Cabecera. Tradición oral. Por Edgardo Civallero

A project by Edgardo Civallero, online since 2006Un proyecto de Edgardo Civallero, en línea desde 2006

Orality: the spoken word

Orality: the spoken word


The term "orality" is a positive term. [Unlike the word "illiterate",] it emphasizes what the person can do, rather than what he cannot. [...] A broader aspect of orality is that it shapes the communities that use it.

Morgan, 2008.


A definition attempt

Orality - the expression of the spoken word - is the most natural, elemental and original way of producing human language. It is independent of any other system: it exists by itself, without the need to rely on other elements. This characteristic distinguishes it from writing, a secondary and artificial structure that would not exist if, previously, there were not some type of oral expression (Ong, 1987).

Language — a distinctively human behavior system based on oral symbols — has been the basic element that has facilitated communication, which is its fundamental function. It is a social fact that allows the acquisition of customs, beliefs and own and community stories, the relationship with other people and groups, and the transmission of experiences and knowledge. Such communication —understood as an exchange of content and experiences— generates social relationships (Casalmiglia and Tusón, 1999: 29), and, through them, configures human societies with their own identities and cultures, based precisely on shared knowledge.

This last point is of crucial importance for the human being: through the spoken word the cultural heritage of a group is taught and transmitted. In fact, human beings learn their language in the same way (and at the same time) that they acquire their culture, and the construction of both elements is dialectical: one generates the other and vice versa. The most important cultural traits (including language) make up the identity of an individual, a group, a community and / or a people: that set of characteristics that delineate the personality and that make a human collective (or even a sole person) a unique and special entity.

Language exerts a coercive action on individuals, since it clearly models their way of thinking (cf. Durkheim, 1974, 1993) and, therefore, the ways of understanding the world and its events, of expressing them, of reacting to them and acting in consecuense. Many ideas, beliefs, reflections and traditions could not be manifested except in the linguistic context that gave rise to them, and many realities could not be understood without the inimitable words that designate them. From this point arises the importance of preserving the different languages of the planet, and the alarm at the growing and massive disappearance of those who do not hold the category of "dominant" or "majority".

Many languages have lacked — and still do not — have written coding systems, which makes orality their only mechanism for survival and perpetuation. It is these languages that suffer most from the pressures of written languages and their mass media, and those that tend to disappear the fastest into silence and oblivion. With them, in addition to unique sounds and vocabularies, the cultures and identities they support are lost. Within the framework of this particular phenomenon, orality then takes on an added value: that of being a vehicle for complete intangible cultural heritages, many of them on the way to extinction.

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


Some features

Through a successful parallel with the musical universe, Álvarez Muro (2001) describes the spoken word in the following way:

Orality is sound sequentiality, a line in time that is transmitted between speaker and listener, a line of sounds that vanish when the emission disappears. Like music, its life is ephemeral, unless it is translated into the written medium or preserved by means of recording methods. The speaker transmits a message that must be modulated with a melody, be accompanied by a certain rhythm and divided with free spaces, also like music.

Orality is characterized by:

  1. Its grammatical complexity. According to Halliday (1985: 47) "contrary to what many people think, the spoken language is, as a whole, more complex than the written language in its grammar; the informal and spontaneous conversation is, grammatically, the most complex of all". Its structure is totally dense and intricate, and this endows it with an incomparable richness.
  2. His spontaneity and immediacy. Oral expression is improvised and planned as it is delivered, and is not subject to prior review (Kress, 1979: 70). The construction of a written text is totally different, 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 memory of the listener (who usually adapts what is heard to their own schemes) and in the occasional record. That is why writing is the support of memory, while orality is transmitted by mnemonic resources that guarantee it a transcendence, certainly restricted and unstable. In fact, writing is born from the difficulty that the retention of large textual segments means for memory.
  4. Your dependence on the listener. The reader of the written text has a tremendous autonomy with respect to the issuer (the author): a text can be written and read with long time intervals between both moments. In the case of orality, the presence of sender and receiver is necessary in the same act of communication; the contents are built as the speaker speaks, even modifying (in structure, quality and intention) according to the listener's reactions.
  5. Your wealth. In oral expression, suprasegmental strategies are present (Barrera and Fracca, 1999), that is, elements that, beyond the language, enrich and complement what the speaker says: acts, gestures, sounds, silences, hesitations ... In addition, there is a whole emotional, environmental, psychological and temporal burden closely linked to the moment of oral expression and those who participate in it ("situational context of origin"). Finally, through orality, dialect and personal particularities (age, sex, ideologies, feelings, character) of the speaker and listener are expressed. All of these elements are often lost in written coding, unless they are thoroughly described.
  6. Its dynamism. Oral language continually changes by group action, responding to the needs of the speaking society and its social, intellectual, spiritual and historical realities.
  7. Its formulaicity. Oral discourse is based on "formulas" (Parry, 1971: 272). Indeed, it is necessary to repeat certain formulas or segments of speech in order to help memory (Brown and Yule, 1993), something that is obvious in radio and television advertising.

