Communication of Ideas: Orality and the Advent of Writing

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Communication of Ideas: Orality and the Advent of Writing

The communication of ideas is not basically different from any other type of human communication. It is founded on the unique human skill of speech, a highly developed and formalized system of audio communication, which links with animal sounds and other forms of the communicative act but is infinitely more sophisticated. The jury is still out on the question of the genetic component in spoken language, but that need not affect this analysis of its consequences.

Communication of Ideas in Oral Cultures

The development of human society over the long term is affected by the speed and accuracy with which ideas are transferred from one individual or group to another. In the Old Stone Age, or Paleolithic period, such a process was slow since communication in the sense of physical movement was slow. And with oral communication, virtually all transfer had to be face-to-face, a matter of constant conversations over time. Nevertheless, ideas were exchanged and human life slowly changed, for example, from using one type of stone tool to another in parallel ways throughout the world. Of course, one reason for this commonality could be the intrinsic logic of development, in which intergenerational communication would also be important, but the intergroup transfer of ideas has been of overwhelming significance in much of human history.

How is it that nonutilitarian ideas, for example, even about witchcraft and sorcery, about mystical aggression, are so similar in preindustrial societies in many parts of the world? The standard answer would be phrased by reference to some version of the idea of "primitive mentality," that these ideas were appropriate to "primitive societies." At a very general level, such a contention may be valid but circular. It follows a line of thinking that sees similar environmental conditions (for example, in hunting and gathering economies) as producing similar sets of ideas. That is a tenable position. But the degree of similarity is the crucial issue. These ideas of witchcraft, like the idea of the alphabet, seem very close to one another in contexts where the possibility of alternative conceptions seems to be wide open. So there is not simply the question of the general appropriateness of ideas to a particular set of socioeconomic circumstances but of the communication of more specific notions over time, possibly in this case internally from a common source.

A clearer case is that of the folktale. The collections of Stith Thompson trace distinct thematic similarities over many parts of the world, some of which, like the Cinderella stories, show considerable resemblances over wide areas. It is highly unlikely that such tales have emerged independently, given the common features, nor yet that their distribution reflects some early wanderings of peoples. Rather it is surmised that they represent the transmission of particular stories from one community to another by travelers or by itinerant storytellers, who provide a precise mechanism for their circulation. Naturally such stories have to be "acceptable" to the recipients, but acceptability does not mean that they have to reflect in any precise way the sociocultural conditions of those who listen and adapt the stories. In northern Ghana, folktales incorporated the notion of chiefship (nalo ) even among chiefless groups who had never had, or had rejected, the institution but who knew that it existed in neighboring states. One aspect of the folktale was therefore "imaginary" in some communities, embodying ideas of authority that they did not accept as part of their own way of life. So such tales were unlikely to have arisen independently but rather by some process of intergroup communication since their thematic content was not functionally or structurally integrated with the cultures themselves. In this case intercultural communication occurred in oral cultures by means of a specific mechanism, the traveler or the wandering "teller of tales."

That process continues to be of great significance in the spread of ideas and information even in written cultures, where wandering scholars, past and present, are important elements in the process of communication. Physical movement is still of great significance in the early twenty-first century. Despite electronic means of communication that supplement and could perhaps eliminate them, conferences proliferate, not simply as an excuse for academic tourism; in certain fields at least they are seen as ways of gaining access to the latest ideas, or perhaps to the creators of those ideas. In other words they are seen as contributing to the exchange of knowledge. Above all they serve to set up personalized networks that have the function of leading to collaboration between individuals and groups working on similar topics, contacts that serve to facilitate the flow of ideas by establishing informal (oral) communication to supplement the more formal and more widespread type made possible by the use of the written word.

