Written vs. Oral Language

Written vs. Oral Language

By Matthew Parsons, with selections from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram, and Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong


Over time, people have developed new and different ways of communication.  In the earliest of times, this would likely have been through gestures of some sort.  Though we cannot truly tell for sure, spoken languages have been around for a couple hundred thousand years, going off of the age of the earliest known homo sapien bones (found at Jebel Irhoud site in Morocco, dated to about 300,000 years old).  What we can say for sure is that spoken language will have existed for longer than language in a written form, the oldest of which is Sumerian, dating back to 3500 BC.  The advent of written language has proven to be one of, if not the, most important advance in all of humankind, though not for everyone.  

Abram and Ong both make excellent points about the advent of written language.  Abram begins chapter 5 by restating a question he asked readers earlier in the book; “How did Western culture become so estranged from nonhuman nature, so oblivious to the presence of other animals and the earth…” (Abram 137).  Abram is making a point in saying that written language, specifically those using a phonetic alphabet, are the cause of the estrangement of Western societies to nature. Similarly, Ong states that “by contrast with natural, oral speech, writing is completely artificial. There is no way to write ‘naturally’” (Ong 81).  Ong is saying that written languages, including pictographic languages, are not suitable for connecting with nature. He also goes on to explain that calling writing “artificial” is actually a positive observation, as it allows humans to realize further potential in themselves. On the other hand, Ambram sees the disconnect from nature starting with phonetic alphabets.  “Only with the emergence of the phonetic alphabet, and its appropriation by the ancient Greeks, did the written images lose all evident ties to the larger field of expressive beings […] Only thus, with the advent and spread of phonetic writing, did the rest of nature begin to lose its voice” (Abram 138). The ancient Greek language came to be at around 800 BC, a cool 2,300 years after the oldest known written language, Sumerian.  The Sumerian language was pictographic, and in Abram’s eyes, still connected with nature.  

In chapter 4, Abram brings up The Aztecs, and mentions how their pictorial language made them more connected to their environment.  Then, Abram compares The Aztec language of Nahuatl to that of the Spaniards, noting that Spanish hadn’t the limitation of ideas present in the real world, as it utilizes a phonetic writing system.  Testimonies from Indians claimed that “[the fall of the Aztec and Mayan empires] happened because the Mayas and the Aztecs lost control of communication” (Abram 134). Essentially, it is believed that since the Spanish had the ability to communicate in writing that was not strictly through nature (i.e. using the alphabet), those who could read and write Spanish had the upper hand in communication compared to, say, Nahuatl.  The written language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, was all based on the Aztec’s cosmos, so they were only able to write about ideas from nature that they were familiar with. In one of my favorite explanations of the difference in limitations of pictographic language in comparison to phonetic language, Abram writes that “The Aztecs must answer, in their actions as in their speech, to the whole sensuous, natural world that surrounds them; the Spanish need answer only to themselves” (Abram 134).  

On speech versus written language, Ong makes a fantastic comparison with music.  He brings up electronic compositions, and how it is not logical to say it is “not music” because it is electronic.  The sounds of electronic music are no less mechanical than the sounds of any instrument. “The fact is that by using a mechanical contrivance, a violinist or an organist can express something poignantly human that cannot be expressed without the mechanical contrivance (Ong 82).  Ong goes on to aliken the ability to play an instrument to the ability to write; after all, both instruments and written language are in and of themselves, forms of technology. Both require practice, and both can be used to extend one’s mind beyond what could be done without any form of technology.  

What all of this means, in essence, is that oral cultures, and to an extent cultures which use pictographic language, have a “limited cosmos” in the eyes of Westerners/ cultures which utilize a phonetic alphabet.  That being said, people of oral cultures have a deeper connection with their “limited” cosmos. To them, their cosmos is simply what they see around them. There is nothing else in the world other than what nature can provide and teach to them.  The phonetic alphabet has expanded the cosmos of the literate, bringing more and more ideas into it. With more ideas in the cosmos, inherently there will be a lesser connection to each facet from the inhabitants. Whereas in an oral culture, all members will inhabit the cosmos, a literate culture will people who vary in what’s important to them in their own cosmos.

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