From And to Or: How Does Writing Change the World?

Ruins of the palace at Gournia, on the Island of Crete. (photo by Eve Shulmister)

Ruins of the palace at Gournia, on the Island of Crete. (photo by Eve Shulmister)

The trouble with oral cultures is they leave so little behind. Apart from ruins and religious art there isn’t much we can use to get inside their minds. Take the Minoans, whose entire civilization rose and fell nearly 1500 years before the birth of Jesus. What remains suggests a culture that prized women and may have been led by them. Forty-six hundred years later, despite our vast technology it’s still impossible to say who ran Minoan cities and according to what rules. That’s because they wrote nothing down – no rites, no laws, no history.

During a recent stay on the island of Crete I studied these ancient people. The fact of their not-writing raised several questions in my mind. By 1450 BCE (the height of Minoan culture), neighboring Egyptians had been using hieroglyphics for 2500 years. Minoans traded with Egyptians. Sumerians had been writing in cuneiform for an equal amount of time. Minoans traded with Sumerians. Why then didn’t the Minoans write? This must have been a conscious choice. What did they wish to avoid?

Part of the famous fresco depicting Minoan ships (found at ruins of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini)

Part of the famous fresco depicting Minoan ships, found at ruins of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini, part of the ancient Minoan empire

For that matter, what happens to oral cultures when they start to write things down? Many have pondered this question (see a partial list below). All seem to agree that something gets lost in transit. To understand, we need to know what life was like before:

Sensual –

Preliterate people track important facts – what’s safe to eat, whom can we trust, where do we come from – through memorization. Techniques vary from culture to culture. For millennia, Australian aborigines have employed the landscape: each place has a story, and each story includes important facts. Prehistoric tribes used pictographs (rock painting) and petroglyphs (rock carving). Ancient Greeks and Romans created “memory palaces,” where one furnishes an imaginary building with objects that stand for knowledge. While the troubadours of Europe set their stories to music and rhyme.

Memory aids are as varied as the groups that spawn them. What’s important is the use of links. Whether visual, aural or imaginary each method employs at least one of the senses. Thus, the world of pre-literate people is more sensation-based than ours. Abstract thinking – such as higher mathematics – doesn’t hold much sway. Unless knowledge has a practical purpose, it is of little use.

Right-brained –

The world is perceived as nonlinear, existing outside of time. When memory-keepers summon information, the facts appear all at once. Imagine a wheel with hub and spokes. The memory aid becomes your center with associated facts extending out. There is no past, present or future except in the sense of cycles. Everything is now, and now is everything.

This manner of organizing allows for contradiction. For instance a small dose of flowering Foxglove may heal your heart, while a larger dose will kill you. That said, a preliterate person would not characterize the plant as good or bad. Instead he might call it healing and deadly. In lieu of polarities (black/white, heaven/hell) nonwriting people perceive degrees of difference.

Limited –

Oral tradition is not democratic. Nor would we deem it stable. The universe of available information is known only to a few. If a memory-keeper dies before she can pass along her knowledge, there aren’t many – if any – other sources for that data. This brings up another problem: memories are fallible. As children’s games reveal, we tend to embellish them. Recent scientific research shows that in summoning a recollection, we recreate (literally re-member) what we recall. Even the most adept practitioner cannot retain every fact. Nonetheless, preliterate people treat memory as immutable. An African griot might say, “This is what my father’s father told to him,” and listeners would be expected to take his story as truth.

Given the above, what happens when oral cultures devise an alphabet? How does the act of writing change the way we see the world?

Sequential Time –

While on Crete, I put that question to an archaeologist named Christina Morris. Without hesitation she answered, “Writing introduces the notion of time.” When we set something down, our writing becomes an artifact. Years later we can reread the original words. Yet preliterate cultures tend to alter their past to suit the present. Here is an example of pre/post -literate clash (from The Consequences of Literacy by Jack Goody and Ian Watt):

Early British administrators among the Tiv of Nigeria were aware of the great importance attached to genealogies… Consequently they took the trouble to write down the long list of [ancestral] names and preserve them for posterity… Forty years later… their successors were still using the same genealogies… However these written pedigrees now gave rise to many disagreements. The Tiv maintained that they were incorrect, while the officials regarded them as statements of fact… What neither party recognized was that in [oral cultures] changes take place which require a constant readjustment in the genealogies if [they are to continue reflecting] social relationships.

Left-brained –

The act of writing transforms hub-and-spoke awareness into lines. Think about it. When penning a letter/starting a journal/drafting a blog, we cannot say everything at once. The process forces us to parse things out. Before setting them down, we must order our ideas. With sequencing come logic and analytic skills. And now, rather than our senses we are in our heads. If modern science is to be believed, these aptitudes reside in the brain’s left hemisphere. (Imagination and holistic thinking – as described above – belong to the right.)

