The Wonder of Language

Language is principally a way of transmitting ideas from one person to another. However transmission is only one part of the communication process. It is specifically the operation of passing encoded information from a sender to a receiver, who will decode and understand the content of the message.


In oral communication, a message is conceived by one person (the speaker or sender), who organises his concepts within his own mind, into the forms of a language that he holds in common with the person with whom he wishes to communicate (the listener or receiver). This is the encoding process. The message is then articulated into audible speech and carried through the air by sound waves to be received into the ear of the listener or listeners (audience). This is the transmission phase of the process.


As part of the oral transmission the sender may concurrently send (transmit) additional relational information by employing mutually understood non-linguistic clues in the form of codes or signs, such as tonal variations of voice and body gestures to modify or emphasise the information that he wishes to send. Thereafter the listener would decode the entire message, both verbal and non-verbal, into concepts that he can understand, to form an integrated whole.


Feedback and re-transmission may be needed to clarify this understanding. Moreover, it is a prerequisite that the transmission of both the linguistic and non-linguistic encoded information should be able to pass from person to person, in a clear and uninterrupted form and that the participants should have an mutual empathy for the personal background factors of each other (values, experience, cultural etc), or the process of oral communication will not be entirely successful.


Thus we see that oral communication, as a concept, is actually a complete and integrated process, of which the oral transmission phase is just one of the essential elements, albeit with a unique and central role to play in this entirety.


To literate person today, oral communication might seem best defined in negative terms, by noting some of the characteristic features that it lacks when compared with written communication. However it is important to realise that oral communication is far more fundamental to the human experience than written or other literate forms could ever be. Literacy should be seen as a secondary derivative of the original oral / verbal legacy, common to all cultures. There have been many oral cultures that have no written tradition at all, but there can never be a society exclusively based on the use of the written word. Text in one of its forms is often a supplement, but never a substitution for speech. This is because, no matter how literate they are, all humans, other than the deaf, continue to find it more convenient to utilise direct speech for most of their immediate forms of communication. The use of written, printed or displayed text is therefore usually utilized for communication with people who are not actually in the presence of the writer or alternatively it may be used as a permanent store of data or ideas for future reference. In these specific instances literacy is unsurpassed as the medium of choice. The main characteristic of any literate culture therefore, as opposed to a purely oral tradition, is that the former has at some time in the past, developed (or borrowed) the added dimension of text, which has served to greatly extend the scale, scope, accuracy (fixity), and temporal basis of the original pre-historic oral tradition. (One should note the deliberate use here, of the common assumption that pre-literate is inevitably pre-historic).


In fact these advantages of literacy do not come without a cost or trade-off price. It is an enduring characteristic of oral traditions, such as found amongst the Akan and Yoruba of West Africa that the manner of expression is usually of equal importance to the audience, as is the actual linguistic content of the words used. For these people the relational or human values carried by the implied symbolism is of paramount importance in any exchange of ideas. This is because a rich degree of cultural, symbolic (empathic) and emotional content is facilitated by communication within these oral traditions.

                                          – – – – 0 – – – –

It was Karl Jung who drew attention to the presence of receptors, lying deep within the human psyche that are specifically dedicated to recognising and processing certain predetermined (anticipated) information which can only be perceived in the form of symbols or archetypes. When the brain receives an input of this symbolic information (which may be visual or audible), the appropriate receptor will attempt to match it and if successful, will trigger an automatic emotional response. These triggered responses promote fine shades and nuances of self-awareness within the individual, giving him an understanding of his own perceived situation relating to others within his society, while simultaneously stimulating a sub-conscious cultural understanding of group values. This process nurtures emotional balance and harmony. Unfortunately these synapses are not always so readily accessible to a cultural mindset that values the rigid literality of text above all else. Something has definitely been lost in the trade-off with the benefits of literacy. The obvious consequence of this blunting of sensibilities to symbolic information is a diminished awareness of group dynamics at an instinctive level and also an increase in emotional instability amongst certain individuals. It is difficult to see how this trend will ever be reversed. For this reason one wonders if current attempts to revive the traditional African humanistic concept of Ubuntu could ever be successful in an increasingly literate society.


In an oral system of communication, the meaning carried by the words may be greatly augmented or emphasised by secondary, non-linguistic means. This may be achieved by the use of paralanguage in the form of gestures, body language, facial expression etc. and also by the use of non-verbal sounds, pauses or tonal variation of speech patterns etc. It is ironic to note that oral systems, which almost by definition could be expected to have an exclusively auditory basis, still need to rely upon these visually based techniques, to achieve the full communication of information. It is this aspect, even more than the words he is choosing, that characterises and identifies the style of the speaker and emphasises the rich individuality of the culture he represents. Techniques may deliberately be used, such as the use of, idiophones, familiar idiom, or easily recognisable symbols and gestures, to evoke a heightened degree of response from the emotions and minds of the intended audience. To this end, the accompaniment of ritual chanting, verse, song, music or even dance may be used to enhance the verbal or linguistic content of the communication. Conversely these types of non-verbal inputs might be displayed totally unconsciously by the speaker, but nevertheless would still be clearly understood by his audience.

