While reading the Phaedrus we were treated to Socrates ranting and making the claim that writing is in many ways a step backwards when it comes to communicating. That speaking and having a dialogue with someone is the most effective way to communicate an idea. And while I read all of that I kept shaking my head in disagreement with Socrates, but now having read Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy” the point that Socrates was trying to make is now a bit more clear.
Ong states that “… of all the thousands of languages-possibly tens of thousands-spoken in the course of human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all.” That point really stuck with me, and drove home a very obvious fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about; The spoken word always comes first. The written word is only a secondary product of language. Now, to a majority of contemporary cultures writing is absolutely essential. Ong then follows up with ” Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have literature.” Now this isn’t to say that the cultures that speak the remaining 2922 languages don’t also use writing to communicate, but in terms of sharing ideas through story telling they only use the spoken word. And I believe if you were to ask them why they don’t write literature you probably wouldn’t get a long Socratic rant about the dangers of writing, I think you’d get something more instinctual, more concerning human nature and the drive to speak and share with your community. So while I don’t see writing as a determent to culture, I can now see why the “purest” form of speaking is so highly regarded.