Unlimited –

With writing comes democracy. There seems to be no end of ways to store our written knowledge. First we used clay tablets and the skins of animals. Then followed paper and books and (much later) electronic media. Even where internet access is restricted, the quantity of written knowledge is quite vast – especially when compared to personal recollection. This knowledge is available to anyone who can read. Furthermore, literacy allows us to build on knowledge that has come before. If we no longer rely on memory, we can use our brains for other things – like philosophy, analysis and scientific research. In this way we are led to compartmentalize. Rather than both/and, we tend toward either/or.

Yet the question of stability can be argued many ways. While we might scoff at a preliterate person’s free-wheeling genealogy, who can say without a doubt that a fact is truly a fact? New discoveries can turn whole bodies of knowledge upon their heads. Take what happened when we learned the Earth was round or that light behaves like energy and matter or that time is relative. Socrates (an illiterate) probably said it best, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Sifting –

This is not an argument for or against writing, but a summary of observations. We all know that in choosing one thing, we must give up another. In a world where literacy is highly valued, it seems important to understand the world it has displaced. I take great personal comfort from vestiges of oral culture. One such is poetry. Here is a poem that breaks many left-brain rules. Notice the sensual imagery and how everything happens at once –


Among the rain

and lights

I saw the figure 5

in gold

on a red

fire truck




to gong clangs

siren howls

and wheels rumbling

through the dark city

 – William Carlos Williams

Suggestions for further reading: Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong; The Gutenberg Galaxy by Marshall McLuhan; Consequences of Literacy by Jack Goody and Ian Watt; and The Alphabet Versus The Goddess by Leonard Shlain.

Do you believe our thoughts are limited by the words we know?


9 thoughts on “From And to Or: How Does Writing Change the World?

  1. Wow! So much great information in this piece, Eve. Well done, and I have no doubt that the overseas travels that inspired you were amazing, perhaps life-changing.

    Socrates’ quote should be an inspiration for us all, to remind us to continue learning, share what we know, and help keep the power of knowledge, the sanctity of oral translation, and the transformation of the written word, alive and kicking.

    • Yes, the trip to Crete was life-changing – in very subtle ways. If you get a chance to reply, would love to better understand what you mean about the sanctity of oral translation. Thanks for your supportive comments.

  2. Re. your question, for many of us, it may be that our thoughts are limited by the words we know, but I don’t see this as a blanket truth. Take Newton, for example. He didn’t have the word ‘gravity’ before he came up with the concept. Words aren’t the chicken, they’re the egg. On the other hand, I’ve wondered how people like Helen Keller think, or how she thought before Ann Sullivan gave her the gift of words. It must have been a very different kind of thinking.

    • You raise a good point, Chris. Over the years, have asked many people this question. A surprising number have told me they think in pictures and not in words. Still doesn’t answer your question about Helen Keller, but does open the possibility that units of thought can take many forms – like touch?

      Back to Crystal’s point about oral translation – multi-linguists have told me that, yes, one can think/feel things in one language that cannot be thought/felt in another.

  3. There’s very few pleasures in life like finding the exact word to nail down the notion spinning in your cranium. Maybe the release/rest it brings is very much a product of our quantitive-based culture, of the need to spell everything out with precision. Anyone else out there harbor a special love of the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus?

    Since quotes are really flowing in the comments so far, I’ll bring up Mark Twain’s famous example: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
    But no one would ever confuse those two concepts in their brain, despite any commonalities or associations they might have (like darkness or timing or color). I think with all the recent focus on mindfulness, the brokenness of certain aspects of society (uh prisons, money, healthcare), it seems like more and more people are starting to see the LIMITATIONS of linear thinking and “true”/OR narrative. The more we explore present-based thinking, I think the more flexibility will be found in what were formally thought of as concrete areas (your point about science sometimes undermining old theories). Hopefully the BOTH/AND will find a bigger nest in our minds.

    This is an amazing post, Eve! Thanks for getting my brain super engaged and inspired!

    • Thanks for quote, Stephanie. Twain is one of my heroes. Though I do not use Oxford’s Thesaurus, am a synonym junkie (source book is Rodale’s). Really appreciate how you get what I am saying between the lines.

  4. Fascinating post, Eve—much to ponder—especially regarding the historic transformation of our way of thinking from more holistic right-brained imagery to a more linear left-brained logic. I remember reading The Alphabet vs. the Goddess years ago and the surprise for me of learning that the right-brained way is feminine, that pre-literate civilizations were mostly ruled by women, that when the alphabet was introduced it shifted us to a masculine left-brained way of thinking and that’s when male leadership became dominant. It seems a loss to me that our world, as you suggest, is tending away from “both/and” toward “either/or.” I hold out hope that we are already evolving toward a third phase of civilization that values both ways of thinking and ruling. Amen to Stephanie’s thanks for a super engaging post!

  5. p.s. It was also a surprise to me to read in your post that Socrates was illiterate! How did I miss that in my left-brained education?

    • I like your notion of a third way, Deb. Yes, agree that we don’t need to give up writing; just hope that we will honor the right brain. Interesting that you should focus on Socrates – he lived during the time when Greeks were just beginning to record their thoughts (vs. financial transactions, inventories, etc.). He was dead-set against it. Parallel today might be advent of internet and whether one chooses to trust what they find there. Thanks for your comments.

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