Two tales of orality from Harlow market

Markets are places of what Walter Ong called primary orality.

Primary orality refers to thought and expression untouched by the culture of writing of print

Walter Ong

They are places where language takes root, grows and generally has a field-day because the situations in which we meet language in markets are made to make us listen.

Between the ages of 11 and 18, every Tuesday and Friday morning on the way to school, I crossed the market square in Harlow, Essex. Even early in the day, before the arrival of the first customers, it was buzzing with the unpacking of energy that would fuel the saying and the selling yet to come.

The place was strewn with stalls coloured with fruit and vegetables let loose in a celebration of language. People were already calling out the first offers of the morning.

Selling on an open market is an art because the seller has to get people’s attention. The product can only do part of the job. Stallholders need to make people turn their heads, come closer. In order to do that, they have to find ways of making people listen.

They are like storytellers in a world where the culture of writing and print is suddenly eclipsed by primary orality. They can make cabbages comely. They can make towels tantalizing.

All about cabbages

A price tag can do the job of telling you how much something costs, but can it make you smile? And why go to all the trouble of making someone smile to get them to buy a cabbage? A closer look at the word tell reveals something curious.

What does it mean to tell something?

A list of no less than 13 common meanings for tell are given by

In the Top 2 of the list come to narrate (tell a story, a joke), to make known by speech or writing (he told me about it).

If you scroll down to number 13 on the list you will find to mention one after another, as in enumerating; count or set one by one or in exact amount (all told, that comes to five pounds).

The idea of telling as enumeration comes from its original root meaning. According to, tell comes from the Old English verb tellan meaning to reckon, calculate, number, compute; consider, think, esteem, account. We still use this sense of tell in the expression when we talk about telling the time.

So when we hear that cabbages are ten for two and that they are so cheap we can throw one at the dog and make the baby laugh, there are three tellings :

1. We are being told that cabbages are for sale and the price they cost.

2. It is also an enumeration of how many cabbages we can get for for that price.

3. We are also being told a joke.

There is a bonus to finish : where will we pay for our cabbages? At the counter, the place where the cabbages and the price are told one last time!

Tantalizing towels

There was also a Saturday market in the town square. It was different, it was bigger. Late on Saturday afternoons, after doing the rounds of the town centre, just before heading home, I loved to stand on the far corner of the market, diagonally opposite the clock. There was a place close to Birdcage Walk where I used to stand at the stall selling off bed linen, towels and tea towels for nothing, or next to nothing,

Pitch perfect to draw people in

The man made a pitch perfected through years of practice. You could feel it was the end of the market, but it could have been the end of the world. Your man at the stall knew people were looking for something to spend the last of their money on. Personally, I was looking for a final story to carry away with me.

He would draw people in with the patter of his chatter. People on their way home, like me. People who had no idea they were still going to buy something. He’d hold them there, talking casually to whoever was within earshot, while he looked around the stall, adding things to the pile in front of him. All sorts of towels and linen. Bits and pieces he wanted to clear out. Odds and ends he wanted to almost give away. Almost, but not quite. He had to make the sale.

The quiet magician

He was a quiet magician in the oral tradition. He was there every time I looked late on Saturday afternoons. People were always there, in a spellbound cluster.

He made them laugh because he made them listen.  And they paid up from popping purses because it was inevitable. It was their role in the story. That was how it ended. He knew because he was the teller.

Markets are full of tales and tellers who have been shouting out prices since before the days when tellan was an everyday verb.

There is another encounter with primary orality here.

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