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Orality and

ENG448A Class Presentation

What is Literacy?
Loose definition used in Census:
Ability to read and write in at least one language and to
do arithmetic.
Practicing writing based methods for expression and
exchange of ideas, information and literature.

What is Orality?
the quality of being oral or orally communicated
preference for or tendency to use spoken forms of
- Oxford Dictionary

Orality and Literacy

Orality and Literacy are two different ways of a
language that the speakers use for
Exchange of Ideas
Producing and passing on Literature
An Oral-based society bases itself on speech, even if
they have a writing system.
A Writing-based society primarily uses writing for
preserving information.

Orality and Literacy

Initially all the societies were Oral-based.
Then the speakers discovered and started using writing
Hence, as the civilizations develop, there is a general
trend of increasing literacy.
Lets explore the orality and literacy trends in Indian

Differences in oral & written language

Written language is generally considered the standard
The writers spends time in choosing the word
Orality conveys the colloquial style and is more
dynamic while written style may change more slowly
Eg. Paninis grammar - the standard way Sanskrit
should be used, however the way people spoke was
different from it.
Hindi found in textbooks, however what we speak as
Hindi can be different

Cultural differences in Oral and Literate society

Directness in relationship between symbol and
Oral societies can be characterized as homeostatic i.e.
live in a present which keeps itself in homeostasis by
forgetting past irrelevant memories.

Cultural differences in Oral and Literate society

The oral society was additive rather than subordinative.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the
earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of
the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters. And
God said: Be light made. (Oral Based)
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the
earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness
covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.
Then God said, Let there be light. (Written Based)

Cultural differences in Oral and Literate society

Orality: Redundant and copious
Orality: Situational rather than abstract
A.R. Luria, in his studies in Cognitive Developments:Its Cultural
and Social Foundations, found that:

Illiterate subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the

names of objects. The literate groups on the other hand identified
geometrical figures by names, circles, squares etc.

Oral Tradition in Ancient Indian Subcontinent

India has a long tradition of oral transmission of
history, literature, law and other knowledge without a
writing system, or in parallel to it.
In ancient India, Oral tradition was dominant.
Oral Tradition faced the Chinese Whisper problem.
Elaborate mnemonic techniques were used to
maximize the Signal-to-Noise ratio

The Vedic texts were orally composed and transmitted,
without the use of script, in an unbroken line of transmission
from teacher to student that was formalized early on. This
ensured an impeccable textual transmission superior to the
classical texts of other cultures; it is, in fact, something like
a tape-recording.... Not just the actual words, but even the
long-lost musical (tonal) accent has been preserved up to the
present. Michael Witzel

Composed in Vedic Sanskrit
Vedic period: 1500-500 BC
Literacy tradition traceable only after rise of Buddhism
and Maurya Period (around 3rd Century BC)
Hence, transmission of texts was an Oral Tradition

Oral traditions face the challenge of accurate
transmission and verifiability of the accurate version
Oral cultures have employed various strategies that
achieve this without writing.
Some examples are the use of rhythmic speech filled
with mnemonic devices such as alliteration,
assonance and proverbial sayings or the use of verses
often metrically composed with exact number of
syllables or morae such as Chandas in Hindu and
Buddhist texts.

Many forms of recitation or pathas were designed to
aid accuracy in recitation and transmission of the
Vedas and other knowledge texts from one generation
to the next
Each text was recited in a number of ways , to ensure
that the different methods of recitation acted as a
cross check on the other
The Vedas are recited in form of pathas like Samhita
Patha, Pada Patha, Karma Path, Ghana Patha

Sanskrit is the oldest language of the Indo-Iranian
Vedic Sanskrit (2nd millennium BC to 3-4th century BC).
Paninis Ashtadhyayi (around 4th century BC).
No written script before this time.
Vedic Sanskrit placed importance to the orality of

Oral traditions in Sanskrit

Emphasis on rote learning.
People placed importance in words spoken from
Focus was on intonation of speech.
Learning methods
The Vedic metre.
Modes of performance: shravan, manana, dharana, nidhidhyasa
Smriti and Shruti.

Implications of Orality in Sanskrit

Language of the Gods
Oral dissemination prefered to written documents.
Notable works were orally passed down.
Rich heritage entirely stored in oral documents.
Higher stature of Brahmans.
Forbidding others castes and outsiders to learn Vedas.
Richness of Puranas and folklore.
Inconsistencies in Shastras.

Orality in the contemporary times

Remember this
from school?

Oral tradition like recitation of mantras in religious

ceremonies are still regarded important and auspicious

Orality in the contemporary times

Ramayan vs Ramleela
The epic story has been
accessible to a mass public in
the form of an oral tradition
avoiding the need to wait for
learning the written word to
grab the message

Drama better than words!

Orality in the contemporary times

Bhagwad Saptah
Sat- Narayan Katha
Oral Traditions still of umpteen importance
Listening to kathas is considered
auspicious among Hindus.
There are tight restraints on who the
speaker should be

Orality in the contemporary times : BHUTAN

Modern Education system (introduced in 1950s ) is costly

Monastic education only for privileged class

Women were excluded from educational services

Folklore in the form of ballads and stories have provided an alternate

education system

Modern education is devoid of humanistic and Bhutanese values

Oral education is a form of entertainment, a repository of culture and

values and impart spiritual Buddhist teachings

Teach about social structure- even a poor boy can become king,
motivate young children to work hard etc.