Such international conferences, involving an increased tempo and range of contact, depend upon the development of new modes of transport, especially relatively cheap air travel that is changing ways of life in other less formal ways. Whatever doubts may be expressed about travel broadening the mind, it has certainly led to some shifts in terms of everyday behavior, such as food and drink. Even if mass tourism has not led to any very evident changes of a more conceptual kind, it seems likely that the opportunities for the youth of Europe to travel to India or Nepal has resulted in an increased interest in the religions of those areas, and hence in Buddhist, Islamic, or Hindu philosophical notions. Vegetarianism and a different attitude toward the slaughter of animals, and to the nature of the boundary between "us" and "them," becomes an important part of the belief systems of the Western world that had hitherto been largely characterized by its addiction to the eating of meat. For such persons the notion of animal rights includes their right to stay alive.

Written Communication of Ideas

The communication of ideas took on somewhat greater possibilities when humankind moved into the graphic age in the Upper Paleolithic, with the elaboration of cave art and the use of signs, such as the palms of hands and what have been called "traces" by Jacques Derrida, though under this rubric he includes not only graphic marks but also the memory traces of speech. However, these were not "writing" in the full sense since they did not systematically represent the spoken word externally, but they did mean that visual signs with restricted meanings, as in the North American wampum belts, could be communicated to others at a distant destination. Obviously there had to be some community of understanding, for example, that an arrow meant danger, but a full linguistic code came only with the invention of writing in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East around 3000 b.c.e. Then a whole sentence or conversation could be transferred over space and over time with greater speed and accuracy given that it was preserved in a relatively permanent form, on tablets or on papyrus, as "visible language." As a result, ideas could be transmitted from the past, from earlier civilizations (in the strict sense of that word) without any human intermediaries. The works of Aristotle might be forgotten, lost for a while, by Europeans and then brought back into circulation by way of Arabic translations some thousand years later. So his ideas never disappeared in the way they did in oral cultures of which the Senegalese author Amadou Hampaté Bâ wrote that "when an old man dies, a whole library is burnt." With writing, the previous generation is no longer the only or main source of cultural ideas. They can now be bypassed by reference to books that form a quite independent source of knowledge. One is no longer limited to folk wisdom, to the sayings of the elders; one can refer to the works of Plato, of Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), of Mencius, or of Indian philosophers, which one's teacher, either in the family or outside, may have never read or possibly even heard of. Intellectually and in other ways, the relationship with one's family is dramatically changed. The death of an old man is of less account since his ideas are already recorded or irrelevant. The educational process takes on a totally different character.

Turning speech into a visual, material object also makes possible the communication of ideas and information at a distance. An individual can send a message far away without being involved face-to-face. That has had disadvantages as well as advantages. The former mean that verbal messages became divorced from the wider context of speech, so that one misses the accompanying gestures and tonality and moves to a great decontextualization of language and a certain depersonalization of the process of communication. But the great advantage lay not only in giving linguistic communication a permanent frame but at the same time in making it more "abstract." It did not, of course, introduce abstraction but it did increase the resort to more abstract notions; nouns were often preferred to verbs; what had been implicit speech became more explicit in the written register. The latter, being visible, enabled a more detailed examination of linguistic expressions by the eye, which could range back and forth over the page, reappraising and reviewing the ideas that had been formulated there. Once again such a considered approach to what was being said was not impossible in oral intercourse, but it was not easy and inevitable as it became with the written word, which then saw the virtual birth of activities that were later to be named "philosophy" or "theology." Both the "sophia" and the "logos" were stimulated by the use of writing, subsequently giving birth to a whole range of topics that had remained only implicit in purely oral cultures. It is true that then one can speak of ethno-sciences such as ethnogeography or ethnobotany. All societies have concepts of space and time, and all resort to some classification of the animals and plants that surround them. But those fields of enquiry are significantly advanced by the use of written lists that impose a beginning and an end on particular sequences and hence give rise to explicit questions of inclusion and exclusion that probe the nature of categories.

In some written languages, the category is even shown in the way a word is constructed. In Mesopotamian cuneiform, for example, a certain suffix may indicate whether one is referring to a god or a town to which the god is attached. That is one of the advantages of nonphonetic scripts; they can point to the range of phenomena or ideas in which one can search whereas phonetic scripts such as alphabets are necessarily limited to the information contained in the oral forms.

