories of David R. Olson into account, some of Hayles’s claims do not hold. For example, when she states that

written manuscripts were first conceived as a visual continuity of connected marks reminiscent of the continuous analogue flow of speech; only gradually were such innovations as spacing between words and indentations for paragraphs introduced. A similar pattern of initial replication and subsequent transformation can be seen with electronic literature. At first it strongly resembled print and only gradually began to develop characteristics specific to the digital medium, emphasizing effects that could not be achieved in print (58-59)

it creates a sense of progress, from speech to writing to print to electronic literature, as if things were continuing onward and upward. By disrupting the first link in this chain, the others links begin to lose their hold.

This most definitely does not mean that Hayles is careless or a bad critic – in fact I enjoy her writing and think it is fair and refreshingly not as starry-eyed about e-lit as can be found in other places. What it does mean that while e-lit has caused us to take notice and interest in areas such as (obviously)computers, information science, telecommunication, and the practices therein (such as computer coding and the avenues it opens in interpretation), we should not ignore other disciplines which affect writing, in any form it takes, more holistically, including linguistics, etymology, and philology, disciplines in which many of us lack a working background.

Zack Manko


Hayles, Katherine N. Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008.

Olson, David R.. “Writing and the Mind.”  Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed.  Ellen Cushman et al.  New York, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2001. 107-123.


~ by gottgeist501 on February 21, 2010.

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