Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thoughts on Orality and Literacy - Chapters 1 - 4

I found the first four chapter of Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy fascinating. From my personal experience I agree with Ong’s premise that it in order to comprehend the role and impact of literacy we must understand pre-literate cultures. Furthermore, it is difficult for people from literate cultures (like myself) to understand the role that spoken language plays in oral cultures, and the strategies that pre-literate cultures use to support cognition and memory.

It is interesting to consider that writing is a technology that moved speech to a totally new sensory world, and as such it is still the biggest evolutionary leap in language that mankind has witnessed. It transformed language from a phenomenon that only existed in the “oral-aural” dimension to one that exists in the visual one as well.

When language is limited to the world of sound, a person’s experience of language is determined by its unique characteristics, including its short existence, and communal nature. This has many implications in the way people relate to language and the inner workings of their thought processes. Here are a few interesting examples:

Language is much more situated phenomenon in oral cultures that is closer to the “lifeworld” and is often considered to be magical. Spoken words go out of existence as soon as they are uttered. When language lives in the oral-aural sphere it is always part of an “existential” moment being uttered by a real living person to another person.

In literate languages words no longer hold such a close connection to the “lifeworld”. Words exist on their own in the pages of books, posters and other surfaces, regardless of whether they still hold any relevance. They have achieved the status of objects, or things, that are studied at a distance. This distance was crucial for the sharpening of our analytical and creative abilities.

For oral cultures language is always tied to an event or action in the real world. Their speech and thought patterns are less abstract, focusing on concepts that are relevant for immediate situational or operational needs. “Orality knows no lists or charts or figures.” For example, their relationship is not based on an abstract concept of being situated in a “computed time of any sort.”

Another interesting aspect of language in oral cultures is that it serves an important unifying function. Spoken language is communicated from at least one human being to another and can be used to address an audience of many people – regardless, physical proximity as a requirement.

On the other hand, written language requires the separation of the writer and reader. These two groups were always separated by time and space. The internet has provided new ways to mitigate this separation but in bringing us closer in a virtual world it is also taking us farther apart in the physical world. At this point in time the experience of instant video messaging still does not compare to talking face to face, but it is closer than ever before.

Ong’s description of how memory works in pre-literate cultures is intriguing. Culturally important information was maintained through story telling practices that leveraged “metrically tailored formulas” – poets were the main purveyors of the culture’s soul. These poets used this technology to create anew their stories every time they told them. And they told them over and over, enabling the creation of a communal memory.

Though the storyteller often considered himself capable of repeating the exact same story, research suggests that the story telling would differ each time it was told (though the story itself would remain largely consistent). Which points to the fact that “in functionally oral cultures the past is not felt as an itemized terrain, peppered with verifiable and disputed “facts” or bits of information…Remembered truth was…flexible and up to date.”

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