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What is Orality?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 17, 2024
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Orality is a term that is applied to languages that do not have a prevalent form of written communication. The term refers to the way that language is used in thinking and speaking in populations that do not have widespread access to a written form of their language. Oral traditions have been studied for many centuries because it is understood that spoken language came long before written language. The study of orality comes out of the study of oral traditions. However, this field of study does not simply study the language itself. Rather, it also views cultures that rely on this form of communication through an anthropological lens.

The study of orality asks a number of questions about how societies function in the absence of printed language: How are the economics of a society without text different than a society with text? How are the politics different? Is the human development of individuals in purely oral societies different than that of humans in societies that have both spoken and written language? These studies are of particular interest today, when the world is moving toward globalization. Is globalization possible without the universal use of text? This is a major question for researchers in this field.

Orality has been divided into two forms: primary and residual. The primary type is seen in cultures in which language and its use in both thought and speech that exists completely outside of the knowledge of writing. People in such cultures have never been presented with an example of written language and have never heard speak of such a thing.

Residual orality refers to a language that has been exposed to writing, but has not completely incorporated it into daily use. This form of is referred to as “residual” because orality still exists within the language despite the presence or knowledge of text. In this case, orality is thought of as a residue that diminishes as a printed version of the language becomes more and more prevalent within the society. Therefore, orality can be thought of as a phenomenon that can exist on a sliding scale.

It is important to note that the study of either variety is not the same as illiteracy. Illiteracy is a term that refers to the inability to understand printed language while living in a society where reading and writing are prevalent.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel , Former Writer
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"

Discussion Comments

By Charred — On Dec 23, 2011

@NathanG - What happens when a society goes from an oral tradition to a written tradition? Personally, I believe that they gain the ability to express more abstract thoughts.

When you are simply relying on oral techniques, you are probably more concerned with expressing concrete thoughts in as short a time as possible. In another words, it’s like a grocery list. You just want to get to the point.

The Mosaic law, as an oral tradition, would be a perfect example, with its list of do’s and don’ts. Once you put things in writing however you can take a few moments to pause, reflect, breathe and then expand upon your thoughts. This will enable you to develop more abstract thinking as far as I can tell.

By NathanG — On Dec 22, 2011

@MrMoody - I suppose it would depend on the oral techniques used. I don’t know how long the Hebrews were a purely oral tradition. They did, after all, put their Scriptures to writing eventually, using scroll parchments and stuff like that.

I would be inclined to think, however, that in even in their oral tradition they were accurate. Why do I think that? Because they had to be.

These weren’t party game utterances. This was the Word of God. They labored over every word to make sure that they had it right. Then when they went to a written culture, they carried on that same commitment to accuracy, in my opinion.

By MrMoody — On Dec 21, 2011

The Hebrew civilization was an oral culture long before its sacred scriptures were put into print. This is why the Mosaic law was uttered, over and over again. It was the way that the tradition was handed down.

I have often wondered if this method of transmitting religious ideas and values was more or less accurate than the printed form.

I remember the old “telephone” party game where people are gathered together in a circle and one person passes a secret onto the next person, and they pass it on, and so forth. At the end of the game you try to match the original secret with what the last person in the game thought the secret was.

Wouldn’t the oral tradition corrupt the accuracy of the Scriptures in this way?

Diane Goettel

Diane Goettel

Former Writer

"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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