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Reconsidering the historical boundary between “oral” and “literate” cultures

“Our understanding of the differences between orality and literacy developed only in the electronic age, not earlier. Contrasts between electronic media and print have sensitized us to the earlier contrast between writing and orality.  – Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy, the technologizing of the word, pp. 2-3

There’s a fairly healthy body of literature from the 20th century which presumes a very sharp distinction between spoken (oral) and literary (written) styles of communication. This division occurs not only in the content and form of communication itself, but also to the psychological and sociological implications of the two different styles of communication for the wider culture. Walter Ong, and his one-time tutor Marshall McLuhan, both argued in slightly different ways that a shift from a predominantly “oral” culture to a predominantly “literate” one profoundly changed the way people in that culture thought and acted.

20th-century empirical studies comparing written and spoken language via content analysis seem to demonstrate fairly clear differences between them. For instance, in Volume 9 a book series from the 1980s called “Spoken and Written Language: Exploring Orality and Literacy”, an academic named William Chafe wrote a chapter entitled “Integration and Involvement in Speaking, Writing, and Oral Literature”. In that chapter, Chafe showed that, compared to spoken language, written language used far fewer “joining” words like “and” or “but”, used significantly more “nominalisations” (i.e. saying “treatment” and “development” rather than “treat” or “develop”), used significantly more attributive adjectives (adjectives immediately preceding a noun rather than modifying it as a predicate), among other notable differences.  This seems fairly straightforward. But, if you look at some recent studies on computer-mediated communication, as well as the last part of Chafe’s chapter where he the ritual spoken language and the everyday spoken language of a contemporary non-literate culture, serious issues start to arise – issues that suggest the distinction between “oral” and “literate” content may not actually be all that clear-cut.

There are several examples of examining the language of computer-mediated communication that analyse its content in the same way that content analysis has been performed on earlier forms of spoken and written language. To a greater or lesser extent, they all find that the “written” language of computer-mediated communication doesn’t resemble earlier “written” communication; it comes surprisingly close to resembling speech.

This isn’t to say that it’s identical. David Crystal, writing in the book “Language and the Internet” claimed that what he called “Netspeak” “is better seen as written language that has been pulled some way in the direction of speech than as spoken language that has been written down”. On the other hand, Naomi S. Baron, in her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, studied the written language of Instant Messaging specifically, and found that its content closely resembled, but wasn’t the same as, speech. Regardless of the extent of the resemblance, these findings make it somewhat harder to accept that there’s a clear and unambiguous division between the language of orality and the language of literacy.

A plausible-seeming explanation for the ambiguous identity of computer-mediated communication is the claim, voiced by both Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan in different ways, is that our society is becoming post-literate. The existence of electronic media is presumed to be as profoundly transformative of our culture as the shift from orality to literacy supposedly was. And, just as written forms of communication changed the way oral communication worked in a society, the new electronic forms of communication are changing the way literate communication works.

While plausible, the final part of Chafe’s work raises an issue with the apparently clear division between “oral” and “literate” communication that cannot be attributed to the influence of any electronic media. Chafe had the opportunity to study a language called Seneca, “an Iroquois language spoken in western New York State” (p. 49), which had no writing. He studied both the colloquial, everyday use of the language, and the language as it was used in ritual. According to his content analysis, the language when used in ritual differed from the language as it was used in the everyday: the ritual language more closely resembled the type of language use generally found in writing.

Chafe speculated that this was because language use in ritual was functionally similar to that of writing. Both ritual language and written language were a deliberate recording of language, intended to be read/heard an indefinite number of times. Both the monologues of Seneca ritual and the act of writing in general are solitary communications, without the interactivity and immediacy of feedback found everyday spoken conversation.

