The Continuity of Language

Thousands of years ago, humans began shifting their oral culture into written text.  Historians and anthropologists saw the shift as a domestication of society through the transition from an oral culture to a literate one.  Professor Walter Ong’s theories in the book, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, explores this transformation and the effect it had on our thought processes, personality and even social structures.  Ong (1982) argues that throughout history the development of speech, writing and eventually print served to reshape our consciousness.

After reading the first four chapters from Ong’s book, many questions about the effects of speech and writing on our consciousness emerged.  I thought back to my own experiences within the education system and as an educator of language.  My understanding of the two systems is one in the same.  One without the other would make the study of language incomplete.  We need to communicate in order to understand what we are reading or writing.  There is a need to share and discuss while understanding others views on the texts in which we study.  In order to understand the impact of writing, and the social change that derived from print, I focused on Chandler’s (1994) views of technology as the ‘prime mover’ in history.  He states that the theory of technological determinism views new technologies as having a weighted impact on the transformation of society on every level (i.e: institutions, social interactions and individual thought).  This radical view seemed to only consider one possible reason for these changes, which linked my thoughts towards the Continuity Theory.  Chandler details the Continuity theory as a “continuum rather than a radical discontinuity between oral and literate modes”. (p. 2).   Orality and literacy are linked together.  The link of orality and literacy made me think of Ong’s discussion of the disappearance of the oral ‘utterances’ and towards an understanding of how orality has evolved because of written text.

In order to understand, I delved further into the evolution of writing itself.  I questioned how well any writing system can fulfill its purpose and focused on the importance of the creation of the alphabet, which altered the way we store and organize knowledge.  The alphabet led to an increased level of abstraction and encouraged our cognitive abilities to move past the present to new theories and ways of thinking.  As Ong (1982) suggests, “text frees the mind of conservative tasks such as memory work and enables the mind to turn itself to new speculation”(p41). Within Chandler’s ‘Great Divide Theories’ (1994), he speculates that schooling has changed our cognitive skills with language and that no technology alone can change our thoughts completely.

Is it the practices in the education system that have fundamental changed the way our society interacts, thinks and divides itself within a social structure? Rather than a reductionist mentality, which views a single cause or independent variable such as the writing system to be the ‘prime mover’ for societal change.  Language and thought are both interior and exterior of the mind.  Therefore, our experiences within our thoughts (written) and expression (oral) will shape our knowledge and intelligence.  Our ability to move beyond sound has proven to develop a species with greater intellect, but not without the development of expression along the way.

Olson (1977) argues that the invention of writing did not end oral traditions.  He wondered if writing could preserve the meaning of oral language.  “The decreased reliance upon prior knowledge or expectations was therefore a significant step towards making meaning explicit” (p266).  By making oral communication more precise through written text, we have served to enhance our thoughts not only through writing but within our expressions as well.  Olson believes that a literate culture “fosters the ability for children to speak a written text in school teachings” (p270).  The reader and the writer as well as the presenter, can construct meaning from the literate world while using their own experiences to evaluate beliefs, clarify and to expand further to find deeper meaning.  The development and influence of the writing system played an essential role within our schools.  Through language acquisition in a majority of subjects taught today, the education system creates shifts to our consciousness as well.  What influence has education had on our oral and literate cultures?   Education takes part in shaping who we are, who we may become and how we communicate with each other.  The technology of the writing system as well as the evolution of orality is based on belief systems and traditions that are a melting pot of the past successes and even failures.

Grammatical knowledge is a result of the way a human understands and organizes information orally.  Our formulas of oral language are transferred into written text and we are taught how to learn from our expressions and to be more explicit with our thoughts.  Language acquisition in school helps to bring individuals and varying communities together on a similar level and continues to help us grow as a society. It is important for educators to understand the importance of an oral culture combined with written text when creating lessons.  In order to engage the mind and create meaningful learning, students should be actively involved and using many aspects of their body, speech, and thought while extending and connecting their thoughts to experiences in their own community and the world around them.


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 25 September 2012 from:

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 25 September 2012 from:

Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism [Online]. Retrieved 25 September 2012 from

K. Franke and M. Koeppen, \“Towards an Universal Approach to Background Removal in Images of Bankchecks,\” Proc. Sixth Int”l Workshop Frontiers in Handwriting Recognition, pp. 3-15, Taejon, Korea, Aug. 1998.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Olson, D. R. (1977). From utterance to text: The bias of language in speech and writing . Harvard Educational Review, 47(3), 257-281. Retrieved from 27 September 2012 from

The Alphabet Effect. In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 28, 2012, from

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