Orality and literacy: epic heroes of human destiny?

Finnegan, Ruth (2003). Orality and literacy: epic heroes of human destiny? International Journal of Learning, 10 pp. 1551–1560.


Human Speech has often been presented as the crucial line dividing humanity from animals, with Literacy then entering in as the fulfiller of human destiny, the redeemer from primitive orality, and, in alphabetic apotheosis, the all-conquering hero of the west's civilising mission. This epic tale, pervasive as it still remains, is now under attack from many directions, not least in the expanding work on multiple literacy practices. This paper takes the complementary line of starting from the 'oral' end of the apparent equation. Building on anthropological fieldwork, experience of teaching at the UK's Open University, and the gathering comparative literature, it questions the limiting linguistic bias of this tale – itself a kind of myth explaining and justifying the social order. Verbal language is just one of many modes and media of human communication and can only be fully understood in conjunction with them. The traditional myth also underplays the multiplex nature of language itself: researchers across several disciplines are now increasingly revealing the multimodal nature of human speech and writing. To focus on narrower definitions of language and, as in the heroic elevation of 'orality' and 'literacy', to propose the treatment of language as the crucial factor in human culture is to proffer a thin and single-line tale of human history and, with it, a misleading and ethnocentric account not only of humanity more generally but also of many of our actual educational practices. It needs to be replaced by a broader, more cross-cultural and more generous model of both learning and communication.

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