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Oral Tradition 21.2 (2006) 295-324

Keeping the Word:
On Orality and Literacy (With a Sideways Glance at Navajo)
Anthony K. Webster
Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

"Writing, when properly managed (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation."

Laurence Sterne, The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy

This article investigates the relationship between "orality" and "literacy." I take as my starting point the discussion by Walter Ong (1982) of the shift in "consciousness" that resulted from the movement from an "oral culture" to a "literate culture." I discuss a number of specific examples of the relationship between orality and literacy. My purpose in these examples is to suggest that literacy and orality are kinds of specific linguistic ideologies (see Silverstein 1979) and that we need a much more complex understanding of literacy as an ideological position than Ong has offered. In this article, I wish to explore orality and literacy as complex and interacting notions. My purpose is not so much as to critique Ong (though there will be some of that), but rather to elaborate what we might mean by "orality" and "literacy" as on the ground, linguacultural phenomena (see Friedrich 1989).

I will begin, however, with a discussion of Ong's critique of the use of the term "oral literature." I will then turn to the relative fixity of oral literature. In doing so, I suggest that to fully understand "oral cultures" we need to have a more empirically based understanding of oral literatures and orality more generally. I then discuss the various ways that literacy is articulated. I argue that we cannot assume a priori that literacy everywhere means the same thing. What does it mean to write poetry in Navajo? Or in Kuna? What does literacy mean to Navajos versus the Nukulaelae (Besnier 1995)? Finally, I take up some of the implications of literacy as a way of artifacting "the word." Much of this section will be based on specific examples from a wide variety of sources. I believe this is needed as a corrective to the grand theorizing that Ong has put forward. The devil, as they say, is in the details. [End Page 295]

On Oral Literature and Orality

Ong spends much time discussing the term "oral literature," which he considers a "strictly preposterous term" (1982:11). He bases this assertion on etymology, tracing the word "literature" back to the Latin root litera, "letter of the alphabet." Ong goes on to state that (12):

One might argue…that the term "literature," though devised primarily for works in writing, has simply been extended to include related phenomena such as traditional oral narrative in cultures untouched by writing. Many originally specific terms have been so generalized in this way. But concepts have a way of carrying their etymologies with them forever. The elements out of which a term is originally built usually, and probably always, linger in subsequent meanings.

Leaving aside Ong's lack of evidence offered for this assertion and the almost metaphysical quality of meaning and etymology, there are a number of ideas that deserve some unpacking. First, etymology, the search for a word's "true meaning," is a linguistic ideology (that is, beliefs concerning the form, function, and use of language [see Silverstein 1979 and Rumsey 1990]). This ideology is based on the assumptions of the primacy of the referential or denotational meaning of a word, and represents only one possible linguistic ideology. Alan Rumsey (1990), for example, has suggested that among the Ungarinyin, a northwestern Australian group, there is a focus on pragmatic meaning over wording, on the enactive power of words over their referential function. Similarly, Gary Witherspoon (1977) and Margaret Field and Taft Blackhorse, Jr. (2002) argue that such an enactive ideology is found among Navajo peoples (see also Reichard 1944; Murray 1989). As Witherspoon writes (1977:60), "By speaking properly and appropriately one can control and compel the behavior and power of the gods. This is the ontological and rational basis...