Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation

By Ruth Finnegan. 2011. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. 327 pages. ISBN: 978-1-906924-35-5 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Regina Bendix, Institute of Cultural Anthropology/European Ethnology, University of Göttingen, Germany

[Review length: 994 words • Review posted on September 28, 2011]


Written for a broad readership by a respected scholar of, among other things, oral literature, Why Do We Quote? is above all an eminently enjoyable read. As a reviewer, one feels stimulated to begin where Ruth Finnegan began herself: going through one’s home and discovering just how many quotations one surrounds oneself with. There is the cat calendar with quotes from literary figures about felines, there are a couple of postcards with smart and less-smart quotations on them, there is the daily paper with the little box on the back page labeled “quote of the day”—and the list could go on. Finnegan’s prelude begins in her home, yet the clever frontispiece of her study entitled “a confusion of quoting terms” immediately places the work within the scholarly fields within which her work has unfolded: terms ranging from “citation” to “reported speech,” “intertextuality,” “copy,” and all the way to “tradition” signal the work’s scope and the intellectual lineages its author draws from without, however, foregrounding the scholarly conversation.

Rather, as an ethnographer of everyday life, Finnegan launches her query within British awareness of the quoting habit. For the first section, she draws on materials collected from the “semi-permanent panel of volunteer writers set up by the Mass Observation Archives at the University of Sussex” (15). Responding in free form to loosely formulated “directives,” these volunteers also had opportunity to dwell on their quoting, and this affords opportunity to not just grasp the breadth and nature of quoting habits but also respondents’ reflections on the place of and predilections in quoting. Some might—from some perspectives rightly—insist that passing on an uncle’s favorite expression, a Shakespeare sonnet, or an advertisement turned proverbial in family usage are communicative practices of different types that warrant nuanced exploration under specialized vocabulary. Yet one might equally argue that “quoting” does well as an umbrella term for a broad assembly of communicative practices within societies enjoying the use of multiple communicative channels, and further on—as occurs later on in the book—that the lens of quoting, which we might associate only with literate practice, affords interesting perspectives on orality; this, in turn, allows one to see the continuities in the thinking that Finnegan has pursued since her early work on Africa.

The first part of the work thus explores present-day usage as well as preferences for, as Finnegan puts it, “Putting Others’ Words on Stage” (43)—that is, marking them, setting them apart from regular speech through all the mediated techniques and registers available to us. The second part follows quotation marks back in time. We are treated to a history, looking at marks in different print traditions, illustrated in part with Bible citations, and then we face, again, the question of what they were supposed to accomplish. Finnegan is set to unsettle those firmly convinced of the when, how, and to what end one works with such marks, showing that “quote marks as we picture them today have been far from immutable” (108). Next she turns to those who have been “harvesting others’ words”: using the example of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, she examines changing foci in the quotable treasure troves assembled for cultured households, working her way backward to Cato’s Distichs from the third century and beyond that to the oldest known proverb collection, hewn into stone tablets in ancient Sumer. The following two chapters dive into dimensions of voice and visuals, art and ritual—drawing on familiar disciplinary perspectives but bundling them so as to consider such techniques and practices from the point of view of quotation.

Given the breadth of quoting practices in history and the present, it does not surprise that Finnegan looks somewhat critically at what she terms “controlling quotation.” On the backdrop of the slow emergence of rules, accompanied naturally also by the emergence of authors’ rights, the rigorous regime defining plagiarism in the present appears like just one—if perhaps historically unavoidable—instantiation of many possible ways of handling the dos and don’ts of quoting. Finnegan is particularly attuned to the status differences in this realm and points to the more lenient rules applying to seasoned academics and the strict pursuit of “plagiarism, cheating or collusion” by students “still classed as subordinate apprentices” (239).

Finnegan closes her exploration by remarking on the unexpected breadth that her initially more narrowly conceived inquiry has yielded. Neither can the term quotation be properly defined, nor can there be boundaries set around what all might be included under this heading: “The use of others’ words and voices is unmistakably a highly significant—and sensitive—dimension of human communication. . .quoting, in the end turns out so elusive. . . that some bounded answer to the question ‘what is quotation?’ at last proves impossible” (257). Ultimately she settles not on the shortcut that would see “everything as quoting” but rather conceives of quoting as “a broad family of practices through which people do indeed engage in re-sounding the words and voices of others” (258).

If the main part of the book is blissfully rich in data past and present, woven together through Finnegan’s meaningful analytic voice, she opts not to bow to but make visible the scholarship that has been devoted to facets of quoting and footnoting in an appendix entitled “Quoting the Academics,” opening wistfully as follows: “This appendix provides the occasion for inserting some of the ponderous academic quotations and allusions expected in an academic monograph” (267). The added benefit: Finnegan does not just sketch how this terrain has been researched, but she also elaborates on how she would characterize her own approach vis-à-vis these others, claiming a place for her mixture of ethnographic, literary, and historical perspectives that is indeed unique—and that should be appealing to folklorists and ethnographers of communication. Finnegan chose to work with a publisher who makes Why Do We Quote? as well as all its other books available for free also in PDF format online at http://www.openbookpublishers.com—a practice worth repeating, emulating, copying, and replicating!

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.