“Orality” refers to reliance upon the spoken, rather than written, word for communication. Orality is an ancient phenomenon that continues to the present. Before writing was developed, ethnic groups passed along their cultural traditions, including their history, identity, and religion, through their stories, proverbs, poems, songs, riddles, etc. These are all oral art forms; that is, they are spoken, sung, or chanted. They were (and still are) often woven into ceremonies, dramas, and rites of passage. Purely oral societies pass along everything that matters from one generation to another without putting anything into writing. They rely on the spoken word (including its sung and chanted forms).


That reliance on the spoken word is “orality.” But the term means more than that to the experts who study this phenomenon. When people live by orality, it affects a great many things about their culture. If they do not write anything down, for instance, they have to work more on remembering things, so they tend to repeat well-known, treasured sayings and stories. Oral cultures prefer the familiar. It follows that oral cultures may be slow to accept new information, particularly if it does not come in a memorable format.

Many educated people continue to function as oral communicators in much of their daily lives. They consider people to be the best and most reliable sources of information. Educated people with oral preferences learn best through concrete experiences, on-the-job training, and interactive methods. They prefer a how-to video over printed instructions. Instead of reading in silence, they may listen to audio books and then seek others with whom to discuss what they heard. These are indicators of the presence of orality, and they serve as reminders that orality is not limited to tribal people living in remote locations. It permeates many urban settings and suburbs as well. Even on university campuses a significant portion of students who are asked indicate that they prefer oral approaches to learning.

Oral cultures work at putting every important truth or piece of information into easily-remembered forms. Proverbs are pithy, memorable ways of storing truths. Poems and songs are often easier to remember than simple lists of truths or facts. Oral cultures develop standard ways of structuring proverbs, poems, and stories. Those patterns of organizing spoken language for ease in recall and presentation are also part of “orality.”

These are a few facets of orality, but they illustrate that if we want an oral culture to understand a message, it would be helpful to present it in forms that are more familiar to them. By studying orality we get a better understanding of how oral cultures function. That understanding helps us find the best way to present the Bible’s message (and any other information, for that matter) so they can understand it, retain it, benefit from it and pass it to others.