The lower half of a white woman's face, angled towards a black microphone. There is a black computer mouse in the foreground. Her nails are painted black and holding a pencil. There is an open, blank notebook in the background, and a blank computer screen as well.

What a Literate Culture Lacks (According to an Oral One)



We live in a literate society. That is not to say that everyone in America today can read. However, our society as a whole functions literately. In public schools, children are taught the alphabet, how to read and write with its letters. They are taught out of textbooks, written accounts of history and science, math and literature. Adults deal with official documentation, having to write everything from their taxes to their wills.

Our society functions literately, but the written word is younger than humanity.

Oral Cultures

Before language was transcribed, societies functioned orally. Nothing was written down— there was no way to write anything down. Instead, information was passed down through speech and committed to memory. Though we think of modern day cultures as being primarily literate, there are still some cultures that operate orally. There are many indigenous languages, for example, that have not been recorded through written text. They only survive because of the community teaching new generations through oral means.


Walter Ong coined the terms primary and secondary orality to describe the differences between literate and oral cultures. Before written language, oral cultures possessed primary orality. Our modern literate society, in contrast, possesses secondary orality. This just means that the way we speak and interact with information is affected by our underlying literacy. Oral cultures have primary orality because communication is not affected by literacy.

Oral cultures resisted literacy

When the written word was first being introduced in oral cultures, there was some pushback against it. For example, in Greece, Plato made it clear that he believed the advent of written word would destroy their culture’s ability to use their memory. Everything prior to writing had to be repeated over and over and then committed to memory, or else it would be forever lost. Now that it was possible to write information down, it could be written and returned to at a later point. This would negate the need for memorization. Plato believed this lack of necessity in practicing would lead to forgetfulness.

There is some merit to this fear. How often have you made a shopping list in your phone’s notes because you knew you wouldn’t remember everything on it? Have you ever asked someone a question, and gotten “Look it up” as a response? The responsibility of information keeping tends to fall on the written text rather than individual memory in a literate society, because we understand that the written word is available to reference whenever it is needed. We know how to access the text, and we can read it and understand it.

A Literate Culture’s Defense

I’m not trying to say a literate society is one lacking intelligence. There are many advantages of having access to written information. Like I previously mentioned, in an oral culture, information had to be spread by word of mouth. This opens up the possibility of information being altered as it passes from person to person. Someone’s memory could be faulty, and they may misspeak. Suddenly, the incorrect information is being committed to memory.

The arts also benefit from the written word. I love live theatre and music as much as the next person, but sometimes, I want to re-experience art exactly as I had the first time. This was not possible before the written word. Every performance of The Odyssey was different than the last. It was only once Homer transcribed the epic poem that we had a definitive version of the story.


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