Written by Dyami Millarson
There are sayings in different languages which allude to the idea that the written word is everlasting and that what is written down will stay forever. The Latin saying scrīpta manent (written things stay) and the Dutch wie schrijft, die blijft (whoever writes, stays) are examples of this. As a result, people believe that the written word will outlast the spoken word. This idea is prevalent among modern scientists as well. However, it is a misconception. While it is true that the spoken word may be subject to various forms of decay, so may the written word be subject to various forms of decay.
It is not necessarily the case that the written word will outlast the spoken word. For example, there are old, virtually unaltered sayings and songs in the spoken language that have survived longer than many written works that were forgotten and neglected. Writing something down is no guarantee for its transmission, and it is also no guarantee for it not being lost. Therefore, the written word does not offer an absolute certainty of preservation either, by which I mean to say that if you wish to preserve some unique idea or some endangered language, the written word is by no means a guarantee it will make it into the distant future.
I know certainly of ways in which the spoken word could be far more effective for the preservation or documentation of languages. When it comes to preserving languages, I tend to rely heavily on the spoken word rather than the written word. This is the ancient way to preserve languages and ideas. Whole literatures were preserved in this way in the past. People remembered folk stories, folk songs, etc. I like keeping this oral tradition alive. So I rely heavily on memory and the spoken word.
I have always been impressed with the memory feats of the ancient Romans, Greeks, Norsemen, Hindus as well the similar memory feats of elderly speakers of endangered languages. I have therefore always sought to replicate these feats, and since I can, improve upon them.
Furthermore, the speakers of endangered languages do not want me just to copy their knowledge on paper or type it into an electronic device, but they actually want me to possess the same knowledge as they do, thereby taking part in the tradition, and be able to pass it on orally in the traditional manner, because that is how their ancestors taught them and the ancestral way must be respected for keeping this lore alive. I can therefore recount the ancient lore of the communities off the top of my head without relying on books. It is all stored in my memory; so I can keep the oral tradition alive.
Given my background of following the traditional ways of language communities, I do disagree fundamentally with many linguists about what it means to document a language. I believe the traditional way of preserving knowledge with the spoken word is at least just as valid as preservation through the written word, and if perceived entirely from the community’s perspective, preservation through the spoken word may the only old and true way.
Furthermore, not just the traditional ways of the communities of endangered spoken languages have influenced me profoundly, but also the traditional ways of ancient peoples influenced me already prior to that; for I did never consider the written word to be the only right or proper way for documenting or preserving languages. If one wishes to document or preserve languages successfully, it demands flexibility of the mind, and so a rigid belief about the written word being the only correct way is not really an asset.
I believe in preserving and documenting languages in such a manner that is in keeping with both the old ways as well as the contemporary wishes of the community. At the same time, I acknowledge that putting all our eggs in one basket is never a good idea. If we only focus on the spoken word, we may miss opportunities we could have had with the written word, and the reverse is also true; so why not do both instead of only one?
What annoys me about Westerners and scholars the West produces is their either-or thinking: for instance, thinking along the lines of either you only believe in the written word, or you are ignorant. For this reason, I much prefer to converse with Easterners and scholars the East produces; for their reasoning is based on moderation, balance, both-and thinking. In a society of either-or thinkers, the most radical thing to do is to practise moderation, balance, both-and thinking. I am often targeted as a heretic for this very reason.
The West once had the concept of the Golden Mean, and this concept permeated the thought of both monotheist and polytheist Europeans. For instance, the Havamal which is part of the Poetic Edda (Norse polytheism) encourages people to practise moderation. Balance is therefore not only an Eastern thing, but a very traditional Western thing too. So I am not really radical in the sense of proposing outrageous novel ideas, but it might seem so in a society that has lost connection with its traditions and roots. I am really not that different from the ancestors.
One downside of the written word I should also bring up is the fact that writing is slow. By the time I have shared 1 fact in writing and have explained it properly, I have already learned a thousand new facts. It is simply hard to keep up; my memory of the spoken word simply works much faster than I can write. Subsequently, it is fair to say I am sharing less than 1% of my knowledge on paper, and I do not consider that a problem; it merely shows that the spoken word and oral memory are simply more efficient in the sense that they work much faster, while writing is a much slower process, and there is by no means an absolute guarantee it won’t be lost.
Paper can be burned, text files can become corrupted. I have often experienced how text documents of mine that were stored on the computer got irretrievably lost, and so I have no illusions about my writings being safe just because I wrote them down. For the same reason, I make backups of this blog just in case. I am also all too familiar with certain Frisian knowledge being lost due to certain written works being lost. One dramatic example of this is the fact that when I inquired about old handwritten documents in Hindeloopen Frisian, I heard that there was a Hindeloopen Frisian speaker who wrote many letters, presumably also in his mother tongue, yet it was burned by someone. Such is the tragedy that could befall the written word, and it is especially a huge blow to Hindeloopen Frisian, which, despite a long history of writing, does already not have that many written works thanks to being a small language. The original work containing some of the eldest Hindeloopen Frisian texts has also been lost, but was luckily copied by Halbertsma before being lost – though one might hope the original work will still show up somewhere and be rediscovered someday.
At 23:18 of the YouTube video which I shared in this article, the Roman emperor Claudius is mentiomed and later at 23:50, his Etruscan dictionary is mentioned. The narrator says Claudius studied Etruscan to the point he could probably read and speak Etruscan fluently, and subsequently he made a dictionary. The purpose of the dictionary was described in the video as “to keep his scholarly exploits alive.” This sounds very much like my story of my Frisian studies, and my subsequent plan to make English dictionaries for them to share and save my knowledge of the Frisian languages. I am well aware, however, that these dictionaries are vulnerable. The video said at 23:54 about the Etruscan dictionary of Claudius that it did not survive the Roman Empire and the hard work of Claudiusnwas seemingly all for nothing. My work my end up like that too, and so I will try my best to transmit my knowledge in various ways, the written word is certainly not enough.
Nevertheless, I will also make use of the written word. I have published a dictionary of Hindeloopen Frisian this year, and more will follow. I will in the future also think about diversifying the ways in which the dictionary is stored. It should certainly not only be stored online. That might ultimately be a vulnerability. All scenarios should be thought about carefully, so that my dictionaries will not end up like the Etruscan dictionary of Claudius; it would be a shame if, after having studied all the Frisian languages and cultures, my work would all be for nothing. I hope to keep my knowledge alive for centuries to come, because I believe this knowledge to be relevant for future generations. Being accutely aware of the vulnerability of the spoken and written word, I will do my utter best to try and make my work stand the test of time.