In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Orality and Literacy

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works

Biblical Studies Orality and Literacy
Holly Hearon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0224


Defining “orality” and “literacy” is no easy task. Generally, “literacy” is understood as the ability to read and write, while “orality” describes the primary verbal medium employed by cultures with little or no exposure to writing. A “great divide” is sometimes posited between them, assigning to each certain cognitive, social, and cultural characteristics. Yet contextual studies have shown that these broad definitions serve little useful function in the analyses of communities and cultures. For example, cultures that are structured around the ability to read and write do not employ these skills in a uniform way to serve a single end; rather, multiple “literacies” are at work, some of which require specialized vocabulary, skills, and technologies (such as stenography). It is also unclear whether literacy can be adequately defined by the skill sets of reading and/or writing. Further, so-called literate cultures have hardly given up the verbal arts associated with speech. Studies of “literate” cultures, then, must include some analysis of the interplay between written and spoken words. The term “orality” has proved to be equally challenging as an analytical category. This is in part because the term lacks any kind of precision. There is no cultural phenomenon known as orality. Studies have also shown that characteristics once thought to belong only to “literate” cultures (such as the ability to establish distance between the speaker and the text) are present in some “oral” cultures as well. In addition, cultures that are exclusively oral may employ visual means other than an alphabet for the purposes of recording cultural ideas (such as a memory board). While it may be possible to speak about a “continuum” with respect to orality and literacy, there is a vast, complex region between the two extremes where most cultures exist, including those that produced biblical texts. In the field of biblical studies, these insights have increasingly had an impact on how scholars view the written documents that make up the Bible, the communities that produced them, and the nature of the verbal material that is found within them. Where once the study of “orality” meant, primarily, the search for oral traditions behind the text, it now includes attention to the complex interaction between written and spoken words in the ancient world, the multiple ways in which written and spoken words were produced and performed, the functions they served, and the technologies involved, including who had access to them and who controlled them. It is a field of study that is cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.

General Overviews

The titles in this section are from outside the field of biblical studies and reflect the changing landscape in studies of orality and literacy. Ong 1982 represents efforts to understand how orality and literacy shape cognition and cultures. While Ong’s writings have been subject to critique, their influence remains significant, drawing attention to the importance of studies in cognition for the field of orality and literacy. The cross-disciplinary essays in Tannen 1983 follow a different path, focusing on how written and spoken words function as discourse, serving particular contexts and purposes. These essays point to the limitations of employing orality and literacy as general categories by drawing attention to the porous boundaries between them. Finnegan 1988 follows this trajectory, offering a critique of the concept of a “great divide” between “oral” and “literate” cultures, a concept often ascribed to Ong. Finnegan dismisses the utility of orality and literacy as analytical categories, stressing the importance of understanding how written and spoken words function in specific contexts. Analyses of Finnegan, Ong, and others are found in Collins and Blot 2003, who trace major developments in studies of orality and literacy since the mid-20th century. Like Finnegan and Tannen, they emphasize the importance of situated studies that seek to understand “orality” and “literacy” in context, and draw attention to how cultures construct understandings of “orality” and “literacy” that inform identity and exercise of power. Stock 1990, like Collins and Blot, examines how cultures construct concepts of orality and literacy, and proposes ways in which writings from the Middle Ages have shaped contemporary constructions of these concepts. Three studies focus specifically on orality. Furniss 2004 examines the persuasive power of spoken words and their role in the production of cultures. Foley 2002 describes the phenomenon “oral poetry” in ancient and contemporary contexts, weaving into the conversation observations on how the scholarly discourse on “orality and literacy” has evolved. Baumann 1977 describes an important shift in studies of “oral literature” by moving focus away from “form” to “performance,” a subject that is gaining increasing attention.

  • Baumann, Richard, ed. Verbal Art as Performance. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1977.

    This short volume by Baumann, a folklorist, challenges text-centered studies of “oral literature” by drawing attention to the importance of understanding it as both a performative act and event. Volume includes four case studies. Suitable for students.

  • Collins, James, and Richard K. Blot. Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486661

    Chapters 2 and 3 provide an overview of studies tracing movement from the concept of “literacy” to “literacies.” Additional chapters explore ways in which “literacy” intersects with constructions of power and identity in specific cultural contexts. Extensive bibliography.

  • Finnegan, Ruth. Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication. New York: Blackwell, 1988.

    Finnegan, a social anthropologist, argues for the importance of understanding how concepts of “orality” and “literacy” function in specific social contexts. Draws on fieldwork in Africa and the Pacific. Multiple editions.

  • Foley, John Miles. How to Read an Oral Poem. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

    A very readable introduction to oral tradition as both an ancient and living phenomenon by a scholar of comparative oral tradition. Four diverse performances serve as a foundation for examining context, performance, ethnopoetics, and immanent art. Extensive bibliography. Suitable for students.

  • Furniss, Graham. Orality: The Power of the Spoken Word. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230510111

    Furniss, a scholar of African-language literature, describes the nature and significance of communicative events that take place in real time and in the copresence of a speaker and listener, regardless of whether “literacy” is present, restricted, or absent. A comprehensive overview. Extensive bibliography. Suitable for students.

  • Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203328064

    Ong undertakes a psychodynamic analysis of the differences between “orality” and “literacy.” Although some of his assertions have been challenged, Ong’s concepts of “oral residue” and “secondary orality” continue to shape studies of orality and literacy. Multiple editions.

  • Stock, Brian. Listening for the Text: On the Uses of the Past. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1990.

    Writing from the perspective of the “new historicism” this collection of essays by Stock, a historian and scholar of comparative literature, examine constructions of orality and literacy in the thought and writings of the Middle Ages.

  • Tannen, Deborah, ed. Spoken and Written Language: Exploring Orality and Literacy. Advances in Discourse Processes 9. New York: Ablex, 1983.

    This collection of 32 interdisciplinary and cross-cultural essays explores ways in which written and spoken language intersect and diverge. Particular attention is given to how conventions associated with written and spoken language influence discourse.

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