Orality – past and present

Initially being introduced to the topic of orality and literacy, the link between the two seems necessary and dependent upon each other. Orality has existed for a much longer period than literacy. But the eventual introduction of written text seems inevitable. In The Orality of Language, Ong (Ong, p.7) describes the great number of language, which are oral and of them very few that have developed written forms. While oral language have existed without accompanying written text, it is not true of the existence of written text without oral language (Ong, p.8).

The question that arises from this observation is what was the need for the formation of a written language if oral language has fulfilled our needs for years prior to the development of written language? One reason perhaps is the need to keep lists, charts or figures (Ong, p.97). Another reason is that written text frees the mind from the need to memorize (Ong, p.43) and allows it to be engaged to create other meanings. For someone who has not been exposed to a completely oral culture it is perhaps difficult to image why we would not move from the natural progression of oral to written language. The extent that the transformation of a culture this progression brings to a society is also difficult to grasp.

Written text and oral language however are closely linked. Ong (p.8) proposes that sound is the natural form that language takes. The transformation of oral language into written language has meant that for those who are accustomed to written language, words are not only sounds but are also visual images (Ong, p.12). We visualize the letters when we hear the sound of the word. However written culture holds greater potential for the complexity work it can produce over an oral culture (Ong, p.14). Orality therefore leads to literacy. An oral culture also has a closer link to the human experience and world (Ong, p.42).

Ong (Ong, p.9) examines the many differences between those who are exposed to a written language and those who are not. One difference is in the way they learn. People who only know oral language learn by doing, while those with written language study texts. How do people who only have oral language remember or recall facts? The answer to this is that they use mnemonics to help them remember (Ong, p.34). Oral culture promotes fluency, because pauses during speech are unnatural (Ong, p.42).

These differences appear to reflect even in a literate society those who learn verbally and those who learn from text. Often there is a preference of one method over the other and it varies among individuals. These differences stems from the cultural differences of orality and literacy. In present day where we learn abstract ideas from texts, it would seem texts are better suited for communicating this information. Our use of mnemonics minimally reflects the extent of its use in an oral society.

In oral language the speaker doesn’t hold the same authority as source of knowledge as written text does (Ong, p.77-78). We hold the author of written text responsible for what is said. This point very much reminds me of the debate over copy right of text. We can place copy right on text and control the distribution of sharing that text. In an oral cultural this problem is not existent. Oral cultural is passed down and the source of it may be difficult to locate. In todays written culture the question of whether a resource should be controlled or if it should be free to incorporate into our own creation (Lessig, p.12) need to be asked while is was not a problem in an oral culture.

Lessig, L. (2001). The future of ideas. New York: Random House.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy. New York: Routledge.

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