Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Orality and Literacy - Walter Ong - 'Wish I read this years ago'

I'm finally reading through Walter Ong's book 'Orality and Literacy' and wish I had done so years ago. It would have helped me to appreciate some issues that we recognized while living in Vanuatu, but wished I had understood . We lived in Vanuatu since 1991, spending several years on rural Epi Island and several more in the 'urban' center and capital, Port Vila. During that time we ran many training events dealing with language development, literacy and translation and learned that our 'normal' mode of training wasn't working with people from Vanuatu. While people from Vanuatu are not what Ong would call 'primary oral' cultures, probably the majority operate in an oral mode. Because we were intent on making our training fit the trainees, we recommended that trainees learn in groups and be the sole speaker of their language in the course. We also learned that not all needed to write what the group had learned, but one could serve as the scribe. In this way, the small group could process orally what they were learning.
Had I read 'Orality and Literacy' I think I might've appreciated repetitive stories more than I did. When meeting Vanuatu friends, we'd hear what was happening since our last meeting, then we'd hear the same story a couple more times before we departed. I don't know how normal this is for mostly oral cultures but I would imagine it would be fairly normal. It's a device for helping people remember the story and provides continuity. Ong states on page 40
"Since redundancy characterizes oral thought and speech, it is in a profound sense more natural to thought and speech than is sparse linearity. Sparse linear or analytic thought and speech are artificial creations, structured by the technology of writing.... With writing, the mind is forced into a slowed-down pattern that affords it the opportunity to interfere with and recognize its more normal, redundant processes."
Even when I read the word 'redundancy' I get a negative connotation as my educational experience taught me to be concise, being educated from a mostly literate culture. Had my childhood been in a mostly oral society, redundant probably would've been good and normal.
More on Ong later, thanks for dropping by.


Brian said...

I was attracted to your blog because of the Tok Pisin interest listed in your profile. Having met a (now close) friend from Papua New Guinea a few years ago, I have had a fondness for their culture ever since. My friend taught me a fair amount of Tok Pisin over the course of a year, and gave me a Buk Baibel as a parting gift when he went home.

One thing my friend told me was that back in PNG there was some controversy over the Tok Pisin language because it lacked the richness and large vocabulary of the tribal languages it was quickly replacing. He said that the people growing up with Tok Pisin as their primary language had limitations placed on their thinking because of the limited vocabulary of the language. I found this (new to me) conecpt quite fascinating.

Would you care to comment? I would enjoy reading a blog about the Tok Pisin language and how it is affecting the culture. I realize it isn't Vanuatu, but you seem more qualified than most to address this question. Hope to read more.

Bryce said...

Hmm. Brian's comments, especially in light of the blog post, make for a very interesting discussion of how languages should be preserved, even in the South Pacific.

Here's a great site that I think both of you might enjoy. It helps preserve dying languages:

Tok Pisin wiki browser