July 26, 2004

Famous Authors Debate Oral vs. Written Language

...in a display window along the Rothenbaumchaussee in Hamburg (where I'm currently visiting the Sonderforschungsbereich 538, "Mehrsprachigkeit", at the University of Hamburg). The display in the window, which belongs to the Redaktionsbuero Udo Pini, is striking: it's a collection of antique writing machines -- not all of them typewriters, one or two look like possible early competitors of the typewriter -- with enlarged-type pages of quotations sticking up from their rollers. The texts on the pages all have to do with writing, and two of the quotations might have come from a fantasy debate. First, Goethe:

"Schreiben ist ein Missbrauch der Sprache, stille fuer sich lesen ein trauriges Surrogat der Sprache."

This translates to 'Writing is a misuse of language, reading silently to oneself a sad surrogate for language.' On one of the other quotation sheets in the window, Goethe explains that he never actually does much writing, because he dictates his works. Who knew? (I'm puzzled about the spelling of Missbrauch, which on the sheet has the old German "s-z" letter that looks sort of like a Greek beta. If I ever understood its use fully, I no longer do; why wouldn't there be just a plain s in this word?)

Second, E.M. Forster, who persumably wrote this in English, but I don't know what his exact English words were:

"Wie kann ich wissen, was ich denke, bevor ich lese, was ich zu sagen habe?"

This means, 'How can I know what I think before I read what I have to say?'

For those of us who write for publication, though, a third quotation in the display may mean even more than Goethe's and Forster's words of wisdom. This one is attributed simply to 'Volksmund' (that is, it's a folk saying):

"Wer schreibt, der bleibt."

This is hard to translate gracefully, but it means roughly "He (...s/he...) who writes, lives on." A familiar optimistic thought, but the German saying gives it an especially neat turn of phrase.

(I have written this entire post without, I think, falling once into the trap of typing z instead of y, although the German keyboard tempts an American to do that constantlz I mean constantly. )

Posted by Sally Thomason at July 26, 2004 10:08 AM