                                          – – – – 0 – – – –

Speech obviously pre-existed all writing systems by scores, if not hundreds, of millennia, and therefore it is easy to perceive oral systems as being the absolute basis of all linguistic communication. But is this entirely correct? Is there not something even more fundamental that needs to be recognised about the way language has developed, before we can meaningfully examine any model of the oral process taken in isolation?


Ultimately no message, or exchange of ideas can ever be understood by the intended recipient of a communication, unless delivered to the brain in the form of a string of recognisable words, (or alternatively as textual symbols such as numbers). Moreover the elements of meaning carried by those same words and the rules for their combination (grammar), must have previously been made familiar to the subject, through his prior experience or training. This limitation is always present within any communication process, whether the primary means of transmission is a loud shout or a soundless digitised electronic pulse. These all-important, familiar words or symbols are therefore the fundamental carriers of encoded information or meaning, as far as the human brain is concerned. Words, unlike some of the symbols, are very specific to a particular spoken language. As such they are presented to the brain for understanding, either as a pattern of recognisable sounds, or alternatively may be offered in the form of text, which is usually presented visually (one notable exception being the tactile Braille system for the blind).


In essence, the human brain seems to recognise each familiar word, or symbol, once it has been learnt and its meaning understood, as a kind of elemental entity in its own right. It is stored within the memory as a uniquely individual idea, or concept, to be held there, awaiting recall, having by now acquired a distinct existence and resting place of its own. This quintessential word entity, lodged within the human mind, is a much more fundamental concept than that of the individual spoken or written words, which serve as its external representatives, or proxies in the outside world. These spoken or written expressions of a particular word are not identical to the associated word entity held in the brain, but are rather direct analogues for it. They have existence only within the particular oral or textual universe that has been selected for them. These outward forms operate within separate analogous systems that exactly parallel the activity that is going on inside the brain. However it is important to realise that these audibly or visually displayed words have no actual location or manifestation within the brain itself, but are always “read in” and “read out” by a translational facility that is the fundamental basis of mankind’s inherited linguistic capacity.


If this proposition seems elaborate and contrived, consider that its validity is often demonstrated to us, whenever something goes wrong with the process of verbalisation. A stroke could certainly cause this, but everyone has had the experience of finding ourselves frantically searching for a word or name that we instinctively know exists. We say that it is on the “tip of our tongue”, meaning that we have recognised the word non-verbally and fully understand the concept that it represents and how it fits into the sentence that we wish to construct, but frustratingly we just cannot bring it forward into verbal form to fit into our speech.


These oral and later textual linguistic analogue systems were evolved, or contrived, by humankind, purely for the original purpose of facilitating interpersonal communication. However, such is the nature of the magnificent learning device that is the human brain, that the very use of these linguistic systems over time, serves to open up further developmental possibilities or pathways within the mind or psyche, thus stimulating the growth of various new modes of thought patterns. Starting with a few basic words, an interactive or iterative process is set into being, constantly creating new synapses that utilise the forms of language to develop the actual capability of the brain for handling increasingly sophisticated and ever more complex concepts in its thinking. The resultant increase in mind power, in turn allows for more sophisticated and complex language to develop and so on. Thus intellectual intelligence is always closely related to linguistic ability. We see this iterative process in action every day, as each individual child wrestles with the problem of acquiring speech and begins to mature. This same imperative was also present on the macroscopic scale, as the mainstream of humanity, steadily developed ever more complex social structures and technology, in parallel with the growth of language and other communication methods, throughout the course of its long history.

– – – – 0 – – – –

It is difficult for anyone reared in the cocoon of our modern literate and information-oriented era, to be able to grasp the concept that other societies may have actually functioned remarkably well in the past, without the benefit of any written tradition at all, or with at most with a very limited exposure to writing. To relate to this idea, we first need to put aside any instinctive preconceptions we may have, that the written transmission of ideas is in every case intrinsically superior to the oral medium and that an orally based society would always prove to be inherently primitive and lacking in sophistication.


The early river-based civilizations of the Ancient Near East (ANE) achieved a great deal of success in making striking innovative technical and organizational advances. Most of this innovation was already achieved by their early pre-literate phase. Moreover these civilizations never reached a level of literacy that exceeded 5% of the population. It may seem like heresy to say this, but the conclusion is inescapable. At these low levels of literacy, the use of writing could not possibly have been sufficiently pervasive, as to have had a decisive influence on the actual mainstream early political and cultural development of those civilizations. Writing was initially merely a useful tool for basic record keeping for ownership of stock and temple donations etc. In time its use spread to a secondary role in commemorative and religious fields, but the truly useful administrative function came much later, when writing began to satisfy a need for codifying laws, recording private contracts and fixing treaties between states etc. By then many city-states had already had a long history as functioning entities and nearly all of the significant technological advances of the ancient world, such as canalisation, pottery, metallurgy and the use of the plough had already been made. It might even be fair to say that the writing of literature in the early developmental phase of the ANE was ultimately of far more importance as a record left for the modern historian, than it ever played as a medium for preserving and transmitting the cultural history and mythology of the area from generation to generation. Even today, in illiterate or semi-literate oral societies, this cultural role is fundamentally the province of the religious choir, of the praise singer or of the marketplace storyteller.


