Oral practices in the history of English

Ursula Schaefer

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of English

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199922765
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Oral practices in the history of English

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  • Linguistics
  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics


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Like all other languages that have seen the transition to literacy, the English language has been influenced by a wide range of literate technologies. However, purely oral practices have survived or have been added to our communicative repertoire. This article first argues that in the history of Western European cultures, literacy itself was acquired for a long time via mnemonic exercising. It next groups various (secondary) oral practices into two large categories. One is that of speech events mediated by the human voice that can be characterized as public performances because they involve monological vocal delivery before an audience. Subsequently, the article discusses speech acts which amount to small-scale "perfomative" genres or discourse traditions such as charms or oaths. All of these practices are largely informed by formulaic diction which is a shared characteristic of primary and secondary orality. The article finally looks into small-scale pragmatic techniques with illocutionary force as "performative techniques", which may be found in everyday linguistic interaction.

Keywords: oral practices; English; literacy; primary/secondary orality; formulaicness; oral; speech; phraseology; speech acts; performativity; discourse tradition; oratory performance; oath; charm; proverb; sermon; (forensic) pleading; political speech; linguistics

Article.  4192 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Historical and Diachronic Linguistics

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