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Spoken language, oral culture


We saw in the last chapter how participants in verbal interactions carve out for themselves and for each other a cultural space of reference in which they take up various social roles. In this chapter and the next we explore further how social structure is constructed through the two very different media of speech and writing.

The spoken medium is directly linked to the time of its enunciation and to the perception by those present of the transient dimensions of the verbal event. By contrast, the technology of writing, as a spatial extension of the mind and the hand, has been able to overcome the ephemeral, auditory nature of spoken language by translating it into more permanent, visible signs on a page. We first discuss the differences between the two media.


Speech and writing


It is difficult, if not impossible, for us to experience what members of exclusively oral cultures must have experienced before the invention of writing; the very term orality is defined over against the written word and was coined by literate people within a context of literacy. Even illiterate people nowadays live in a world whose consciousness has been totally transformed by the advent of writing and, later, of print. Primary orality, then, can never be recovered. However, traces of orality have remained both in speech and in writing - orate features of language use that hark back to the primary orality of pre-writing times. From these traces, scholars have identified the following seven characteristics of conversational speech as distinguished from expository writing.


1. Speech is transient, rather than permanent. Because of physical constraints, interlocutors may not speak at the same time, or else they cannot hear what the others say. They are bound by the non-reversible distribution of turns at talk. Written language, by contrast, can be stored, retrieved, and recollected, and responses can be delayed. Because it cannot be immediately challenged as in oral communication, written language carries more weight and hence more prestige. Moreover, the permanence of writing as a medium can easily lead people to suppose that what it expresses is permanent too, hence the important link between written documents and the law.

2. Speech is additive or 'rhapsodic'. Because of the dialogic nature of oral interaction, speakers 'rhapsodize', i.e. stitch together elements from previous turns-at-talk, they add language as they go along (and ... and, then ... and then ...), thus showing conversational cooperation in the building of their own turn. By contrast, the information conveyed in writing is hierarchic-ally ordered within the clause structure, and is linearly arranged on the page, from left to right, right to left, or top to bottom, according to the cultural convention. Since it is likely to be read by distant, unknown, or yet-to-be-born audiences, it has developed an information structure characterized by a high level of cohesion.

3. Speech is aggregative, i.e. it makes use of verbal aggregates or formulaic expressions, ready-made chunks of speech that maintain the contact between interlocutors, also called phatic communion. By contrast, in the absence of such direct contact and for the sake of economy of information over long distances or long periods of time, and because it can be read and re-read at will, writing has come to be viewed as the medium that fosters analysis, logical reasoning and abstract categorization.

4. Speech is redundant or 'copious'. Because speakers are never quite sure whether their listener is listening, paying attention, comprehending and remembering what they are saying or not, they tend to make frequent use of repetition, paraphrase, and restatement. By contrast, since written language doesn't have to make such demands on short-term memory, it tends to avoid redundancy.

5. Speech is loosely structured grammatically and is lexically sparse; writing, by contrast, is grammatically compact and lexically dense. What does this mean concretely? Speakers have to attend to many aspects of the situation while they concentrate on what they are saying, and while they monitor the way they are saying it. Thus, their speech is characterized by false starts, filled and unfilled pauses, hesitations, parenthetic re-marks, unfinished sentences. They create their utterances as they 'are speaking them. One way of keeping control of this balancing act is to use grammatical resources as best serves one's immediate needs, and to leave the vocabulary as sparse as possible. Writers, by contrast, have time to pack as much information in the clause as they can, using all the complex syntactic resources the language can give them; they can condense large quantities of information in a tighter space by using, for example, dense nominalized phrases. The contrast is shown in the examples below.



Every previous visit had left 'Whenever I'd visited there

me with a sense of the futility before, I'd ended up feeling

of further action on my part. that it would be futile if I

tried to do anything more.'

Improvements in technology 'Because the technology has

have reduced the risks and improved, it's less risky than

high costs associated with it used to be when you

simultaneous installation install them at the same

time, and it doesn't cost so

much either.'

(Halliday, M.A.K. Spoken and Written Language. Oxford University Press 1985, page 81)


6. Speech tends to be people-centered, writing tends to be topic-centered. Because of the presence of an audience and the need to keep the conversation going, speakers not only focus on their topic, but try to engage their listeners as well, and appeal to their senses and emotions. In expository writing, by contrast, the topic or message and its transferability from one context to the other is the main concern. Writers of expository prose try to make their message as clear, unambiguous, coherent, and trustworthy as possible since they will not always be there to explain and defend it. Of course, other written texts, in particular of the literary or promotional kind, appeal to the readers' emotions, and display many features characteristic of speech.

7. Speech, being close to the situation at hand, is context dependent; writing, being received far from its original context of production, is context-reduced. Because of the dialogic character of oral exchanges, truth in the oral mode is jointly constructed and based on commonsense experience. Truth in the literate mode is based on the logic and the coherence of the argument being made.


The features listed above are not inherent in the spoken or in the written medium. Orality and literacy have to be seen on a continuum of more or less 'orate', more or less literate uses of both spoken and written language. A scribbled memo, an e-mail, an informal letter, like a conversation or a homily, are written in the orate mode; an academic lecture, a scientific presentation, like a scholarly article, are spoken in the literate mode. And a poem like the Emily Dickinson poem we started out with (see Chapter 1), has both orate and literate features, as we shall see in the next chapter.

Moreover, as has been hotly debated in recent years, the cognitive skills associated with literacy are not intrinsic to the technology of writing. Although the written medium does have its own physical parameters, there is nothing in alphabet and script that would make them more suited, say, for logical and analytic thinking than the spoken medium. To understand why literacy has become associated with logic and analysis, one needs to understand the historical association of the invention of the Greek alphabet with Plato's philosophy, and the influence of Plato's dichotomy between ideas and language on the whole of Western thought. It is cultural and historical contingency, not technology per se, that determines the way we think, but technology serves to enhance and give power to one way of thinking over another. Technology is always linked to power, as power is linked to dominant cultures.

We now turn to the cultural matrix of language as it is used in verbal exchanges. We look in particular at how the social structure of a discourse community is reflected, constructed, and perpetuated by the way its members use language to define their position vis-à-vis others, to save each other's social face, and in general to 'language' their experience in a style appropriate to the conventions of the group.


Indicating status


In verbal encounters, what people say to each other, for example, A: 'Bill, why don't you meet me here tomorrow?' is anchored in the perspective of speaker A, as evidenced in this case by the words 'you', 'me', 'here', 'tomorrow', also called deictics. Markers of social deixis give an indication not only of where the speaker stands in time and place - namely in a 'today' in the 'here' of Speakingbut also of his/her status within the social structure, and of the status the speaker gives the addressee. For example, the use of vous or tu in French, Sie or du in German can index either power or solidarity, distance or closeness. English used to have 'you' for distance, 'thou' for closeness; now English has only retained the 'you', but social deixis in English expresses social position by other forms of address like 'Bill', 'Bill X', 'Mister X', 'Professor X' and the like. These forms of address index social class, as in the use of vous between parents and between parents and children that can still be found in some upper-class French families; they can also index a generational culture, as the currently prevalent use of reciprocal tu or Du among students or young people in France and Germany; they can also index a culture that wants itself to be egalitarian and democratic as in the informal forms of address used in the United States ('dear friend', 'call me Bill'). The police's use of a non-reciprocal tu to address North African youth in France expresses an explicit display of power; being addressed with tu indexes the subordinate or marginal place occupied by these youths in French society today.


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