This attempt to classify ideas and information was promoted by the development of schools, which were necessary to teach the techniques of reading and writing, so that the system could be passed down from one generation to the next. Unlike other innovations, that transfer could not be achieved within the family. It was now useful for pupils to be segregated from the family and to have lists of plants and animals as exercises, a process that led to the consolidation of lists in encyclopedias, such as the Onomastica of Egypt, as well as to the emergence of distinct fields of enquiry, such as zoology, and to the development of more integrated, more precise, more "scientific" sets of ideas, which became more readily communicated to those who had studied a particular field than to the public in general. As such sets of ideas developed, they were more readily communicated to a specialist audience, except in a watered-down, "popular" form. Since some ideas became more difficult to communicate unless to an "educated" audience, the relative unity of knowledge in oral cultures with memory storage became shattered into particular spheres with writing.

Literate and Illiterate Communication

The greatest division of this kind was between those who could read and those who could not, a division that applied not only to cultures, literate and nonliterate, but to individuals within societies, literate and illiterate. For the first five thousand years of the history of writing until the end of the nineteenth century, writing was (with a few, marginal exceptions) acquired only by a minority of the population. In many ways, the literate minority made most of the running intellectually. They were responsible for the written religion, for the schools, the administration, the written works of literature, drama, music, and poetry, producing and communicating many of the dominant ideas. The rest of the population were, of course, affected by these developments, for example, by way of the "Bible of the Poor," through images; their intellectual apparatus was also influenced by techniques such as "oral arithmetic," which it took writing to invent. And they had their own, often vigorous, "popular" culture that was in turn affected by the narratives produced by the literates and in turn impinged upon the latter's achievements. But as far as most literate activities were concerned, they played very much a subordinate role. Only with the gradual extension of education, based on learning to read and write, was this situation largely changed.

It has been claimed by some recent writers, unwilling to accept the absence of writing in, for example, Africa, that any visual signs, even memory traces, represent writing. Such a position is held by certain well-meaning persons who wish to play down intellectual differences of the kind that are embodied in Levy-Bruhl's notion of a "primitive mentality" that failed to perceive contradiction, were prelogical, and resorted to mystical participation. Such notions need to be set aside, as was done by the anthropologist Evans-Pritchard in the work on Azande witchcraft where he tried to demonstrate that their ideas about witchcraft were in fact "logical." One specific case he took was the Azande explanation for why a man was killed by a brick falling off a wall as he passed underneath; the Azande would not accept the notion of an accident, insisting that some person or force had mystically caused the brick to drop at that particular time.

Certainly his position could not be considered "prelogical" in Levy-Bruhl's terms. On the other hand, that logic had in turn to be differentiated from the "logic" of Greek philosophers and others, which depended critically on developments in the written sphere, in the formality that characterizes the treatment and composition of written statements such as the syllogism. While embryonic forms may exist in oral discourse, the syllogism itself, a is to b and so on, must be considered as a product of writing that in this way extends and elaborates the range of "technologies of the intellect" available to humans. Equally one can posit that many notions of mathematics, anything except simple multiplication and division, are, unlike addition and subtraction, dependent upon the written mode. So the advent of writing does not simply allow the communication of ideas but strongly influences the nature of the ideas to be communicated.