Orality & literacy in Media

What is more powerful?
Orality vs Written word
Word of Mouth
3 Idiots and Amir
Khans publicity stunt



A Modern Oral culture

that is potentially more
impactful than Blogging

Written Word creating


With the advent of technology orality and literacy have

become intertwined
Recording media can preserve the spoken word
correctly for a long time and this can challenge the
hegemony of literacy as reliable source of storing

Echoes of the Past : Case Studies

The rise of written culture has resulted in the mixing of
orality with literacy.
The case of priestly education in South India is an
example, taken up for study by C J Fuller.
Another important example is provided by the system
of classical music in India.
In both cases, literacy is incorporated into oral
traditions, the degree of incorporation is different

Priestly Education in Tamil Nadu

Education of priests in and around the Madurai Area in
Tamil Nadu
Training of young students for priesthood has been
traditionally oral
Written texts of worship and ritual were present in the
past, but were rarely used for teaching

Priestly Education in Tamil Nadu

The present process of teaching comprises of two
analytically separable components:
the verbatim memorization of texts which exist in a
written and usually printed form,
the memorization of the sound of those texts as heard
from the guru.

Priestly Education in Tamil Nadu

Notwithstanding the guru's importance, the
transmission of texts from teacher to students is not
the product of a `primary oral culture'.
Instead, to paraphrase Ong, It is a process in a literate
culture in which verbatim memorization, in significant
part, is done from a text to which the student repeatedly
returns in order to perfect and test his verbatim mastery.
Books are in practice necessary for phonetically
accurate memorization of the Gurus utterances

Indian Classical Music

Two Branches:
Hindustani Classical Music (of the North)
Carnatic Music (of the South)
Both are traditionally passed down through a
guru-shishya system
Texts on music like Bharatas Natya Shastra, etc have
been present since ancient times
Musical texts did not occupy a central position in

Indian Classical Music

1. Hindustani Classical Music:
Until the late 19th century, Hindustani classical music
was imparted on a one-on-one basis through the
guru-shishya tradition.
It forced the music to be limited to a small subsection
of the Indian community.
It was limited to the palaces and dance halls.
In general looked down upon in the nineteenth century

Indian Classical Music

1. Hindustani Classical Music:
Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Vishnu Narayan
Bhatkhande devised a standardized grading and
testing system, and standardized the notation system.
Bhatkhande produced Hindustani Sangeetha

suggested a transcription for Indian music, and

described the many traditions in this notation.
consolidated the many musical forms of Hindustani classical music
into a number of thaat
ragas as they exist today were consolidated in this landmark work

Hence literate system assumes a very important role

Indian Classical Music

2. Carnatic Music:
In contrast to Hindustani Music, Carnatic music is
taught and learned through compositions, which
encode many intricate musical details, also providing
scope for free improvisation.
traditionally taught in the oral gurukula system
Written notation of Carnatic music was revived in the
late 17th century and early 18th century
The learning texts and exercises are more or less
uniform across all the South Indian states.
Literacy therefore plays a major role

Importance of Literacy
Proper Education and hence, better jobs.
Understanding and utilizing technology
All the countries have a written down constitution
All major organisations (schools, institutes, companies
etc) have their own written down
All major religions have their sacred texts written.
Business, banks, Scientific Research

Increasing Literacy
There is a general trend of increasing literacy in India:

Literacy v/s Orality

Literacy is required for a society to advance
But Orality is an inseparable part of any human society.
Literacy is absolutely necessary for the development of
Science, History, Philosophy. -Ong
Vedas easily contradict this statement.
A baby first learns to speak, and then learns to write.
An illiterate society can exist, but a non oral society is
completely unthinkable.

Power of Orality

Expressing the emotions

Power of Orality


Talking to a baby

Power of Literacy

Scientific Research

Power of Literacy

Written Knowledge

Administrative System

Curse of Literacy
An urgent necessity of learning to read/write amongst
illiterate people
Speakers moving to other languages, usually the more
prestigious ones.
Hence, lack of any literary specifications makes many
Oral traditions like the tribal tradition vulnerable.
Around 191 languages of India are classified as
Vulnerable or Endangered, and 108 languages have
gone Extinct (no native speaker)

Preservation of Languages
Many Tribal languages are being promoted in schools
by the NGOs and by the State Govt.
Trilingual dictionaries being prepared for Bodo
(completed), Bishnupriya Manipuri, Tiwa
Sahitya Akademis project to record and preserve the
Oral literature of Tribal languages.

Preservation of Languages
The folk songs of Kodava (a dravidian language) called
the Palame, had been passed orally across
Recently in 1900s they have started writing down their
literature in Kannada and in English.
Some like the Tulu speakers, have switched their script
from Tiligari (14th to 15th century AD) to Kannada

The Concluding Note

1. Literacy is important for the development of a society,
but Orality is more fundamental to the human being,
and hence it can never be left behind.
2. With the advent of technology, both Literacy and
Orality go hand in hand:
Learning and Teaching
Addressing the masses


Oral Traditions and Story-Telling
Moseley, Christopher, ed. (2010). Atlas of the Worlds Languages in Danger.
Memory of Peoples (3rd ed.). Paris: UNESCO Publishing. ISBN
978-92-3-104096-2. Retrieved 2015-04-11.
Census of India data, 2001.
Cultures of Memory in South Asia: Orality, Literacy and the Problem of


Orality and Literacy-Walter Ong

The Consequences of Literacy-Goody
FULLER, C.J. (2001) Orality, Literacy and Memorization: Priestly Education
in Contemporary South India, Modern Asian Studies, 35(1), pp. 131. doi: