Oral And Literate Culture Research Paper

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The phrase ‘oral and literate expression’ refers to verbalized formulations communicated through speech and writing respectively. ‘Oral’ and ‘literate’ are often seen as contrasted or complementary (hence their joint treatment in this research paper), but the relations between them, even their juxtaposition, are matters of debate. Recent research tends to focus on their overlap, taking them as dimensions of a multiplex and socially mediated continuum. This research paper starts with a short overview of their main manifestations, then considers issues of definition and approach, and recent research trends.



1. Spoken And Written Expression In Human Culture

1.1 Expression In Writing

Through the ages humans have developed many forms of writing: systems for communicating relatively specific ideas through standardized and relatively permanent visible marks, conventionally ordered and interpreted. Many systems are based on close relations between written marks and speech sounds, conveyed through syllabic, consonantal or, most familiar to Western readers, alphabetic symbols (phonographic systems). Others, such as the Chinese and Aztek systems, use visual signs, sometimes pictorially based, to represent meanings rather than sounds (variously termed logographic, ideographic, and/or semasiographic systems); these allow communication across language boundaries, notably in the far-spread Chinese script. Some scholars include within writing pictographic systems such as American hobo signs or Native American pictorial records of events; others prefer narrower definitions like ‘visible speech.’ The classifications and boundaries of writing are thus not fully agreed, partly because most systems combine several principles and the relations between speech sounds and written signs are variable (see Boone and Mignolo 1994, Daniels and Bright 1996).

Writing appears in many different materials and forms, versatile enough to be turned to almost any of the multifarious purposes of human interaction. These include encapsulating, storing, and transmitting information; counting and accounting (sometimes seen as the origin of writing); formulating and extending memory; bridging space and time; and facilitating personal and artistic expression. Writing is also used in the formulation of recognized literary and/or religious works and their communication within and across human cultures. Western Europe, China, and the Islamic world are famous examples but throughout history and nowadays in every area of the globe writing has played powerful roles—for good or ill—in large-scale organizations, in personal and group expression at every level, and in the human endeavor to transcend space and time. It is inextricably embedded in human social institutions; for example, in the educational, artistic, and organizational hierarchies of the modern West.

1.2 Oral Expression

Scholars have long recognized the significance of written expression, but the rich complexities of oral forms are now increasingly understood too. Their nature and functioning are not necessarily identical to those of writing. In many disciplines, from philosophy and sociolinguistics to anthropology and education, the focus has shifted away from treating oral forms as if written texts toward active speech processes, conversations, and discourse-in-context. As with written genres, so too there are oral (or speech) genres: for example, different expected styles for political speeches, spoken prayers, or personal greetings. Oral expression uses varying permutations of human voices (speaking, singing, chanting, shouting … ), singly or combined, with generic conventions based on, for example, verbal and performance style, appropriate speaker(s) and audiences, context, or purpose. These are deployed in manifold ways in innumerable formal and informal situations, from intimate interchanges to public rituals. Many oral genres typically involve immediately present speakers and transient performances (unlike the greater permanence of writing), but some are now also enacted over far distances through electrical and electronic technologies or stored and reproduced in audio recordings. Like writing, they are both interwoven with human organization and creatively used by individuals for an infinite number of purposes.

Certain oral genres are singled out for heightened attention. Far from ‘nonliterate’ formulations being crude, communal, or uncreative, as once supposed, they can be extremely sophisticated in both verbal exposition and performance. Examples include the magnificent oral artistries of twentieth-century South Slavic epics, the lofty diction of Zulu panegyrics, brilliant imagery of Somali ‘miniature’ lyrics, deeply felt ‘wept thoughts’ of some South Pacific laments, or contemporary performance poetry. Oral genres such as narratives, myths, epics, eulogies, protest poetry, laments, love poems, oratory, and song-texts (themselves a form of lyric poetry) are variously found throughout the world, as well as condensed but sometimes highly artful proverbs, jokes, anecdotes, or after-dinner tales. These are often described as ‘oral literature’ and although the term is not wholly satisfactory (underplaying performance dimensions, for example) it usefully highlights their literary qualities; a few scholars prefer the neologism ‘orature.’ Their study has enabled a radical reassessment among many scholars of the achievements of oral expression, not least in the lyrics of popular music and in cultures of Africa, Native America, or Oceania once regarded as without creative and individually shaped verbal artistry (for examples and discussion, see Feld 1990, Finnegan 1992b, Foley 1995, Okpewho 1992, Sherzer and Woodbury 1987, Tedlock 1983).

