Inscribed orality

The central concept in this chapter is that of “inscribed orality”, which may, but does not need to include metapragmatic, metadiscursive expressions. Till relatively recently, the only evidence historical linguists had for past forms of language and discursive practices were written documents from which oral practices had to be tentatively hypothesised. However, we can extrapolate much of what we know about how interlocutors in social practice use human language in present time to hypothetical historical situations. Modern sociolinguistic and conversation-analytic research into oral practices requires close and meticulous analysis not only of language variation but also of contextualisation. So it is not unreasonable to assume that instantiations of oral social practice, whether in the present or in the past, share certain broad similarities, since they are all instantiations of on-the- spot emergent language contact. Labov (1994: 21-25) refers to this hypothesised similarity of linguistic interaction as the “uniformitarian principle”.

The principle suggests that we are able to recognise elements of orality and what Koch (1997) calls “immediacy” in written texts. Koch suggests that the distinction between oral and written instantiations of discourse concerns “two aspects of communication that have to be strictly distinguished: the medium and the mode of communication” (1997: 149-150). By “medium” he understands the binary distinction between the phonic and the graphic medium, and by “mode” the degree of formality or distance between the speaker/writer and the hearer/reader. The degree of mediacy between participants in the ongoing social practice is a function of the degree of distance

Historical evidence is overwhelmingly more likely to come from written sources, texts from the space above the informal/formal axis. Hence, if instances of written discourse increase their degree of immediacy and become less formal—if they move from the top right-hand corner of the diagram towards the informal/formal axis and further to the left—linguistic features associated with oral forms of discourse, including an increasing number of metapragmatic/ metadiscursive expressions, will occur. Since these features are still in the written medium, I wish to call them instances of “inscribed orality”. For instance, there may be an increased frequency of the first-person-singular pronoun I, referring to the writer or the narrator of a text. The addressee may be mentioned explicitly, either by name or by the use of second-person pronouns. In narrative texts the present tense of verbs may replace the past. There will be an increase in the number of proxemic deictic expressions, such as “here,” “now,” “this”. There will be an increase in metadiscursive comments on the text by the narrator/scribe/author. I shall use examples of inscribed orality such as these to illustrate the move of textual instantiations of the ASC from the mid-right of the diagram towards the left and lower towards the informal-to-formal axis. I shall argue that this movement provides evidence for the breakdown of the discourse archive, which in turn provides firm evidence to counter the unbroken tradition myth.

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