Orality and Literacy

Chandler (1994) brings forth a quintessential spark that lies between orality and literature, or as otherwise indicated the ear and the eye. Theorists who believe that there are substantial differences between a society that is non-literate and one that is literate, fall into the “great divide” theory (Chandler, 1994). The “great divide” theory “suggest[s] radical, deep and basic differences between modes of thinking in non-literate and literate societies” (Chandler, 2000, par. 4). Furthermore, the article stipulates the biases formed in regards to speech and writing, known as phonocentric, graphocentric, and logocentric biases.

Phonocentrism views orality, or speech, as natural, and writing as unnatural (Chandler, 1994). Therefore, it favors speech over writing. Graphocentrism, contrary to phonocentism, is when writing is favored over speech (Chandler, 1994). When “linguistic communication [is favored] over the revealingly named ‘non-verbal’ forms of communication and expression, and over universalized feelings,” this is called logocentrism (Chandler, 1994, par. 40).

Phonocentrism, glorifies speech, in comparison to writing (Chandler, 1994). It also tends to consider writing a technology (Chandler, 1994). It is considered a technology in the sense that it calls “for the use of tools and other equipment: styli or brushes or pens, [and] carefully prepared surfaces such as paper” (Ong, 2002, p. 80-81). The fact that speech takes precedent over writing for phonocentric’s, I believe, is because they view it as innate. There is this natural connotation that they have with speech, that they cannot find in writing. Speech being something that is picked up at birth, through being exposed to those around us using speech. Whereas, writing is contrived and must be learned in a setting, such as, school. Plato, a well known philosopher, viewed writing as a threat, as students would get an abundance of information, all written, however, the instruction would then be lacking, he argued (Chandler, 1994). He also mentioned that writing is “inhuman…a thing, a manufactured product” (Ong, 2002, p. 78). Plato may have held this particular view, however, he “ironically…put his words in writing,” and is now well known (Chandler, 1994, par. 23).

How could we have come this far, in society, and developed what we have without writing? Plato’s words, or that of any other philosopher, may have been long forgotten in this day and age, without the words they once spoke, written down, having kept them immortalized. That is not to say that I believe writing holds more power, or is more valuable than speech. It is more the notion that what was once spoken, or is spoken today can be kept, remembered, and retrieved, which is one of the strengths of writing. One strength of speech is that when listening to someone’s speech or story, the tone of voice they use, the verbal expression exasperated by the person speaking creates an emotional feeling within the listener. When these speeches and stories are put on paper they can lose their impact, which was provided by the tone when spoken. Yes, words can describe, but there is something in hearing them spoken, hearing the words resonate within us, that moves us.

As Chandler (1994) explains in his article it is “important to be aware of the similarities as well as the differences between non-literate cultures and our own,” (par. 11). What unfortunately happens is that we get caught up in labeling and envisioning one society as better than the other, making one seem inferior to the other, when that really isn’t the case (Chandler, 1994). To be able to fully understand and appreciate something, in all walks of life, it is important to have been able to deconstruct it, see it for its strengths and weaknesses, as well as what differentiates it.

I believe it has been the process of speech and writing conjoined that has brought our society to a level of understanding, knowledge and comprehension above what it could have been if only each stood alone. We must value speech, and writing equally. Granted, one came before the other, however, do you love your first child more because they came first? I would hope not. Writing may be contrived, it may be unnatural, it may make us think in another way, perhaps in a more sophisticated manner, one would argue. However, that does not mean it is bad. Writing is “utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials…writing heightens consciousness” (Ong, 2002, p. 81).


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 22 September, 2012 from: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral.html

Ong, Walter. (2002) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Orality and Literacy

  1. kstooshnov says:

    Thank you, Milena, for posting the difference between the biased centers.

    As much as I read and believed to have understood Chandler’s article, it helps to have a summary of these differences as the technical terms which seem to hide the true implications. In this course, where oral/aural communication is limited, each of us need to experience the idea several times before it sinks in. Like what I often tell my tutoring students learning English, it is not just about looking at vocabulary words in a list and claiming to understand the language, but how the student processes and eventually uses the word that it becomes knowledge.

    You point out an interest comment by Chandler about the irony of Plato writing down his complaints about writing. It may not have been too ironic, as Plato was often writing in the character of his mentor, the father of Western philosophy, Socrates. Obviously Plato was able to adopt writing, and adapt to the changes graphocentrism brought about in ancient Athens. Of Socrates, not a single word he spoke was written down by his hand, and it may have been out of respect for his mentor that he kept the arguments against writing as close to how they were spoken by Socrates, reported by Plato. Certainly, Plato would have been of two minds when writing down these thoughts, but I’d like to think flexible enough to see both sides.


Leave a Reply