Silent Reading in Antiquity, More or Less?

Stewart Flory (Gustavus Adolohus College)

Resolving a dispute of many decades, this paper shows that true silent reading was not possible in ancient Greece and Rome.  We here refute the claim of some and the assumption of many that true silent reading was common among a literate elite in antiquity. The chief support for silent reading comes from a much-cited work by Bernard Knox, “Silent Reading in Antiquity” (GRBS 9 [1968] 421-35), and is accepted as decisive in a recent article by William A. Johnson (AJP 121 [2000] 593-627). Knox and Johnson allege that silent reading occurs in two well-known ancient passages, one from Euripides’ Hippolytus (856-65) and one from Augustine’s Confessions (6.3). Close study of the articles by Knox and Johnson, however, reveals that the ancient texts cited portray not true silent reading but subvocalization, a phenomenon well known to medievalists and to researchers in the field of psycholinguistics. For the true silent reader the process is exclusively visual and intellectual, as the eyes skim and skip (saccade) around the text, whereas the subvocalizer skips nothing and only by conscious and time-consuming effort represses his voice, a crucial distinction not understood by Knox or Johnson.   Subvocalization appears typically as either a low, semi-audible but unintelligible muttering of the text being read, or else consists only of soundless muscle movements within the throat—resulting, significantly, in no increase in reading speed. These movements are detectable only by electromyography, a technology in fact developed to help dyslexics avoid subvocalization and read more quickly. Knox’s and Johnson’s “star” passages  (in addition to other, more ambiguous cases cited), upon close examination, betray, in fact, clear signs of subvocalization. For example, Euripides’ Theseus cries out (in lines Knox does not quote): “This thing I will no longer hold back within the gates of my mouth,” τόδε μὲν οὐκέτι στόματος ἐν πύλαις καθέξω (882-83), and Augustine speculates (with no comment from Johnson, who quotes the whole passage in translation) that Ambrose might have read silently [not in order to read more quickly like a modern lector but] to save time wasted by interruptions from auditors (6.3.3). As Saenger, puts it, Ambrose “could not have read rapidly in the manner of a modern silent reader, even if he had wanted to do so” (Saenger, Space Between Words [1997], 8).

Paul Saenger’s Space Between Words, moreover, definitively disproves the arguments of Knox and Johnson: Without spaces between words readers had to read aloud in order to “recognize” (ἀναγιγνώσκειν) words. Because ancient and early medieval readers had neither the desire nor the  need to read more quickly, word separation was virtually the last aid scribes provided for readers, and scriptura continua endured well into and beyond the ninth century A.D. Early readers, who could not skim them quickly in any case, wanted to read, reread, and often memorize the same relatively small body of texts.

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