2. The Concepts ‘Oral’ And ‘Literate’: Problems And Approaches

The distinction between oral and literate expression seems at first self-evident, familiar from phrases like ‘the spoken and written word.’ However ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ are complex and multiform concepts, in both their varying cultural manifestations and the theoretical controversies surrounding them. They are all the more loaded because they invoke emotive and far- reaching issues about the nature and history of human culture.

The terms themselves are awkward in English. ‘Oral’ mostly refers to what is spoken, uttered by the mouth, but also sometimes to anything nonwritten: the first sense excludes deaf signing and nonverbalized material culture, the second includes them; phrases like ‘oral tradition’ can thus be ambiguous. The term ‘literate’ partly complements ‘oral’ but is not precisely parallel and is sometimes replaced by ‘written.’ While it can readily be assumed that all members of a society normally gain some capacity to speak and hear, the skills of reading and (not necessarily the same) of writing are less widely distributed.

The referents and connotations of each term have also been channeled through a series of theoretical frameworks and questions. Many of these broadly match those elsewhere in the social sciences, successively dominated by, for example, evolutionist, diffusionist, and functionalist analyses, ideas of reflection, structuralism and poststructuralism, and a variety of Marxist-inspired and cognitivist approaches. Each has it own fix on the terms and their interrelationships. Here a few are selected to illustrate the changing perspectives.

2.1 Romantic And Evolutionary Paradigms

Some interest in contrasts between spoken and written expression dates back at least to classical Greece but in more recent centuries the most influential model has posited a teleological progression in human history: from oral to written. Spoken and written forms are viewed as themselves distinct and as characterizing distinctive evolutionary stages, with writing destined to supersede the oral phase in the upward path to enlightened modernity. Complementing and partly overlapping this is a nostalgic attachment to what was sacrificed in the process: a romanticizing glorification of that lost ‘other.’ Thus, so-called ‘oral cultures’ are viewed ambivalently, both as the valued repository of deep-seated, communal, and emotion-sensitive qualities and as a primitive stage which modern peoples have rightly left behind.

This intersecting cluster of ideas has remained remarkably pervasive. It presents a rousing story of the proud—if dearly bought—history of humanity, culminating in the achievements of Western civilization and its deployment of alphabetic writing. The ‘oral’ and the ‘modern’ are pictured as essentially contrasting and sequential phases of human development.

2.2 Consequences Of Literacy And Orality

The consequences of oral and literate forms of expression attracted much scholarly and popular interest through the mid and late twentieth century. The British anthropologist Jack Goody argued from the 1960s that the functions and effects of literacy should be studied comparatively. Parallel questions were raised in history, sociology, and comparative literary studies, further reinforced by interests in development, economic ‘modernization,’ educational applications, and the major comparative features of societal organization. Marshall McLuhan’s writings on the media stirred popular imagination, intermixed with continuing evolutionary and romantic perspectives. The result was intensive discussion about the social and cognitive consequences of literacy. Among those suggested were: rationality; objectivity; the emergence of history, science, and/or philosophy; secularism (but in other accounts religious obscurantism); political and religious control (or, alternatively, freedom); ‘modernization’; the ‘take-off ’ for economic development and/or imperial rule both in early history and the present; innovation; transition from auditory to visual perception; bureaucracy; and individualism. The suggested consequences between them spanned almost every feature associated either ideally or in practice with post-Enlightenment Western society, and chimed well with narratives of the print-based Protestant Reformation and the expansionist West disseminating literacy through its civilizing mission.

Most of this presupposed some independent variable from which these consequences flowed. Usually this was literacy, with orality implicitly its more shadowy opposite. However, just what this literacy comprised was less clear. Some of the posited effects occurred in some eras but not others or were even mutually contradictory (e.g., literacy as leading to freedom and to oppression) so could scarcely be automatic results from some uniform entity. As in other areas of the social sciences, many analysts thus now speak more of ‘implications’ than unicausal ‘consequences,’ and of possibilism rather than determinism, recognizing that literacy takes many forms and is used differently in different situations.

