Writing and Context

Library rules (Photo taken by Jennifer Cabralda)

Reflecting on the readings of the first two modules, in particular Chapter 4 of Orality and Literacy,  lead me to do a search in the Oxford English Dictionary for two words: write and writing.  The entry for “write” categorized it as a verb with a definition of “illustration of forms”.  The search results for “writing” were quite interesting.  The first entry was simply the word “writing” with no identification of the type of word (no indication of verb, noun, etc.).  Clicking on the first entry took me the word “writing” but with reference to “commend to memory or to paper”.  This result lead me to look up the word “commend” resulting in a verb defined as “to give in trust or charge”.  Ultimately, my quest to find the definition of “writing” ended by clicking on the second search result: a verbal and noun meaning “the action of one who writes, in various senses, the penning or forming letters; the use of written characters for purposes of record, transmission of ideas, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary Online, n.d.).  This search has prompted me to think about writing and the characteristics of literacy further.  I agree with Ong’s comments about writing being context-free and multiple meanings as well as Gaur’s comments about phonetic writing.

According to Ong, writing has distanced the knower and the known; the author is removed from the piece and information.  It has also removed the context from the piece because in writing, there is an absence of intonation and emotion (2002).  Without context, the meaning can change.  Emotion can be conveyed by the descriptions and the adjectives used but with the oral tradition, the audience can experience the emotion just by hearing the rise and fall of the voice; words such as sad or happy do not need to be used.  A reader can only experience the emotion of the author by the description; the more descriptive, the more feeling can be conveyed otherwise the reader can only assume what emotions the author is writing about.  An example of context-free writing is the modern day e-mail.  Many people choose e-mail as a form of communication but sometimes (as with verbal communication) misunderstandings can arise.  The reason for this because there is no context.  Humour, sarcasm, and emotion are not relayed through e-mail.  The writer of the e-mail is not physically present to defend or explain the context when the reader reacts to the words.  Without context, individuals may jump to conclusions and become offended.  The author can then become defensive when he/she is accused of something that was taken out of context whereas in person and with oral communication a dialogue can immediately take place for clarification.  This is the one disadvantage to writing because many people take what is written to be truth (Ong, 2002, p.78).

Another point that Ong made was about words having multiple meanings.  As with context, the English language, in particular, contains words that have multiple meanings; it all depends on how it is read.  The example that Ong makes is the use of the word of the “read”.  If it is place on the top of a page on its own, it may mean past or present; something already done or something needing to be done in the future (2002, p.84).  This works with the Gaur’s argument about phonetic writing in that taking sounds and matching letters to it is unnatural and only makes sense if it is translated back and forth in the same language (1992).  If a word is written phonetically in English and then translated phonetically in French, there is most likely a different meaning (if the word even exists).  Context in this situation is also vital because even in English, certain words sound the same: red and read (in the past tense), reed and read (present tense), led and lead (the metal), and so forth.  If theses words were written phonetically, even an English speaker needs context for it them to make sense.  The only advantage to phonetic writing is that it can challenge the reader’s brain by forcing them to think more abstractly and analytically to decipher what is being said but this is a point of discussion for another time (Ong, 2002, p.89).

In a world where more and more information, books, and correspondences are going digital, we must remember that context is vital to for the audience.  Spoken words can not be taken back but can be explained and questioned immediately, written words can not be.  It is also important to remember that what is written is not always the truth and therefore critical thinking, critiquing, and questioning the text allows more meaningful learning and understanding.  As educators, we encourage and teach our students to think critically about information given to them; therefore we must also remember that a textbook is not always right and that truth can be found elsewhere.

Gaur, Albertine. (1992). A history of writing [revised edition]. London: British Library.

Ong, W. (2002). Orality and literacy. New York: Routledge.

Oxford English Dictionary.  (n.d.).  Writing.  Retrieved October 3, 2010 from http://dictionary.oed.com.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/entrance.dtlà

Photo from Jennifer Cabralda 2010.

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