Vernacular Eloquence: Intro and Ch. 1

Elbow, Peter.  Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing.  New York: Oxford UP.  2012. Print.

One sentence summary

The culturally constructed activities of speaking and writing both converge and diverge from each other in ways that are symbiotic and  exclusive.

Key Words

Orality, Literacy, Writing, Speaking, Semiotics, Constructivism

Introduction and Chapter 1 Discussion

Elbow examines the distinctive natures of speech and writing as well as overlap and symbiosis between these two modalities.  In the intro, Elbow considers the sharp differences between “casual conversation” and “careful expository writing” (16).  Elbow distinguishes the properties of speech and writing as different “physical processessensory modalities …  [and] language or products” (19).

In chapter one, Elbow discusses the role of culture(s) on spoken language in particular, citing Shirley Brice Heath’s research while also sidestepping the kinds of issues Ong, Havelock, et al. explored in their examinations of orality and literacy.

In a detailed passage on pages 25-26, Elbow recasts a transcript that works to capture, in print, the inflections, pauses, meanderings, and sudden shifts in a spoken conversation.  This transcription is fascinating not for all of the details it captures, which is many more than any other kind of transcription I’ve seen–or done as a newspaper reporter myself.  Rather, the transcription is fascinating for all of the multitude of sensory details missing from the transcript–gestures, facial expressions, body positions, spatial relationships, eye contact, etc.

Elbow moves on to reference Saussure and discusses semiotics and the nature of signs, signifiers and signifieds without invoking any of the technical jargon.  While writing and speaking (both symbol-based activities) both hold certain kinds of “magic” on different cultures through time, Elbow says his discussion of culture will quickly make way for an analysis that seeks to “take what’s best about speaking and add it to what’s best about writing” (34).


One thought on “Vernacular Eloquence: Intro and Ch. 1

  1. Hi Joe,
    I’m reading Elbow’s book as well, and I was intrigued by his discussion of the “magic” of language–both spoken and written forms. The part about Gorgias on p. 32 caught my attention since I took ENGL 503 last semester and we studied ancient Greek rhetoricians. As Elbow notes, Gorgias worked his “magic” with the spoken word in his hours-long speeches; the audience was indeed “spellbound” in a way by his rhetorical genius. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, rendered written language to be simply a reflection of what we already know (a way to record oral language for memory), and therefore rather inferior to the spoken word. So it seems in ancient Greece the spoken word held a certain prestige over written language, whereas today the reverse appears to be true. I’m interested to see how Elbow brings speech into the realm of writing, since I have honestly thought of them as distinct processes (for lack of a better term) and even tell my students at times that “writing and speaking are like two different languages.”

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