– – – – 0 – – – –

We must now address the most obvious limitation of oral communication for transmitting ideas and for keeping records. In direct speech the successful transmission of the spoken word requires the immediate presence of the intended listener or audience to hear it. Unless this can be arranged it would be necessary to use a trusted messenger or witness, with an excellent memory, to act as an intermediary to retain and eventually pass on the actual words (or at very least the main sense) of the original communication. This inevitably brings into account the added factor of elapsed time, thus adding to the risk of distortion. The writer of text obviously suffers from no such limitation. His communication will always retain its exact meaning for anyone who has the skill to read it. As his completed text has a fixed form, it may be read at any time in the future. It is this fundamental reliance on human memory, as the primary medium of transmission of information, that is the most significant characteristic of delayed oral communication. This may be perceived as the risk element, or possible weakness, of the whole oral system. This is especially relevant when if communicating detailed or complex information and when one considers the hazards of passing traditional information down through the generations by using a succession of intermediaries or raconteurs. However the success rate is perhaps better than one would have reason to expect.


Anecdotally, it has often been remarked by those of us who have had dealings with illiterate people, that these individuals generally seem to have an outstanding ability to recall past detail. Obviously this ability to memorise complex information must be a natural talent, which is latent within all of us. Presumably this skill only seems remarkable to us because it has atrophied due to under-utilisation, amongst those of us who have the advantage of being able to commit difficult or complex information to writing. Memory has to be trained to be effective. Within the remaining oral cultures that have been observed and studied in modern times, it is seen that deliberate use is often made of various mnemonic devices and techniques to enhance the accuracy of recall and for re-transmission of the communication. To be successful the communication need not necessarily be reproduced on a direct “literal”, or word-for-word basis, but it is essential that both the sense and also the feeling of the original must be retained. Verse or poetry is a paramount technique for assisting memory and has many applications. A further check is that it is customary in most cultures, for a group of elders or learned people, to comment openly at each public performance of traditional cultural material and to assess and criticise the accuracy of a particular raconteur. This manifestation of group memory serves to keep the performer on track. Another technique that works well is the device of ritual “question and response” (catechism), often used simultaneously with non-verbal symbolism. This method has always been used by religious institutions in various cultures, and is very effective for keeping the purity of the particular tenets of their faith intact over the ages.

There are numerous other ways of improving the retention of the original information content within the oral tradition. We know that within a stable culture, orally preserved information can often retain much of the sense of the original, even after the passage of several centuries. However there is ultimately a definite limit to the time scale that can be accommodated, without a loss of the integrity of the information. Where there has been a replacement of one cultural group or nation by another the prognosis would be obviously be poor, but even without such an abrupt cultural break, factors such as evolution of language and idiom and even deliberate political propaganda may serve to corrupt the record.


Essentially communication, whether oral or written, has to serve just two primary functions. Firstly, there is the need for immediate (instant) exchanges of accurate information and ideas between one person or group and another. Secondly, there is the need for the storing and holding of information, such as records, history, literature etc. for future use. The most important characteristic of oral communication is the immediacy with which it can be used. In this it admirably fulfils the first criteria. Moreover through the use of non-verbal signals it may also transmit extra information, particularly emotional and cultural content in an interpersonal exchange of ideas. This characteristic promotes an understanding of the diversity of human thought patterns. Regarding the second criterion the oral tradition may characteristically be less efficient than written or displayed text.


                                                                                                    ©   Steve Coe 2001



1.   Oral Communication of the Scripture Insight from African Oral Art – Herbert Klem    1982

2.   Civilization of the Ancient Middle East – Sumerian Literature, an Overview – Piotr Michalowski – 1995 – Charles Scribner’s Sons.

3.   Civilization of the Ancient Middle East – Akkadian Literature, an Overview – Jean Bottero – 1995 – Charles Scribner’s Sons.

4.   Civilization of the Ancient Middle East – Hittite and Hurrian, Literature, an Overview – Alfonso Archi – 1995 – Charles Scribner’s Sons

5.   Civilization of the Ancient Middle East – Ancient Egyptian Literature, an Overview – Donald B Redford – 1995 – Charles Scribner’s Sons

7.   Civilization of the Ancient Middle East – The Literatures of Canaan, Ancient Israel and Phoenicia, an Overview –Simon B Parker – 1995 – Charles Scribner’s Sons

6.   National Geographic Vol 154 No 6 December 1978 – Ancient Ebla Opens a New Chapter of History

                                          < < < Return to Index Page