Oral Tradition

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ʑ I am sure that at least once everyone has had that feeling where they think of something

intelligent and insightful wether for a project or just random reflection and quickly rush for a peace

of paper and a pen to write it down so they wont forget it. The thought that this means of maintaining

information was never a constancy does not enter the minds of most present day individuals. To us,

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a piece of paper and a pencil are nondescript and the alphabet was something we learned back in

kindergarten. It is hard for someone who lives in today’s society to even contemplate what it must

have been like to not have this means of writing down and preserving information. To the people who

lived in the era of primary orality, however, this means of insuring information was nonexistent.

Before the alphabet was developed in the middle ages, people lived in what is called primary

orality. In this time frame the only way to remember news, names, and even your own personal

thoughts was memory. The writing down of information was non-existent. If one was to ask a person

from this illiterate era to write something down they would not know what was being asked. They

could not refer to text such as a dictionary to look up words because words did not have

permanence. Words were short lived occurrences said for a purpose and then gone without a trace.

For them, sound was the only means of communication. Sound however, was not permanent.

Theorist Walter Ong, describes this perfectly by saying, “sound has a unique relationship to time, it

exists only as it is disappearing and exists only when it is going out of existence.” If someone was

explaining to a neighbor the latest news, once he/she was finished there is nothing that can recall back

that same thought. There is no proof that he/she even uttered those words for there is no way for

him/her to preserve the thoughts. This must have been very onerous to deal with. They did, however,

have a means of communicating in which they were able to recount information if one so desired.

Their strategy was to think unforgettable thoughts. When they spoke with one another they used

rhythmic, poetic and even lyrical means to communicate. This proved beneficial because if sentences

were vocalized in a manner which flowed smoothly and narratively people would be less likely to

forget them. This method was valuable as showed by video in class which showed a judge in a

court case relying on common proverbs to make his decision. This routine also stabilized certain

sayings so everyone could learn them therefore, be able to bring them up in conversations with the

listener already knowing of its existence. Examples of these sayings as shown in the Communication

in History textbook are, “Red in morning, the sailor’s warning; red in the night, the sailor’s delight,”

and “Dividee and conquer.” Names were also important. There were no records based on the name

of an object or person. If either of these was forgotten they were gone for good. Nothing could call

them back. For the people of this era, they only knew what they were able recall.

Although it is hard to imagine there were positives to living in primary orality. One such

example is the closeness that formed between the people. People relied on each other for information.

They could not refer to a text or the evening news so they referred to each other. This meant that

there really was no division of power because everyone knew the same things. Another benefit was

the degree of involvement. When a listener was given information by a fellow native he/she could ask

questions if there was a trace of uncertainty and receive an answer. The individuals of primary orality

were united.

The middle ages was not only an oral era it was a literate era as well. It is said that the middle

ages ended on the outset of the printing press and there was a means of literacy before Gutenberg and

his invention. This particular form of literacy was the alphabet. Once the Greeks brought forth the

alphabet and it was adapted into society there was all the sudden a way to preserve memory.

Individuals could now take the spoken language and form it into written word In a litrate era people

would now have the chance get more in touch with themselves. In a oral era it would be hard to talk

to yourself for hours on end. One can imagine that people had their own personal viewpoints,

ambitions and feelings because they were human. With the ability to write people could express their

personal feelings on paper and be able to commemorate their thoughts. This has also proven

invaluable for historians who have found personal accounts of people that went through trying times

in our history. Another positive evolvement of literacy was individuals did not have to strain to

remember everything because if they were literate they could simply write it down. This in a sense

allowed people to broaden their knowledge. The things that people remembered were not often

innovative. Individuals had to remember numerous proverbs to maintain a stable connection to

meaning with other individuals in the town. They had to be repetitious with their words so they would

not be forgotten. This would mean there would have been only so much they could remember. With

the alphabet their was no impediment if they forgot something because they could rely on the written

word to recall the forgotten information. This allowed for the individuals to remember more and more

things because they did not have the fear of forgetting earlier knowledge. A pattern evolved in a sense

that they learned information and had it stored then learned even more information and had it stored.

Most people in today’s society are familiar with the term, “seeing is believing.” When we hear

our peers say something of intellectual significance it is almost as though are trust in their words is

hindered. In today’s society we tend to believe what is written down or, “carved in stone,” is more

accurate than the oral tongue. We are somewhat deluded by the sense that if it is written down it must

be true. If someone relates to you what he/she read in a text book we have the belief that he/she may

have read it wrong or produced the wrong outcome. In a sense what he/she is saying has been

falsified. It is although an individual needs to see it for his/her self to gain one’s view point on a the

issue at hand.

“We love to see you smile,” “The swiffer quicker picker upper,” and “Always Coca Cola,”

are all familiar lyrical slogans that companies use to sell their product. Obviously this form of

advertisement works because most people do in fact recognize theses slogans. This method can be

compared to what the individuals used in primary orality based societies. They to used catchy so they

could remember what was being said. The difference is, they used these lyrical expressions as a means

sustaining the thought. They relied on the proverb because if they forgot it it was gone for good. The

slogans our society uses today are an example of what Walter Ong deemed secondary orality. Ong

accounts today’s society one of secondary orality. Secondary oralirty can be defined as a society that

is partially oral based once again due to the electronic media (radio, television, internet) but is still

based upon literacy. Primary Orality has also somewhat been brought back due to our participation

with other people in grasping information. Most people watch the news at night or hear the local

weather by tuning into the radio. Our reliance on other people has moderately been restored. The

difference from primary orality however, is can not ask the 600 news lady to repeat what is

happening in Afghanistan or the announcer on the radio to repeat Friday’s forecast. Information is

dealt with on a one way basis today whereas in primary orality both speaker and listener could

communicate with each other. In a way, we have retrieved our sense of bring united and relying on

one another but we still turn inward towards the text for assurance.

After examining both oral and literate based society it can be said that is a good thing to have

a balance of both. In a literate society it is beneficial for an individual to spend some time alone to

write down their thoughts and feelings and unleash inner frustrations as well preserving their

thoughts. In secondary orality it is informative to gain understanding by watching the televison and

listening to the radio but it is imperative for one to remember that he/she simply cannot seek answers

to their questions through the radio or the television screen.

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