Orality is a term that is applied to languages that do not have a prevalent form of written communication. The term refers to the way that language is used in thinking and speaking in populations that do not have widespread access to a written form of their language. Oral traditions have been studied for many centuries because it is understood that spoken language came long before written language. The study of orality comes out of the study of oral traditions. However, this field of study does not simply study the language itself. Rather, it also views cultures that rely on this form of communication through an anthropological lens.
The study of orality asks a number of questions about how societies function in the absence of printed language: How are the economics of a society without text different than a society with text? How are the politics different? Is the human development of individuals in purely oral societies different than that of humans in societies that have both spoken and written language? These studies are of particular interest today, when the world is moving toward globalization. Is globalization possible without the universal use of text? This is a major question for researchers in this field.
Orality has been divided into two forms: primary and residual. The primary type is seen in cultures in which language and its use in both thought and speech that exists completely outside of the knowledge of writing. People in such cultures have never been presented with an example of written language and have never heard speak of such a thing.
Residual orality refers to a language that has been exposed to writing, but has not completely incorporated it into daily use. This form of is referred to as “residual” because orality still exists within the language despite the presence or knowledge of text. In this case, orality is thought of as a residue that diminishes as a printed version of the language becomes more and more prevalent within the society. Therefore, orality can be thought of as a phenomenon that can exist on a sliding scale.
It is important to note that the study of either variety is not the same as illiteracy. Illiteracy is a term that refers to the inability to understand printed language while living in a society where reading and writing are prevalent.