LINGUIST List 9.801

Fri May 29 1998

Disc: Hypotaxis

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>


  1. Marie-Lucie Tarpent, Re: 9.798, Disc: Hypotaxis

Message 1: Re: 9.798, Disc: Hypotaxis

Date: Thu, 28 May 1998 16:04:00 -0400
From: Marie-Lucie Tarpent <Marie-Lucie.TarpentMSVU.Ca>
Subject: Re: 9.798, Disc: Hypotaxis

I agree with Feargal Murphy's and B Wald's comments about
"hypotaxis". Surely we don't need to go back to Akkadian and Ancient
Greek for speculations about the complexity of syntax prior to the
invention of writing. What about the Vedic texts and other ancient
oral literature, preserved orally for centuries before being written
down verbatim? There are also hundreds of languages in the world
that were not written until quite recently, and even where there is a
writing system, very few speakers can be called literate. Texts
which have been published in these languages were first collected
orally, so that the occurrence of hypotaxis in such texts cannot be
attributed to the influence of a non-existent written tradition.
Besides, it does not make sense that the act of writing down speech
should in itself lead to a significant change in syntactic
organization. The history of writing systems shows that they had
very mundane beginnings and that the earliest ones were not intended
to represent all the complexities of speech. 

Moreover, the idea that syntax became complex only with writing
denigrates the possibilities inherent in human speech and the
capabilities of both speaker and hearer. The long, involved,
syntactically complex, periodic sentence much admired by 19th
century writers was originally an imitation of similar complexity in
Latin and Greek oratory, an oral medium. Speeches by Cicero and
other famous orators were preserved in writing so that others could
study them and become orators too. In Western culture the preeminence
given to the written word for many centuries and especially in our
day, has downgraded oral performance, but in areas where the spoken
word is still the norm at the highest level it is possible to witness
complex feats of oral composition. I say this from having lived in a
Native community, heard oratory in both the local and the dominant
language, and attended many functions where government officials cut
a very mediocre figure next to practiced Native orators, whose skill
and even artistry is both very conscious and much appreciated by
their audience. The same is true of traditional story-tellers and
epic-reciters in areas where those oral traditions are alive and

The popularization of writing may have extended possibilities that 
existed already, both in the structure of the languages and in 
high-level oral practice (by stretching the limits of performance 
through the help of visual clues), it cannot have created them.

Marie-Lucie Tarpent
Mount Saint Vincent University
Halifax, N.S. B3M 2J6 Canada

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