this paper, I examine how words like "o!" and "ah!" work in two radically
different lyric traditions-the ancient Greek and the ancient Chinese-to
produce voice in early textual poetry. These words, which I call 'vocables',
occupy a strange linguistic space. Unlike words that depend for their
meaning, as Saussure observes, upon their difference from other words
in a linguistic system, vocables depend upon an indexical relationship
with the situation that occasioned them. That is to say, the utterance
"o!" has meaning only in as much as it applies to a particular event.
Outside of that event, it is meaningless.
course, it is only unuttered vocables-vocables that are written down-that
run the risk of meaninglessness. The very act of voicing a vocable creates
occasion precisely because one speaks the sound within a particular
physical environment. By contrast, writing down a vocable removes the
sound from the physical environment that occasioned it and places it
within a system of written language in which the vocable can only derive
meaning from its relationship to other words. The written vocable thus
presents a paradox: while its uttered counterpart does not derive meaning
by differing from other words, the written vocable can and must do so.
question of what happens when a vocable is textualized is, on a smaller
scale, the question of what happens when an oral poem is written down.
Vocables mark a tension in "oral texts"– they point to the problems
and paradoxes textualizing poetry engenders, to the simultaneous possibility
and impossibility of transcribing the oral lyric. For this reason, vocables
provide an excellent means of comparing early Greek and Chinese lyric
forms; they are also a small enough unit to make such a potentially
unmanageable comparison manageable. Ultimately, by examining how vocables
work in early textual Greek and Chinese lyric poetry, I hope to point
to significant differences in the impact of literacy on these ancient
specific, my paper compares how vocables operate in a poem from the
Shi Jing (Mao #121) and in an ancient Greek poem by Simonides
(Diehl 130). Although I undoubtedly will alter and refine my conclusions
for presentation, I contend that a comparative study of vocables reveals
in the Chinese poem an evolving relationship between a character-based
writing system and the affective-expressive model of the Chinese lyric.
In contrast, early Greek "created" or "made" poetry results– at least
in part– from an alphabetic textualization of sound.
a comparative study of vocables also makes clear is a fundamental difference
in Chinese and Greek cultures' understanding of the relationship of
human sound to the world around it. I argue that human sounds are produced
within the ancient poetry of the Shi Jing in relation to and
as part of the natural world: human-uttered vocables ally themselves,
for instance, with animal sounds. In contrast, human-uttered vocables
in the Greek poem I consider mark a disruption between the human and
natural worlds. They point to a moment of crisis between these two realms.
summary, I believe the comparative work I attempt here is useful on
two levels. One, it can challenge current orality/literacy studies which
often focus solely on the ramifications of alphabetic literacy. Second,
it can reveal significant cultural differences that contribute to the
making of these two important literary traditions.