2.3 ‘The Orality–Literacy Debate’

Linked to the interest in consequences was the socalled ‘orality–literacy debate.’ This revolved round the question of whether there is some generalizable divide between oral and literate cultures, and/or between oral and literate minds.

On one side were writers like McLuhan (1964) and Ong (1982 and earlier) who not only strongly contrasted ‘literacy’ and ‘orality’ but often envisaged human history as a series of major changes—from orality, to writing, to print. Each stage had distinctive properties, with the ‘Great Divide’ between ‘primitive’ and ‘civilized’ marked by literacy. This resonated with evolutionary and romantic notions, carrying connotations of orality as primeval, emotional, and homogeneous, characterized by unchanging and communal tradition rather than individual creativity, as against the rationality, individualism, science, urbanism, modernity, and economic development associated with literacy. This in turn recalled the binary division between types of society envisaged in classic nineteenth and early twentieth century social theories (e.g. see Durkheim, Emile (1858–1917)).

Other scholars argued that the basic question was over-general, giving a spurious identity to multiplex notions (see Boyarin 1993, Schousboe and Larsen 1989, Street 1993). They challenged the ethnocentric (Western-based) bias of the contrast and its implicit technological determinism. In their view literacy and orality are neither autonomous nor unitary. The practices of speaking and writing coexist, they are socially as much as technologically shaped, and cultural variations undermine sweeping generalizations.

A further twist comes in McLuhan’s and Ong’s vision of electrical and electronic technologies as ushering in a new age of ‘secondary orality.’ This further links to suggestions that the apparent bias towards vision in Western cultures, often associated particularly with Gutenberg’s printing press, is now being redressed by new opportunities for audio communication, hence a greater role, once again, for oral expression. The position is complicated, not least because others propound a new ‘visual turn,’ but computer technologies certainly open new opportunities. They also challenge older assumptions about oral forms being fleeting, evanescent, and essentially variable, in contrast to the fixed, permanent, and authoritative properties of writing. Computer ‘soft’ text transcends that postulated divide and erodes yet further the once-confident distinctions.

The trend is now to take more cautious account of diversity and change rather than generalizing about ‘orality’ or ‘literacy’ as supposedly uniform entities. But the question is constantly being recycled, sometimes by writers unacquainted with earlier work, and still stirs both academic and popular interest.

2.4 Ethnographic And Historical Specificities

Many scholars now look instead toward empirical investigation of specific cases. Here ‘oral’ and ‘literate’ turn out to be less hard-edged and autonomous than once assumed and to come in varied, culturally specific, forms. Speaking and writing intermingle in manifold genres rather than being existent in monolithic and clearly separated form. The famous Greek epics of Homer, for example, were probably first composed and performed orally, but were then transmitted in writing. Oral and written traditions are not independent streams, as once supposed, for the ‘same’ works sometimes appear in both modes and move between them. Examples are national anthems, carols, well-known religious texts, ‘urban myths,’ Hausa political poetry, and English-American ballads.

In classical and medieval Europe literary works were commonly composed for the voice and ‘published’ by being read or performed aloud to an audience; comparable interplays of oral and written processes occur in sermons, plays, or conference ‘papers’ today. Song lyricists have often used mixes of written and oral media to compose sung words and guide their performance. Similarly, written formulations are related to oral practices in a huge variety of ways, from dictated transcriptions and performance scores to crib sheets, prompt books, or jotted notes. Radio television broadcasts and the icons, graphics, and audio messages of modern computers further blur the once-clear divisions (for discussion and illustration see Boone and Mignolo 1994, Boyarin 1993, Cavallo and Chartier 1995, Finnegan 1992a, Foley 1995).

The notions of oral vs. literate thus no longer appear as bounded and clearly opposed, far less as carrying already known attributes when applied to cultures, genres, or individuals whether now or in the past. Rather, they emerge as broad and somewhat illdefined terms covering a spectrum of varying practices and artifacts, resources which human beings draw on in a multitude of overlapping, merging, and intermingled ways.

