Orality and writing, human communication step by step

Human communication has suffered a constant evolution along the millenniums. When we study this process, the first idea that we should remark is the oral transmission of information. This ability is one of the most important characteristics of human race, allowing us to difference ourselves from animals and share knowledge in order to evolve.


"Writing is inhuman" Socrates. Bust of Socrates (469 BC–399 BC) at the Louvre Museum in Paris

According to professor Walter J. Ong we could distinguish different types of orality; the ‘primary orality’, which refers to the verbal expression among members of a society without written literature; the ‘residual orality’, which refers to the verbal expression in cultures that have had a previous contact with writing and print, but have not completely ‘interiorized’ the use of these technologies in their daily lives, because, in the opinion of  Marshall McLuhan, another important communications theorist, as a culture interiorizes the tools of literacy, the ‘residual orality’ diminishes; finally, we find in the electronic age the ‘secondary orality’, which displaces written words with audio/visual technologies.

As we continue studying the evolution of communication, we find the pictograms (pictorial representation of objects), then the phonetic alphabets (visual systems of symbolization of sounds occurring in spoken language) and, finally, written texts.

Tympanum representing 'Writing', by Olin Levi Warner. (Exterior of the main entrance doors of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC, 1896)

Tympanum representing 'Writing', by Olin Levi Warner. (Exterior of the main entrance doors of the Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC, 1896)

Writing permited us to draw a clear distinction between prehistory and history and soon became an extraordinary revolution, letting us gather and store concepts and a wide range of information. We can affirm that writing has been the most powerful tool to acquire knowledge along the millenniums. In addition, writing has meant an important step in the development of literature, the art of written works.

Nowadays, we are living another little revolution in the field of writing due to the quick expansion of the latest technologies. New phenomena like electronic literature, “written literary texts thought to be read on the screen” (N. Katherine Hayles), have recently appeared and, probably, this digital environment will surprise us with new genres in no time.



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