Tradición oral

Orality: the spoken word

Orality –the expression of the spoken word– is the most natural, elemental and original form of production of the human language. It is independent of any other system: it exists by itself, without having to rely on other elements. This feature differentiates it from writing, a secondary and artificial structure that would not exist if, previously, there was not some kind of oral expression.

Language has been the basic element for communication, which is its fundamental function. It is a social fact that allows the acquisition of personal and community customs, beliefs and histories, also allowing building relationships with other people and groups and transmitting experiences and knowledge. Such communication –understood as an exchange of contents and experiences– generates social links, and, through them, it shapes human societies with their own identities and cultures, based precisely on shared knowledge.

This last point is of crucial importance for human beings: through the spoken word, culture is taught and transmitted. In fact, human beings learn their languages in the same way (and at the same time) that they learn their cultures, and the construction of both elements is done in a dialogue-like way: one produces the other, and vice versa. The most important cultural features (including language) make up the identity of an individual and a people – a set of characteristics that outline the personality and make a human group a unique and special entity.

Language exerts a coercive action on individuals, because it clearly models their way of thinking and, therefore, the ways of understanding the world and its events, of expressing them, of reacting to them and acting accordingly. Many ideas, beliefs, reflections and traditions could not be manifested except in the linguistic context that gave birth to them, and many realities could not be understood without the inimitable words that designate them. From this point emerges the importance of preserving the different languages of the planet, and the alarm before the increasing and massive disappearance of those not being "dominant" or "official".

Many languages have lacked –and still lack– written systems, which makes orality their only mechanism of survival and perpetuation. These languages are the ones that suffer most the pressures of written languages and their mass media, and those that tend to disappear more quickly into silence and oblivion. With them, and in addition to unique sounds and vocabularies, the cultures and identities they hold are lost as well. In the context of this particular phenomenon, orality has then an added value: being a vehicle of complete cultural assets, many of them in the process of extinction.

The spoken word has always been the most important means of transferring information and of personal contact, both in traditional cultures and in modern urban contexts. On its continued practice depends the survival of social bonds, emotional structures and thousands of memories that cement the very lives of many human beings.

Orality is featured by:

1. Its grammatical complexity. According to Halliday (1985: 47) "contrary to what many people think, the spoken language is, in its entirety, more complex than the written language in its grammar; informal and spontaneous conversation is, grammatically, the most complex of all". Its structure is totally dense and intricate, and this gives it an incomparable richness.

2. Its spontaneity and immediacy. Oral expression is improvised and planned while it is being broadcast, and is not subject to prior review. A written text is constructed in a totally different way, since it can be carefully planned before the receiver accesses its contents.

3. Its instability. There is usually no record of what is spoken, except in the listener's memory (which usually adapts what is heard to his/her own schemes) and in some occasional record. That is why writing is the support of memory, while orality is transmitted by mnemotechnical resources that guarantee a restricted and unstable transcendence. In fact, writing is born because of the difficulty that the retention of large textual segments meant for human memory.

4. Its dependence on the listener. The reader of the written text has a tremendous autonomy with respect to the broadcaster (the author): a text can be written and read with long temporal intervals between both moments. In the case of orality, the presence of the broadcaster and the receiver is necessary in the same act of communication; the contents are constructed as the broadcaster speaks, being even modified (in structure, quality and intention) according to the listener's reactions.

5. Its richness. In the oral expression there are suprasegmental strategies, i.e. elements beyond the language that enrich and complement what the speaker says: acts, gestures, sounds, silences, hesitations... In addition, there is an entire emotional, environmental, psychological, and temporal load, intimately linked to the moment of expression and to those who participate in it. Finally, dialectal and personal peculiarities (age, sex, ideologies, feelings, character) of the speaker and the listener are expressed through orality. All these elements are often lost when written, unless the speech is described in detail.

6. Its dynamism. Oral language changes continuously through group action, responding to the needs of the society and its social, intellectual, spiritual and historical realities.

7. Its formulatiry. Oral speech is based on "formulas" – it is necessary to repeat certain formulas or segments of speech in order to help memory, something that becomes evident in radio and television advertising.

Despite the importance of spoken language, writing has always had a more important status. In fact, "prehistory" (with all the connotative values associated with the term) is the period of human evolution in which the tools and skills for writing were not developed yet. Writing may be regarded as an evolutionary step that has led to the socio-economic and political development of many civilizations, and thus, earlier historical periods appear to be "inferior." Oral transmission is thus surrounded by prejudices and ideas like "secondary", "imperfect" and "incomplete". As Halliday (1985: 40) indicates, "we are so surrounded by written language that we can scarcely conceive life without it." In Latin American societies, there are large gaps between those who know the written language, and among those who do not know or know just a little. The latter end up considering their orality as "defective, antigrammatical, deformed, improper and deficient in one way or another" (Kress, 1979: 66).

Through the spoken word we learn much of the practices that make up our daily lives. Thanks to it, as Octavio Paz pointed out in his book "El arco y la lira", we are what we are.


Quoted bibliography
  1. Halliday, M. (1985). Spoken and written language. Oxford: University Press.
  2. Kress, G. (1979). "Los valores sociales del habla y la escritura". In Fowler et al. (eds.) Lenguaje y control. Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica.