Jack Goody (a British social anthropologist) and Ian Watt (a literary historian) begin their essay by explaining that mankind’s past and present is largely based upon man’s development of language and writing. As stated, it was language that actually allowed for the recording of the history of mankind. In their essay Goody and Watt discuss the effects of language, talking and writing on social organizations and discuss the contract between literate and nonliterate societies.
Man’s ability to learn through verbally transmitting cultures is what sets man apart from animals. Goody and Watt explain that the most significant way that culture is transmitted through society is with language. Oral communication passed down by word of mouth, although offers a view of history, is subject to the existing social relation and therefore, not an accurate historical record. In addition, the implementation of pictographs, word signs and subsequently the alphabet, increased man’s ability to record and retell history.
Nonliterate societies without writing are not able to accurately distinguish between the past and the present because of a lack of written documented details and as a result, it becomes distorted. Goody and Watt explain that myth and history becomes subsequently merged and it became hard to decipher between what is myth and what actually happened. On the contrary, the literate societies, through written records, have a more accurate representation of what actually happened.
This leads Goody and Watt to the writing systems and the effects that is has socially. They point out the even the written records of the past is subjective to nature, and social distribution. To further explain, it is the limitations put on the writing system which determines how precise the outcome. From the pictographs used as a means of communication but requiring many carefully arranged details to the more standardized devices such as word signs or logograms, they were too awkward and complex to promote and distribute literacy. An example offered in the essay is the Chinese non-phonetic system of writing which although is complete, only a small segment of society is able to totally master the form.
Goody and Watt construe that the invention of the alphabet became the main avenue to science and philosophy. The simplicity of the letters was widely adopted and although the alphabet has undergone its own transformation across different cultural societies, it has socially shaped and conditioned our societies.
It can be said however, to Goody and Watt’s point, that although oral languages preceded literate uses of writing systems, it does not replace orality in human culture, and oral societies and that literacy and orality both work together to support the process of acquiring knowledge and understanding.