Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The relationship between literacy and orality

While working in Vanuatu people were excited to see their language developed as a written language. Some understand the benefits of literacy as shown on the banner 'Literacy Helps Us' (Literasi i givhan long ol pipol - Bislama). And generally, people enjoy seeing their stories written and illustrated. Mostly, people not living in the town centers don't have all that much to read on a daily basis, which affects their literate abilities. The relationship between orality and literacy within a culture is intriguing. Is the relationship dichotomous or interwoven?

Orality and Literacy is Ong’s most widely known work, having been translated into at least 12 languages. At first glance, the title suggests a variety of topics such as technology, and orality as compared to literacy, perhaps favoring one over the other. Before I go further, I would like to take the reader to the end of the book, where Ong states that being literate definitely has its advantages. Ong is concerned with the interrelationship between orality and literacy.

“Orality is not an ideal, and never was. To approach it positively is not to advocate it as a permanent state for any culture. Literacy opens possibilities to the word and to human existence unimaginable without writing. Oral cultures today value their oral traditions and agonize over the loss of these traditions, but I have never encountered or heard of an oral culture that does not want to achieve literacy as soon as possible. (Some individuals of course do resist literacy, but they are mostly soon lost sight of.) Yet orality is not despicable. It can produce creations beyond the reach of literates, for example, the Odyssey. Nor is orality ever completely eradicable; reading a text oralizes it. Both orality and the growth of literacy out of orality are necessary for the evolution of consciousness.” (Ong 2001 171)

The subtitle to this book is ‘technologizing the word’. In order to understand what Ong meant, he urges the reader to consider that writing in itself is a technology, using tools such as styles, quills, pencils, pens and computers. Ong notes that Plato had his objections to the technology of writing, but in order to make his point wrote about it. Plato’s main criticism had to do with the effect that writing would have on mental processes (Ong 2002:79).

Even though writing is ‘completely artificial’ according to Ong – in fact Ong states, “There is no way to write ‘naturally’”, Ong praises writing as such. “Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials.” (2002:81)

This statement on technology being internalized makes me think of playing a musical instrument. There are some songs and etudes that I play from kinesthetic memory, and when I think about them too much, stumble. Yet Ong states that:

“The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life. Writing is an even more deeply interiorized technology than instrumental musical performance is. But to understand what it is, which means to understand it in relation to its past, to orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced.” (2002:82)

Orality and Literacy is a seminal work on this topic taking the reader deep into the inter-relatedness and polarities between the two concepts. Ong explores the history of literacy and the change from orality to literate cultures and how literacy brings a way of thinking not conceivable by primary oral cultures. He is very careful to distinguish between intelligence and cognitive processes or ways of thinking, by no means insinuating that oral cultures are primitive and unintelligent, rather exploring how the two cognitive processes differ and interact.

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