Thursday, March 17, 2011

orality vs literacy

Nevertheless, despite the artificiality of the poles of the oral-literate continuum, certain intriguing oppositions and comparisons can be made. Oral communication is, first of all, personal and involved. Speaker and listener must be face to face or at least in each other's vicinity, allowing for a shared experience. Common knowledge and expectations can be assumed, so that much can be taken for granted. A lot can be left out, and if the hearer is confused she or he can ask for clarification. Written language, by contrast, is impersonal and detached. Writers cannot presume shared knowledge, so they must be explicit where a speaker is implicit; precise and careful where a speaker can be careless; streamlined and sparse where a speaker can be redundant. Written language is primarily technical, concerned with logical and coherent explication or argument. Spoken language is vivid, idiomatic, and at least as concerned with facilitating a social encounter as with accurately and unequivocally conveying an informative message.

These differences between spoken and written communication are reflected in the kinds of societies and kinds of people characteristic of the two types. In oral societies, analysis and questioning are not encouraged-indeed, they are hardly possible in the literate sense, where one has a text that can be reread, checked, compared, pondered, classified, and interpreted. Hence people look to tradition and authority—which are preserved by means of proverbs, folktales, ritualized formulations, and so forth—for instructions on how to live. Their attitude concerning the validity of these cultural repositories is one of certainty and belief. Because the entire group is joined in the same beliefs or world-picture, it is characterized by a sense of communality, a submersion of individuals within the larger whole rather than their being expected to rely primarily on themselves.

- Ellen Dissanayake

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