When my adviser, Prof. Christina Haas, recommended David Olson’s (1994) The World on Paper for my specialty exam list, she said, “You’ll really like that one.”

As usual, she was right. Its primary goal is to put forth a theory of literacy and cognition that more precisely defines what literacy is and what it isn’t than previous works on literacy. In the end, Olson advances a theory that is less about literacy and cognition and is more about how changes in ways of reading and writing coincided with conceptual changes about language and thinking. Writing, Olson argues, provides a model for speech, and in doing so shapes the ways in which writers conceive of speech; i.e., writers think about speech as being constituted by letters in the alphabet. Writing provides a model of speech which requires writers to conceptualize of language in terms of that model.

Rage Face = Yes
“Yesssss…..” Me while reading Olson.

Olson also argues that the history of reading and writing is the history of writers and readers attempting to come to terms with what writing cannot do: fully convey illocutionary force. Illocutionary force is a term in speech-act theory that basically means “what is meant” by what is said. For example, when I say, “OMG I love your skirt,” I mean it sincerely, whereas when Regina George says, “OMG I love your skirt,” she is probably secretly insulting you. The illocutionary force of the two sentences are different, even though the written sentences are identical.

Regina George illustrates illocutionary force.
Regina George illustrates illocutionary force.

Olson puts forth an argument that over time, readers have dealt with writing’s lack of illocutionary force in a number of ways, culminating in today’s popular belief that texts simply mean what they say. People in fields of linguistics, writing studies, communication studies, rhetoric, and other related fields–in short, people who study language and meaning–assert that texts cannot simply mean what they say–that even simple “facts” have an illuctionary force of “assertion.” The “simple” statement “the sky is blue” has an illocutionary force of “I assert that the sky is blue.”

One does not simply state the sky is blue.
Boromir on illocutionary force

Speech, Olson argues, is well-equipped to deal with illocutionary force. Where verbal dialogue communicates, literally, “what is said,” facial expression, vocal tone, stance, gesture (hey, gesture! we’ll get to that in another post), and context all help to convey illocutionary force in speech. It’s how we know Regina George is secretly making fun of our sweaters (context). It’s how we know that Minnesota nice isn’t actually nice (tone).

Writing, Olson argues, is not simply “speech written down” because one does not (can not) write with illocutionary force. Over time, however readers and writers have learned to cope with this aspect of writing. Punctuation can turn “I passed my exams?” to “I passed my exams!” Written genres can carry with them certain illocutionary forces. IMRAD scientific papers, for example, carry with them the illocutionary force that the paper contains carefully measured assertions about the material world based in careful observation of the world.

Olson’s major argument is that, by writing things down, by making speech divisible into paragraphs, sentences, words, letters; by taking “what is said” out of the context of “what is meant”; by, essentially, making language material, we have wrought about changes in the ways that we think about not only writing but also about thinking.

Writing, he argues, allows writers not only to “say” things, but then to reflect on those things that were “said.” Writing becomes an object which can be written about. We can write about writing; we can think about thinking. Writing can become reflective. By putting “the world on paper,” we can think about that very act of putting the world on paper.

I’m still working through these ideas (partly by writing this blog post)–so thanks for “listening” in. I think I’ve got Olson’s major contributions to writing studies (and other fields) down (though perhaps not all represented here), but I still want to write further on how his ideas are applicable to my research. But that’s for next time!


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