It is clear that we are faced with a complex phenomenon. Such complexity is reflected in this brief description of the oral act:

[The speaker] has to control what he has just said and determine if it matches his intentions, at the same time as he enunciates the current expression, controls it and simultaneously raises his next statement to fit the general pattern of what he wants to say, while furthermore, it monitors not only its own performance, but its reception by the listener. He does not have a permanent record of what he has said before, and only in special circumstances can he have notes to remind him of what to say next (Brown and Yule, 1993: 23).

Despite the importance of spoken language, writing has always had a higher status (Ong, 1987). In fact, "prehistory" is considered (with all the connotative values associated with the term) to that period of human evolution in which the tools and skills of written coding were not handled. Perhaps writing is considered an evolutionary step that has led to the socio-economic and political development of many civilizations, and, therefore, its earlier stages seem "inferior" or, at least, need to be marked and labeled as such. Oral transmission is thus surrounded by prejudices and ideas such as "secondary", "imperfect" and "incomplete". As Halliday (1985: 40) points out, "we are so surrounded by written language that we can hardly conceive of life without it."

In the specific case of Latin American societies, there are large gaps between those who know and appreciate the written language, and between those who do not know it or know it and use it little. The latter end up considering their orality as something "defective, antigramatical, deformed, improper and deficient in one way or another" (Kress, 1979: 66). The third chapter of this guide will provide a more detailed analysis of the relationship between orality and writing.

Through the spoken word we learn a good part of the practices that constitute our daily life (Galindo Caballero, 2003: 18). Thanks to her, as the Mexican writer Octavio Paz pointed out in his book El arco y la lira (1956), "we are what we are".



Álvarez Muro, Alexandra (2001). Análisis de la oralidad: una poética del habla cotidiana. Estudios de Lingüística Española, 15. [En línea].

Barrera Linares, Luis; Fracca de Barrera, Lucía (1999). Psicolingüística y desarrollo del español II. Caracas: Monte Ávila.

Brown, Gillian; Yule, George (1993). Análisis del discurso. Madrid: Visor.

Calsamiglia Blancafort, Helena; Tusón Valls, Amparo (1999). Las cosas del decir. Manual de análisis del discurso. Barcelona: Ariel.

Durkheim, Émile (1974, 1993). Las reglas del método sociológico. Madrid: Ediciones Morata.

Galindo Caballero, Mauricio et al. (2003). Mitos y leyendas de Colombia: tradición oral indígena y campesina. Bogotá: Alberto Ramírez Santos editor.

Halliday, Michael A. K. (1985). Spoken and written language. Oxford: University Press.

Kress, Gunther (1979). Los valores sociales del habla y la escritura. En Fowler, R. et al. (eds.) Lenguaje y control. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Morgan, James (2008). What is orality? [En línea].

Ong, Walter J. (1987). Oralidad y escritura. Tecnologías de la palabra. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Parry, Adam (comp.) (1971). The making of Homeric Verse. The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


The text, by Edgardo Civallero, has been published in Acta Academica.

Picture: Equipment for oral history. In University of Houston [link].