What this suggests to me is that at least some of the differences attributed to an essential difference between “oral” and “literate” communication are actually a product of the context in which each type of communication is used. While it’s true that there are significant material differences between the way spoken language and written language is produced, those material differences may not be the reason for differences in styles of communication. Perhaps we are not so much “sensitized…to the earlier contrast between writing and orality”, as Ong suggested above, as we are reducing a fairly complex relationship between the different forms and functions of communication to a simple binary of orality/literacy.

This might also explain the current difficulty in classifying the contemporary communication era. Calling it “secondary orality” (as Ong does) or “the electric age” (as McLuhan does) doesn’t really seem to capture the complexity of the forms of communication available. A person named Dietrich Schunemann actually took both Ong and McLuhan to task for this oversimplification. In a book chapter entitled ‘”Collecting Shells’ in the Age of Technological Reproduction. On Storytelling, Writing and the Film”, Schunemann claimed that media forms like television or film couldn’t be neatly classified into “visual” or “oral” media forms the way McLuhan and Ong respectively tried to classify them. Instead, it was the proliferation of different types of media forms that characterised the contemporary era.

I would agree with that, but I would also go further in suggesting that the supposedly sharp distinction between “oral” and “literate” culture needs to be rethought. One area of history where that might be done is in the Medieval period. This period prior to the printing press, when writing was present but uncommon in Europe, has been given rather short shrift by both McLuhan and Ong. Rather than examining it on its own terms, they have both treated it as little more than a stepping stone from a purely “oral” to a purely “literate” culture. A more thorough analysis, one that is attentive to the context of communication as well as the material aspects of the medium used, might suggest a way of describing its communicative environment, and the associated culture, as something more than merely “residue orality” (Ong), and might give an accounting of “scribal culture that treats as something other than a stepping stone on the way from tribal orality to the “Gutenberg galaxy” (McLuhan).


My new blog is created, named

and his voice the cry of a bird unknown,
3Jane answering in song, three notes, high and pure.
A true name. – Neuromancer, by William Gibson

If Walter Ong is to be believed, cultures with no written language tend to regard words as mystical and immensely potent. The act of speaking intervenes in the world and changes it. The act of naming, especially, conveys power over the thing named.

Literate people supposedly know better. They understand that words are just representations, with no intrinsic power of their own. Yet, in the current epoch of computers everywhere, William Gibson is not the only one to have noted the parallels between interactions with computers and that old-time magic of the Word.  At the command line interface common to all computers of the 1980s – and still frequently used today – the computer is invoked into action by the typing the right collection of words and characters.  And the command to use to invoke a specific computer programme  from the command line?  The programme’s name.

Sure, there’s more than an element of poetic license in this. But, even with the mainstream replacement of the computer command line by the graphical user interface, I think it’s still worthwhile to note how much of our computerised society works in such a way that the use of words can intervene in the world and change it, especially the use of names.

And so I name myself on the WordPress blogging platform, choosing my unique username that will insert me into its systems and make them usable by me. I construct a string of characters – my password – that must be shared with no one else, as it will bind my WordPress username to the string’s speaker upon its utterance. I choose my blog’s name and description. This name need not identify me uniquely, but the choice may affect the attitude towards the blog taken by humans and inhumans. What will search engine spiders make of it? Should I consider how it’ll appear in Google’s search results?

I’ve chosen the title “Communication Mediated” as being sufficiently descriptive to give an idea of what the blog’s intended to be about – media and communication – but sufficiently vague as to allow a lot of leeway in what I might decide to actually post. So I haven’t (yet) been bound to anything too concrete as to intentions by my choice of blog name – or so I hope.

After that more than customarily florid example of my writing, all that remains is the traditional greeting of potential blog readers. For that I thought I’d use the traditional display text of the very first computer programme that an aspiring computer programmer is taught to create and run. I wanted to do this because part of the charm of saying it now comes from an appreciation of its usual context as a person’s very first introduction to a much larger world of understanding, and because making a communication that relies on previous context for understanding its full meaning serves as a reminder that computers, for all their precision and speed in language, still aren’t very good when it comes to understanding the fuzziness of interpretive context.

Hello World.