Goody “What’s in a List” from Literacy A Critical Sourcebook

Goody, Jack. “What’s in a List.” Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. 2001. Originally printed 1977.

What’s in a list is, according to Goody, the ability to arrange meaning differently through the use of alphabetic systems. Writing influences cognitive operations:

…the presence of writing…alters not only the world out there but the psyche in here; at least a recognition of its role should modify our understanding of the processes involved. (49)

He goes on to state toward the end that

the graphic representation of speech (or of non-verbal behaviour, though this is of more limited significance) is a tool, an amplifier, a facilitating device, of extreme importance. It encourages reflection upon and the organisation of information, quite apart from its mnemotechnic functions. It not only permits the reclassification of information by those who can write, and legitimises such reformulations of the world (cognitive processes) for those who cannot do so, whether they are the non-reading element of societies with writing (a very large category over the five thousand years of written experience) or the population (usually children) that have not reached the point in time when they can read, either because they do not yet have the ability or because they do not yet have the opportunity…(50)

Another way to think about it is that “the existence of the alphabet therefore changes the type of data an individual is dealing with, and it changes the repertoire of programmes he has available for treating the data” (50). He provides several examples of lists from Mesopotamian, Greek, and Sumarian culture that demonstrate a progression of pre-alphabetic to alphabetic systems of language.

Goody, unlike Ong, however, takes strides to distinguish oral and written systems without subjugating oral to unproductive and naive systems as we see in his early claim that

there is no need to abandon the claim taht the alphabet made reading and writing much easier, and made it avaiable for more people and more purposes (including writing down one’s ‘thoughts’). But, in their turn, earlier syllabic and ‘consonantal alphabets’ were simlifications of Sumerian logograms and had similar, though not so far-reaching effects. (32)

For Goody, lists are distinct from speech mostly in the following ways

  • lists are discontinuous
  • lists rely on physical location or placement
  • lists establish boundaries in clear-cut beginning and definitive ends
  • lists bring greater visibility to categories
  • lists are simple
  • lists are abstract

In this way, Goody seems caught between Ong and contemporary literacy. He thinks of oral and written language as distinctively different, favoring writing for its ability to transform thought and modes of thought. He sounds most like Ong to me when he says, “while it would be theoretically possible to arrange a list by initial sound in an oral culture, this particular type of exercise seems an inevitable outcome fo the written list” (40) and again when he claims that questions about the nature of things would be pointless in an oral context [he uses the example of the question is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable] (48).

However, he does not treat what he calls “proto-alphabetic” systems as inferior to alphabetic systems. He sees in early examples lists being made and writing influencing thought, rather than treat this as a Greek-only phenomena. In addition, he claims that categorizing systems are not created by writing, but made explicit by writing, which seems a more reasonable way of talking about oral systems that Ong.

Goody suggests that writing allows for something that oral systems can’t, but he is much more flexible about what counts as writing as well as the context in which oral systems fail thought processes and modes.

Other things worth mentioning: he makes explicit the fact that labor and commerce were driving factors in the use of writing and reading in the form of lists. This is not to say that oral systems means there was no commerce or labor, but it does mean that the context that Goody alludes to so often is tied to economic motivations and developments.

When he talks about the reclassification of information (see large quote above), he alludes to the fact that literacy is used by some to invoke reading by some. This ability or skill is tied to power and access, and if economics is a part of the equation, that means writing and reading are caught up in the circulation of power, money and privilege.


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