Jack Goody, excerpt from The Power of Written Tradition

When I entitled my 1987 book The Interface between the Written and Oral, that phrase was meant to be understood at several levels. First, there is the historical level. Writing was invented by human beings at a particular moment in tim, so historically (as well as in the recent past) we have societies that are purely oral and societies that have added writ- ing. Put in this way, it might sound as though we were dealing with an exclusive opposition and could talk of orality versus literacy. But the change is not the replacement formerly envisaged in the shift from one mode of production to another . . . . Oral communication obviously continues to play a fundamental role after the advent of writing, just as writing continues to be fundamental with the advent of the electronic media. While people talk freely of the disappearance of the book, such talk is loose and unsustainable. Before you can put the Larousse [French dictionary] on a CD-ROM you have to organize the material in writing, then type or scan it into the computer, and finally read it.

At a societal level there is an interface between societies with writing (that is, literate) and those without it (that is, nonliterate or preliterate). . . .

Again, there is the interface between readers and nonreaders within the same society—not literates and nonliterates, but literates and illiterates. This division, a hierarchy, dominated the history of post-Bronze Age societies from 3000 B.C.E. to the nineteenth century. It is reflected in the split between high and low culture as well as in a variety of dimensions of differentiation, of stratification, of styles of life, and has been fundamental to the history of all “advanced” societies.

Finally, there is the interface in each one of us between our performance in the written register and our performance in the oral one. We all know people, including some great teachers, who speak much better than they write. There are others more facile in the written, such as the English poet Thomas Gray who wrote “Elegy in a Country Church- ard” and of whom it was said he was a fool when he spoke but an angel when he wrote. (109-110 )

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