What is orality?

Mark Goodacre has a post about orality this week. He raises some issues that I wish to comment on. First, verbalizing things is not orality in the sense that we use it to indicate an oral or even rhetorical culture - neither of which we are. An oral culture is one where there is no writing. So everything transmitted is done so by human memory and voice. Think about what it would be like to have nothing written to store information, to refer back to, to help you or the next generation with the transmission of knowledge. It is daunting to those of us from a literate and information oriented world. Transition cultures, where writing is used to store bits of information by a very small percentage of the population, are still largely oral, in that the vast majority of people are still operating as completely oral transmitters.

Oral and transition cultures tend to transmit information that is more concrete (less or not abstract), accretive, formulaic, redundant, conservative, situational, additive. They do not have external sources of information, except in rare situations, to consult. If they do, they are less trusting of written materials and would rather talk to people about whatever it is that they want to know, because they know who is trustworthy and who is not, and because they can ask questions.

Analogies to pod casts and giving talks at conferences have absolutely nothing to do with oral culture or oral transmission in a oral culture. We are today totally operating from a literate mentality and consciousness which allows us to write things down, to remember them, to store them, to refer to them, to develop them, to memorize them verbatim, and so on. We trust external sources, the written word, things we can consult, and even in court when we have oral witnesses, we are all about documentary evidence and challenging the witnesses against written records of what happened or what they might have said on another occasion.

If you want to understand oral culture, read Walter Ong - everything or anything he wrote.