Catchwords and oral transmission

Mark Goodacre asks a question in the comments on my post on Perrin on catchwords that I started responding to and decided needed a post of its own:

I have often heard it said that catchwords may be signs of oral transmission, but is there any evidence for this? Or is it just what we imagine may be the case?

Lots of authors say this, but most don’t give concrete examples.

I’ve just been re-reading the chapter on formulae in Alfred Lord’s Singer of Songs and what he describes for the oral epic singers of Yugoslavia that he and Milman Parry studied is rather different to that of the catchwords in Perrin’s Syriac retroversion of GosThom. From early childhood the Yugoslav poets absorbed the rhythm patterns of the traditional epic poems and a whole lot of stock ways of describing things and in effect they re-compose their poems every time they perform them. As Patterson suggests and Perrin emphasises, their poems don’t have careful, consistent catchword linkages between each line, because they don’t memorise their epics – they put them together on the spot from a remembered story-line and a series of stock language patterns that fit the rhythms of their form. Lord doesn’t use the term “catchword” but there are words that link lines together, although it’s unclear exactly how much of the repetition is about linkage and how much it is because of the need to keep the rhythm patterns consistent – something that isn’t necessary in the transmission of prose.

I think, however, that Perrin is probably correct in saying that a consistent chain of catchwords, such as those in his Syriac retroversion, that link both to the saying behind and the saying ahead is not a mark of unbroken oral transmission from composition to transcription.  It would seem to me, as I think Perrin suggests, that catchwords that go both forward and backward from the saying in question must have been carefully crafted, rather than coming out of the more impromptu process described by Parry, Lord etc. It also seems to me, though, that this does not rule out the interaction between orality and literacy suggested by DeConick in ch 1 of Recovering the Original Gospel of Thomas (see eg p 32).

Jacob Neusner in The Rabbinic Traditions about the Pharisees Before 70: The masters (1971) Brill, p 165, quotes Louis Finkelstein’s theory that catchwords were used by rabbis to remind them of how the oral Torah was remembered, suggesting that there may have even been a written record of the catchwords before the rest of the Torah was transcribed. The catchwords described by Perrin could have had this kind of function, but I haven’t followed up the reference.

I don’t have anything on the Greek rhetorical methods on my shelves, but this would be another place to look for methods used at the time for preparation of material for oral presentation. Young men were given lessons in how to speak with authority, which required preparation. Simply repeating a speech learned by heart wasn’t going to be convincing and as far as I am aware, there was no ancient Greek equivalent of the modern debater’s palm cards, but rehearsing a skeleton of your argument was, I believe, encouraged by teachers.

So, in answer to Mark’s question (which may have been rhetorical), I don’t have any definitive proof, just places to look when/if I have a bit of spare time. 🙂


One thought on “Catchwords and oral transmission

  1. Pingback: Perrin on catchwords (2) « Judy’s research blog

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