Walter Ong (1982) concluded only about 100 of the 10,000 human languages that survived into the 20th century had a written language; leading to the conclusion that most cultures demonstrate primary orality. Adjaye (2008) observed indigenous communications systems that rely on oral traditions
are based on structures and procedures that are integrated into the cultural milieu holistically; they are second-nature, unlike the extraneously introduced technology-based media, which in some cases require lifestyle modification for adoption; and they have an intrinsically interactive quality (241).
Although these cultures lack the hard information technologies necessary to write, there is evidence of several soft technologies that are useful in sharing information and building social knowledge in these cultures, and there are several generalizations that can be made about these cultures.
Almost all of the population fully participates in the culture’s communication. Because communication is based on the biological capacity provided by speech and hearing, no special training is required to understand and contribute to the social dialogue. In the absence of disease or disability, individuals acquire speech and hearing in the first few years of life and those skills are maintained through natural interaction. The marginalization of less-capable individuals or groups that is observed in literate cultures is not observed in cultures with primary orality.
Information is stored in narratives, including myths and stories. The practical lessons needed for daily life, the supernatural beliefs of the culture, and the expectations of social behavior are embedded in stories and connected with characters in the stories. Eric Havelock (1986) observed that in cultures with primary orality, individuals will describe heroic actions of individuals in a story and also describe heroic individuals who live in their social group, whereas in literate cultures individuals will list the characteristics of one who is heroic.
Narratives use mnemonics and other devices to facilitate recall. As illustrated by the epic poems told by the ancient Greeks, repeated phrases and rhythmic patterns are common in the “oral literature” of these cultures. Also, the narratives are typically retold in communal settings that include highly participatory communication; singing, dancing, and communal responses to a leader are all common elements of the “oral literature.” These contribute to a collective social memory that extends each individual’s memory.
Because everyone can participate in the culture and because the communication is communal with multi-age participation, new information contained in stories is quickly adopted throughout these cultures and knowledge is constantly updated. The generational differences in accepted behavior and social norms observed in literate cultures are not observed in cultures with primary orality. When a new idea is shared with a group via a narrative told to a multi-generational group, the idea is effectively disseminated throughout the entire population at once. As subsequent retellings include the new idea, each old idea fades from both individual and collective memory quickly.
In cultures with primary orality, formal education is offered through apprenticeships. Through these educational systems, young people learn the skills, knowledge, activities, and interactions that are necessary for participation in complex endeavors. Youngsters learn the practical skills necessary for household life in these cultures through informal apprenticeships within families as well.
Despite the dominance of writing and print in English and other languages in industrialized areas, primary orality has been the predominant condition for human cultures (recall that Ong observed only about 1% of languages surviving to the 20th century were written). Given this, it is reasonable to conclude that human brains evolved in and adapted to conditions of primary orality.
Adjaye, Joseph. 2008. “The Technology of the Human Voice: Oral Systems of Information Dissemination and Retrieval among the Akan of Ghana.” The International Information & Library Review 40(4): 236-42. doi: 10.1016/j.iilr. 2008.09.004
Ong, Walter. 1982. Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. New York: Routledge.