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Opinion | The Spoken Argument Is a Valuable Form of Expression

Imagine a square divided into four smaller ones. The top left square is casual speech; the top right square is formal speech. The bottom left square is casual writing; the bottom right square is formal writing. We have, as it were, an empty square in our grid.

Casual speech is how we communicate most of the time. Down from that square, casual writing once upon a time meant the way you may have written letters to friends or the written language of passed notes or dorm message boards. More recently it is texting and email, in which we use the mechanics of writing to express ourselves in a way that sounds like talking. Formal writing is the five-paragraph essay and, of course, books and articles.

But what about that upper right square, formal speech?

That is what Everett and Du Bois and others considered natural, even if it seems as antique and clunky to us as steamboats and corsets. When we communicate formally, we moderns think first of getting language down on a page in written form, perhaps out of a sense that this is how to deck language out in its Sunday best.

Indeed, there is the TED Talk, but besides its air of casualness (business casual), note that the result is thought of as a unique genre, subject sometimes to a mannered chuckle. The storytelling events put on by the Moth also qualify as oratory but, again, usually pitched in a snug, relatable tone and less about making a case. Today, the formal speech is othered rather than fundamental.

Perhaps it seems that to organize our thoughts properly beyond the level of “Want mustard with that?” we need to tie them down with the yoke of writing.

But the ancients didn’t think so. Even with a fully developed writing culture, the Greeks and Romans valued the ability to stand and pose and pace in front of an audience and make their point through speaking it — and formally, not colloquially. Even today, there are revered intellectuals who mainly express themselves by speaking rather than writing, such as Cornel West.

As odd in its way as the old-time, lengthy speech is today’s academic article. In many fields, these tend to be so imposingly long that few readers get through them. They can seem about as inutile as the sculptures up high on European cathedrals, where, for centuries, no one could see them but God.

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