Reflexive Thoughts on Literacy and Orality

Masako Fujita


Previous studies of literacy are mostly concerned with thelinguistic difference between the written and spoken forms of alanguage or with the effects of literacy on cognitive andanalytical skills. Some researchers argue that literacy leads tothe development of higher cognitive and analytical skills,while others argue that these skills are the result of educationrather than of literacy per se. However, these discussions arebased upon the “defining” skills of literacy, useful in theliterate world but not necessarily in the oral world. Whilethese studies help to clarify some contrasting properties ofwritten and spoken languages, they fail to recognize the morefundamental differences between literacy and orality. Thisfailure is due to the lack of reflexive and explicit recognitionof the limitation of our literate minds. If it is true that literacy,directly or indirectly, leads to the development of cognitiveand analytical skills as defined by our literate values, it mightalso disable skills that are prerogatives of orality. In thispaper, I review literature on writing and literacy. I thenexplore literacy and orality from a reflexive linguisticanthropological perspective. I further attempt to seek clues tothe workings of the oral world.

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University of Victoria