Building peace in the minds of men and women

The Spoken and the written word

In modern times the art of writing has assumed such importance that literature today seems inseparable from the written word. Even though many cultures are known to be articulated around, and transmitted by, the spoken word, there is still a strong inclination in contemporary thinking to discount oral literature as the expression of folklore, which is often regarded with a certain condescension.

In the present issue of the Unesco Courier we hope to correct this false vision of the relationship between the spoken and the written word. To see. these modes of expression as locked in a fundamental antagonism, both as forms and as aspects of different civilizations, today increasingly seems to be an inadequate, overschematic analysis of the situation.

As Paul Zumthor shows in his introductory article, there has never been a watertight barrier between the two forms of expression; exchange has been constant. Even in the literature and sensibilities of the Western societies which have been the most active in raising the status of the written to the detriment of the oral, traces of the interdependence of oral and written are far stronger than might appear at first glance. And in the West, for all its fascination with the written word, the once-stifled voice may be making a come back at this very moment.

To show thé force of the spoken word, we highlight a number of major texts which are botlfnationarepics and poems of universal significance. The origins and destiny of each of these works form original variants of the relationship between the spoken and the written word, but they are all primarily texts in which a people can find its roots and identify itself, or else as in the case of the Chronicle of Michoacán the final testament of a civilization.

Elsewhere in the issue, in the field of Arabic, Japanese, Basque, Chinese and Indian cultures, we have tried to convey through specific examples, synopses of stories and poems, and personal reminiscences, the spiritual attraction and inspirational force of works which, transmitted by word of mouth and in many cases relayed by writing or image, live on and echo in the minds of individuals and beat in the hearts of communities. But this spiritual treasure, which belongs to the heritage of humanity, is under threat.

Unesco is contributing to its preservation, especially since it is a vehicle of identity. Essential though it is to record this heritage on tape or in writing, such measures do not go far enough. The ultimate goal must be a redefinition of the concept of cultural communication which recognizes the creative value of the spoken word in every community.

Edouard Glissant, Editor-in-chief

Learn more in this issue of the UNESCO Courier. Download the PDF

Discover other issues and articles on Poetry in the UNESCO Courier.

August 1985