The bias in which writing is privileged over speech has been called graphocentrism or scriptism. In many literate cultures, text has a higher status than speech: written language is often seen as the standard. Until the early twentieth century, linguists tended to accord priority to written language over speech: grammatical rules were based on written language and everyday speech was largely ignored; the prescriptive tradition was based on the written word. Marshall McLuhan, using James Joyce's coinage, referred to 'ABCEDmindedness' - an unconscious bias which he regarded as 'the psychological effect of literacy' (in McNamara 1970, p. 8). McLuhan emphasizes print in particular, declaring that 'print... is a transforming and metamorphosing drug that has the power of imposing its assumptions upon every level of consciousness' (in McNamara 1969, p. 175). It reflects a scriptist bias to refer, as many scholars do, to 'oral literature', or to any semiotic systems, written or not, as a 'text'.
Biases in favour of the written or printed word are closely associated with the ranking of sight above sound, the eye above the ear, which Anthony Synnott has called 'ocularcentrism' (Synnott 1993, p. 208). Walter Ong comments that 'Because we have by today so deeply interiorized writing, made it so much a part of ourselves... we find it difficult to consider writing to be a technology' (Ong 1982, p. 82). He adds that 'Freeing ourselves of chirographic and typographic bias... is probably more difficult than any of us can imagine' (Ong 1982, p. 77).
Whilst ranking reason over the senses, amongst the senses Plato accorded primacy to sight (Synnott 1993, p. 131). And when Aristotle decided that we had five senses, he explictly ranked sight over hearing (Synott 1993, pp. 132, 270; Classen 1993, pp. 2-3). In the first sentence of his Metaphysics, Aristotle wrote, 'Of all the senses, trust only the sense of sight'. This general bias in favour of sight and the eye has persisted in Western cultures over the centuries.
Thinking was increasingly associated with visual metaphors: 'observation' privileges visual data; 'phenomenon' owes its origin in Greek to the notion of 'exposing to sight' (Ong 1967, p. 74). The word definition comes from 'definire', to draw a line around (Ong 1967, p. 323). 'Sight is equated with understanding and knowledge in much of our vocabulary: insight, idea, illuminate, light, enlighten, visible, reflect, clarity, survey, perspective, point of view, vision, observation, show, overview, farsighted' (Synnott 1993, p. 208). We refer to clever people as bright or brilliant and to those who are not as dull. Other terms whose roots are visual include: intelligent, theory, contemplate and speculate. Sight and reason were closely associated with each other by Plato and Aristotle and they still are in our use of language.
Our folk sayings tell us such things as 'seeing is believing' and 'believe half of what you see and nothing of what you hear'. Our cliches lead us to say 'see for yourself', 'let me see', 'there's more to this than meets the eye', 'I couldn't believe my eyes', and 'I'll believe it when I see it with my own eyes'. We say 'I see' when we understand. We 'see eye to eye' when we agree. We say to our friends, 'it's good to see you' and 'see you around'. One can fall in love 'at first sight' or wonder 'What does she see in him?'. We imagine situations 'in the mind's eye'. 'Draw your own conclusions.' 'See what I mean?'. When students were asked to list the sense they'd least like to lose, 75% listed sight (Synnott 1993, p. 207).
Many commentators argue that literacy and the printed word have played a key part in the elevation of the eye to such primacy as a way of knowing. The anthropologist Edmund Carpenter asserts that 'literacy orchestrated the senses under a single conductor: sight. It enthroned sight to the point where it alone was trusted. All truth was expected to conform to observed experience... Sight became supreme and all other sense became subservient to it' (Carpenter 1976, p. 42). The pre-eminence of sight has also been closely associated with the rise of science (Classen 1993 p. 6).
Graphocentrism often involves an uncritical equation of writing with progress, growth and development. 'Pre-literate' societies may be seen as a lower stage of development than our own. Non-literate societies and individuals may be defined negatively by their 'lack' of writing. To privilege literacy involves branding half of humankind as 'inferior'. Walter Ong declares that 'Those who think of the text as the paradigm of all discourse need to face the fact that only the tiniest fraction of languages have ever been written or ever will be. Most have disappeared or are fast disappearing, untouched by textuality. Hard-core textualism is snobbery, often hardly disguised' (Ong 1986, p. 26). Roy Harris notes that 'of the thousands of languages spoken at different periods in different parts of the globe, fewer than one in ten have ever developed an indigenous written form. Of these, the number to have produced a significant body of literature barely exceeds one hundred' (Harris 1986, p. 15).
Western educational systems have rightly been accused by Roy Harris of a 'scriptist bias' (cited in Finnegan 1988, p. 179). Our educational institutions are obsessed with the primacy of the written word. Graphocentrism is hard to escape, since we have been shaped by writing. Ong argues that 'The fact that we do not commonly feel the influence of writing on our thoughts shows that we have interiorized the technology of writing so deeply that without tremendous effort we cannot separate it from ourselves or even recognize its presence and influence' (Ong 1986, p. 24).
Given the biases which we so often encounter or unconsciously adopt, it as perhaps useful to remind ourselves that writing is no ‘better’ than speech, nor vice versa - speech and writing need to be acknowledged as different media with differing functions.