Paper and Communication

Not only the advent of writing but the use of cheaper and more flexible writing materials helped the communication of ideas and the democratization of knowledge through the spread of education. An important stage was reached with the use of paper. Previously the media for visible language consisted of clay tablets (as in Mesopotamia), of other solid materials, of wax tablets, of papyrus, and in the West of parchment (of skins). Papyrus gave Egypt a considerable advantage for the sending of messages and recording of information, but in the West that material had to be imported at considerable expense and the local use of parchment meant that a manuscript of 150 pages required the skins of a dozen sheep, only possible in a "carnivorous society" (Braudel, p. 497). Paper was cheap and could be manufactured out of local vegetable or waste material. But it was a long time coming to the West and when it did so, like writing and later printing, represented "the conquest of the East." Invented in China at the beginning of the common era, it was adopted throughout the Islamic world from Central Asia, to Baghdad around 1000 c.e., to Spain where paper mills were turning in the twelfth century. In Christian Europe, paper was first manufactured in Italy two hundred years later. The enormous advantage this gave to Islamic cultures in the communication of ideas is illustrated by the fact that the library of the caliph of Cordoba in the twelfth century consisted of 400,000 volumes, while the number in the monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland, one of the largest in the north, was six hundred. The discrepancy was enormous and represented the great lag in Western knowledge systems before the Renaissance and the advent of the printing press, also probably from China, at the end of the fifteenth century.

In Asia, the expense of communication was in copying (and creation) rather than materials; the use of paper enabled ideas and information to be communicated rapidly from East to West. The notion of zero and Arabic numerals that made such a difference to mathematical calculation were just part of a transfer that paved the way for the Renaissance and the "scientific revolution," including the revival of interest in the classical civilizations. Hence the rush of Western scholars to Palermo (such as Adelard of Bath) or to Toledo (the mathematician Gerbert of Aurillac) in search of what the Islamic world had to offer.


The balance of intellectual power partly shifted to Europe with the advent of printing following Gutenburg. Its success was partly due to the great advantage of the alphabet, which enabled movable type to be used with a minimum number of units, unlike the more complex logographic scripts of the Far East. Paper was essential in this shift since it provided a flexible, smooth, and inexpensive surface for the press; it was then that the milling of paper really took off in the West. In the Islamic world, which had diffused the production of paper from China to Europe, the acceptance of printing was very different; scriptures sacred to Muslims had at first to be written, not printed. In contrast to earlier times, with the mechanization of writing, the circulation of ideas and information became much less costly and more rapid in Europe than elsewhere. The value of rapid exchange of ideas at a distance can be seen in the correspondence of members of the Royal Society in Britain, where the impetus of the scientific revolution was certainly supported by such communication between scholars in various fields and countries, in the same way, but much faster than had earlier happened in the vast Islamic world as a result of the use of paper as a writing material. Now it was possible to send printed versions of scientific papers to a wide range of people known to be interested in the same topic.

Mass Media

The speed and openness of the communication of ideas and information generally is increased even more by the appearance of the mass media, including electronic ones. In a sense mass media began in the early days of printing with broad-sheets and newsletters. Indeed printing itself eventually enabled the large-scale production of almanacs as well as of textbooks for schools, as the price decreased. That process developed yet further with the coming of the roller press in the nineteenth century, which ensured the wider distribution of newspapers and magazines whose contents ranged from the sports and leisure activities to more serious ideas of a popular kind; but academic discussion, too, increasingly took place in journals that were taken by the growing number of libraries, established earlier in monasteries, and later in universities, colleges, schools, and eventually in towns and even villages.

Electronic media further speeded up the process of transmissions, through the telephone from the 1880s for brief individual messages, to more substantial broadcasts through the radio, the cinema, and television. But for scholarly purposes the great breakthrough came with the development of communication by means of interconnected computers that enable immediate access to huge stores of information throughout the world. Those living in remote areas, away from libraries, can download material from the latest journals worldwide and keep up with the most recent developments in their topic. Indeed in some scientific fields, research workers are expected to post their findings without waiting for formal publication. The rapidity of the access to and the flow of scientific ideas promotes their application and hence the "innovativeness" of human society. The problem then becomes one of finding a way around this mass of information, for which purpose a number of "search engines" have appeared to assist with enquiries.

See also Diffusion, Cultural ; Language, Linguistics, and Literacy ; Oral Traditions .


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Jack Goody

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Communication of Ideas: Orality and the Advent of Writing

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Communication of Ideas: Orality and the Advent of Writing