In Defense of Oral Culture

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Daniella Choynowski

2/9/08

EL 336: Topics in Media and Culture

Dr. Jerz

“In Defense of Oral Culture”

Socrates had a great fear of the new technology of the written word. Speaking to his student Phaedrus, he believed that writing would cause people to become forgetful, “because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves” (Plato 362). The great philosopher believed that the written word was going to be the downfall of the present oral society. He didn’t see the need for a new form of communication, and why would he? The oral culture had worked for centuries. Some of his fears were founded: there are several downsides to choosing written culture over oral.

For one thing, there are entire societies that can sustain themselves on the oral tradition alone. The griots of West Africa are the keepers of memories. Combination poets, storyteller, and public relations men, the griots were in charged of keeping memories of the history of the tribe, because “men have short memories”(Sundiata 443). The griots, the depositories of past knowledge, can predict the future of the country by knowing its history (443). They have survived for eons without textural culture.

I’m sure that all of us have read Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We have also probably heard and/or seen the recording of the man delivering the speech himself, which is an altogether different experience. That is because speech contains something that text does not: unbridled emotion. It has the ability to “voice immediate sensations and expressions and feelings between individuals” (Havelock 64). Sure, there are expressive words like “devastated” and “ecstatic” that trigger an emotional memory, but it is not the same. We have all read articles in the paper about a little boy or girl who has died. Our reaction is “oh, that’s sad.” Yes, the event is unfortunate, but we wonder how it affects us. Then there is a news report with a destroyed relative sobbing over their loved one. Then our eyes start to brim with tears. Why is it that the print story barely affected us, while the video footage overwhelms us with emotion? It is because the print version cannot capture the humanity of what happened. It makes the issue seem distant and sterile, far away from us. “It can’t sing to you” (Havelock 22). But human emotion is something that flows through all of us, connecting us. Raw emotion triggers our own emotional memory; we pity and feel for the person. It is for this same reason that we cry about our own dead loved ones at a funeral for a relative of a friend. (Konstantin Stanislavski founded the first acting method through this “emotional memory” bank we have). I sobbed my eyes out at my friend’s grandmother’s funeral; not because of her actual death (I had never even met her), but because the experience reminded me of when we buried my grandmother 18 months earlier. A news blurb cannot make us feel like witnessing something can.

Writing a story of your own theories and thoughts down may seem like a great idea, a way to preserve your musings for future generations, but therein lays one problem: as soon as something is written down, it is subject to multiple interpretations. You may have had one underlying intention, one point to get across to your audience, but there is non guarantee they will get it. This variation of meaning is most evident in the production of plays, where different inflections in the spoken lines can completely change the audience’s perception of a character. Take Hamlet, for instance. Many believe the titular character to be a suicidal, whiny little boy. However, what if the “to be or not to be” speech was not uttered by someone contemplating suicide, but a scared young prince who is deliberating whether he should sacrifice himself to correct an injustice or do nothing and live among the misery? Different interpretations of Hamlet can completely change the meaning of the play. Shakespeare himself wrote most of his plays to be performed as situation comedies. He would be rolling in his grave if he saw how we have treated “the great romantic tragedy” Romeo and Juliet. That is the problem with the textual: much of it is subject to interpretation.

The written word is something that can be corrected. Just as this paper has been written, there have been several typos that have occurred. But, you will never see them because they have been eliminated, taken back; the same cannot be done with the spoken word. “We can never revise it. If we speak in the hearing of others…our words are heard by listeners who can remember them even if we say something we wish they would forget” (Elbow 137). When in a fight, the other might say, “hey, you take that back!” But it cannot be done. Many times, there is no “verbal filter”, and we say what is on our minds immediately. Fuming passion fuels these bursts of honesty. Writing takes more time, and by the time something is actually written down, that verbal intensity, that passion and emotion that caused you to speak your mind is gone.

What we say is only half of what is communicated. It is often how we say something that burns our speech into someone’s memory. The pauses, frequencies,intensities, and emphasis a person places on words separates what is important from what is not (138). This is why a written speech is never as effective as a spoken one. Ever wonder why so many people go to readings of books by their authors? It is because they want to hear the inflections and emphasis; in short, they want to hear what the author meant with his words. The author’s interpretation is the correct one. What many scholars wouldn’t give to hear Shakespeare read “Hamlet.”

Those of us of the Catholic faith are all familiar with the sacrament of confession. Most choose the private confession, where we can hide behind a silk screen and the priest cannot see our faces. Why do we choose the screen? It is so the priest cannot see the emotion in our faces, the ashamedness and fear as we confess to our most embarrassing deeds. We would rather break up with someone in an email, text, or letter because it is more sterile and less personal; more so, it is because we are scared of confrontations. We do not have to see the person’s face, nor can they see ours, thus avoiding the explosion of emotions. The written word is like that silk screen: we can hide behind it.


Works Cited

Havelock, Eric. The Muse Learns to Write: Reflections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986.


Plato. “Phaedrus.” Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Evelyn Tribble and Anne Trubek. New York: Longman, 2003. pgs. 360-364.


Elbow, Peter. “The Shifting Relationships between Speech and Writing.” Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Evelyn Tribble and Anne Trubek. New York: Longman, 2003. pgs. 135-155.


Sundiata. “Two versions of an oral tale.” Writing Material: Readings from Plato to the Digital Age. Evelyn Tribble and Anne Trubek. New York: Longman, 2003. pgs. 443-452.

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