The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 20 No. 3 (Fall 2018)

From Memory to Innovation: The Vowel Revolution in the Making of the Modern Mind

Colin Wells

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2018

(Volume 20 | Issue 3)

On December 4, 1935, the Harvard Crimson carried a brief story under the headline “Parry, Greek and Latin Professor, Killed Yesterday.” The subject of the story, Milman Parry, was a thirty-three-year-old assistant professor of classics at Harvard. His death, the campus newspaper reported, “was the result of an accidental shooting.… Parry, visiting his mother-in-law in Los Angeles, was unpacking a suitcase in his hotel bedroom when a revolver mixed in with his clothing went off, mortally wounding him.” Such phrasing was commonly used at the time to mask suicide or, conceivably, an accident at the hands of a child or other family member. Parry’s death remains a blank.

As an undergraduate studying classics at UCLA in the mid-1980s, I grew familiar with Parry’s name. At Oxford after that, I attended the lectures of celebrated scholars like Jasper Griffin and Hugh Lloyd-Jones and heard his name there, too. Parry seemed fresh and radical to them, although he had died more than half a century earlier. They spoke of him the way Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman might speak of James Dean. Indeed, a couple of decades after Parry’s death, the eminent British classicist H.T. Wade-Gery called him “the Darwin of Homeric scholarship.” Not bad, I suppose, for leaving the field so early. What, precisely, did Parry do that was so different?

In life, Parry was an adventurous romantic with a dashing mustache and an equally dashing prose style. Just before his death, he had journeyed to Yugoslavia with crates of the newest sound equipment to record performances by guslari, the unlettered native bards who sang epic tales dramatizing the long-past deeds of legendary heroes. Parry’s goal was to prove that the Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey were produced not by an author, brilliant or otherwise, but by an entire culture—a culture, moreover, without writing at all. He recorded hundreds of hours of oral verse, demonstrating its detailed similarities to Homer’s poems. In short, Parry discovered oral culture, forever revolutionizing anthropology and much, much more. Although at first contested, Parry’s orality thesis came to be accepted as fundamentally valid.1

But orality is just the half of it. Building on Parry’s work, his contemporary and fellow classicist Eric Havelock argued long after Parry’s death that only the ancient Greek invention of the alphabet has enabled humankind to shift away from oral culture, unleashing the intellect (including science and other forms of rational inquiry), opening the door to the spread of new ideas, and giving rise to the first clearly articulated abstract thought. Most controversially, Havelock observed that other writing systems—Egyptian, Hebrew, Arabic, Indian, and Chinese among them—have never been able to equal the alphabet for both learnability and readability. Not only was the alphabet the first writing that allowed us to produce new ideas and spread them widely, he pointed out; it’s the only kind of writing that has ever allowed us to do so.

Havelock’s name was far less widely known than Parry’s. Condemned to academic purgatory, Havelock remains under an ideological cloud, his alphabetic thesis shunned by many who wrongly take it as a putdown of non-Western cultures and peoples. There are signs this is changing, but change is slow.

Far from being a reactionary, the British-born Havelock was a dreamy social-justice warrior avant la lettre. As a young socialist professor at the University of Toronto, he provoked the administration with his union activism. In his writing later, at Harvard and Yale, he positively gushed over the sophistication and creative power of oral culture. He and his critics were never really on the same page, to borrow an apt cliché.

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  1. Adam Parry, ed., The Collected Papers of Milman Parry (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1971).

Colin Wells is a writer and independent scholar whose books include Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World and A Brief History of History: Great Historians and the Epic Quest to Explain the Past.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 20.3 (Fall 2018). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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