1.3 : The Problem with “Written” and “Oral” Cultures

Explain why the notion that cultures can be distinguished as either “oral culture” or “written culture” (19) is a mistaken understanding as to how culture works, according to Chamberlin and your reading of Courtney MacNeil’s article “Orality.

Before reading Edward Chamberlain’s book If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? and Courtney Macneil’s article “Orality” I must admit that I had never thought there was anything problematic about distinguishing cultures as either “oral” or “written”. I was content to accept that different cultures had different ways of communicating, and chalk it all up to cultural relativism. However, now that I have had the chance to read both Chamberlain and Macneil’s thoughts and reflect on what they mean, I can see now that differentiating cultures as “oral cultures” or “written cultures” is a false dichotomy as no culture is either entirely “oral” nor “written”.

To begin with an analyses of Chamberlain’s writing, he explains that distinguishing cultures as either “oral” or “written” is just another way of viewing the “Us vs. Them” dichotomy. In the hierarchy of “Us vs. Them,” Chamberlain suggests that the “Us” who “speak properly” and do “worthwhile things” are viewed as superior to “Them” who “doodle and do nothing” and “babble, more or less meaninglessly” (8). When viewing this hierarchy in the context of “oral” and “written” cultures, Chamberlain explains how cultures with written languages are viewed as having a place in the “Us” category while cultures with no written languages are reserved to “Them”. In reading Chamberlain’s thoughts on language, I noticed that he had three main reasons for suggesting why distinguishing cultures in this way is a misunderstanding of how cultures work.

For one, Chamberlain says that cultures who rely more on oral communication are praised for their “naturalness and naiveté” when the reality is that oral communication is a sophisticated and complex form of communication in its own right (18). Secondly, he then points out that this kind of thinking is dangerous as it encourages people to look down on other cultures, while celebrating their own culture as one that is sophisticated and superior. As we can see in Canada’s history the “Us vs. Them” dichotomy exists in the encounter between the Europeans and the First Nations people. Finally, he notes that believing that there is such a thing as “written cultures” and “oral cultures” is a misconception. So-called “oral cultures” have there own forms of writing even if they are non-alphabetic. An example of this in First Nations Cultures are totem poles and wampum belts, which record important information like history, treaty agreements, and stories. In reviewing these points, Chamberlain makes a very clear case that all cultures draw on both written and oral forms of communication, therefore they cannot be easily categorized as simply “oral” or “written”.

Macniel’s article draws on many of the same points that Chamberlain makes and even references his writing in her discussion, but she also makes a very interesting point that is separate from Chamberlain’s analysis. In challenging Walter Ong, a professor of the Toronto School of Communication who subscribes to the literacy/orality model Macneil suggests that communication though cyberspace has given us another reason to rethink orality. She challenges Ong’s statement that orality is “evanescent” by calling up the permanence of audio-recordings, and sound files that we can replay again and again. Similarly, she states that if written language is meant to be held as the more sophisticated form of communication because of its permanence, as Ong would have it, then what do we make of the fleeting nature of instant messages? Macneil’s article left me with an awareness that online spaces will play a crucial role in negotiating the place that orality has as a viable form of communication that is not secondary to written language.

Works Cited

Chamberlain, Edward. If This Is Your Land, Then Where Are Your Stories?. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004. Print.

“European Colonization and the Native Peoples”. Site for Language Management in Canada (SMLC). University of Ottawa, n.d. Web. May 20 2016.

Huang, Alice. “Totem Poles”. Indigenous Foundations. UBC, n.d. Web. May 20 2016.

Macniel, Courtney. “Orality”. The Chicago School of Media Theory. University of Chicago, winter 2007. Web. May 20 2016.

“Wampum”. Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Haudenosaunee Confederacy, n.d. Web. May 20 2016.

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