3. Recent Insights And Future Directions

While earlier approaches still carry influence, current research could be said to be characterized by three interrelated trends.

3.1 Multiplicity And Differentiation

Recent analyses continue and extend the interest in historically and culturally specific contexts. Scholars now seldom speak of purely ‘oral cultures,’ recognizing not only the lengthy and geographically widespread interconnections between oral and graphic systems but also the complex and shifting varieties of spoken/written/electronic interactions in the present. Multiple versions of writing have existed and coexisted both in the past and in more recently developed systems, like the little-known but ingenious indigenous scripts of West Africa. A definition based on Western history and alphabetic writing is no longer accepted as universally valid.

Unlike earlier models envisaging homogeneous patterns of orality or literacy throughout a ‘culture’ as a whole, recent studies explore how different groups or individuals use and/or conceptualize speech and writing in diverse directions, have differential access to them, and deploy them differently in different situations.

Even within the same locality, different categories of people use writing (or, indeed, speaking) in different ways. Some can read but not write; others may be multiply literate in different languages or different genres, using them for different purposes; others again may specialize in particular forms. There are social controls on who can speak, how, and where, and on the learning, practice, and purposes of writing. The focus is thus now on the multiplex, localized, and differentiated ways that both speaking and writing are learned, valued, or practiced according to—for example—gender, rank, religious or educational role, age, geographical area, ethnicity, or situation. Critical and postmodernist analyses emphasize that both ideologies and practices may be related to the exercise of power, and can divide as well as unite. These spill over into studies of popular culture and the contemporary media, and of the role of literacy in the ideologies and practices of imperialism.

3.2 Practices And Processes Rather Than Texts And Products

A further trend goes beyond models of oral and literate expression as forms of text. This partly dates back to work on performance by linguistic anthropologists, folklorists, and others from around the 1960s but has intensified through more recent social science interests in process and practice. Many scholars have turned from studying fixed products, formal typologies, or even cognitive meanings toward investigating everyday situations, intertextual processes, emotive experiences, and the diversity of socially mediated expectations about how people do or should communicate.

Such studies point to the creative and diverse involvements of individuals in oral and written interaction, revealing something of the infinite inventiveness of human beings in the composition, enactment, and reproduction of verbal expression. Even in a single communicative situation different indivi-duals may be participating differentially, actively constructing the communicative process rather than merely forming a passive or homogeneous ‘audience’ for an already defined message. This can be applied to written forms too. Readers approach and interpret their material in diverse ways, with marked differences between cultures, historical periods, sectional groups, and even individuals (Boyarin 1993). The reality lies there as much as in the ostensibly objective and enduring text.

The investigation of ‘text’ continues but the term is now less often taken as a given. Rather, it is approached as a multifaceted issue for exploration, opening up questions about, for example, the socially shaped ways in which actions and communications are or are not crystallized in verbalized forms, how these relate to one another and to other aspects of social life, and the diverse processes through which they are actively put together and experienced.

3.3 Verbal Expression And Multidimensionality

This research paper started by defining the key concepts in terms of erbalized expression. But current research is increasingly emphasizing that verbal expression consists of more than words. Speaking uses uttered words, certainly, but also regularly relies on concurrent visual communication, through participants’ bodily gestures, movements, and positionings; musical, olfactory, and tactile dimensions sometimes come in too. In writing there are images and visual displays over and above signs representing speech sounds, and sometimes tangible, acoustic, and olfactory dimensions. The materiality of artifacts such as books or letters now attracts interest, both in new transdisciplinary approaches to material culture and because computer developments challenge olderestablished print forms and in so doing raise awareness of properties previously taken for granted. Earlier ideologies positing the neutrality, universality, and transparency of print now themselves turn out as culturally molded and implicated in material artifacts not just mental representations. The multimodality of most, perhaps all, oral and written expression is likely to form one revealing research question in the future.

There are many other perspectives on speech and writing. But one virtue of focusing on the interrelation of oral and written expression, even on partially outmoded debates, is that it brings to the surface and challenges some powerful but often unacknowledged presuppositions. In doing so it can open doors to greater appreciation for both the continuities and the multiplex powers of these primarily (but not exclusively) verbal resources of human expression.


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