On the Power, Powerlessness and Omnipotence of Language : From Oral Culture through Written Culture to Media Domination

Chetana Nagavajara


The inestimable treasures of Thailand's oral culture inevitably awaken a longing for "lost orality" (with obvious echoes of the "lost paradise" ). But the awareness of the contrast and the mutual enrichment between the oral and the written traditions can give valuable insights into linguistic phenomena. Thailand provides an interesting case study, as its traditional written culture was a privilege enjoyed by a restricted, educated circle, and book culture, propped up by the art of printing, was not introduced until the 19th century. Without a firm footing in the written culture, it is not surprising that modern Thai society has been swamped by the new media.

The globalized and commercialized contemporary society revels in the magic of IT, whereby a new cellphone-based loquacity paradoxically heralds the impoverishment of the language, a symptom of a general spiritual and intellectual degeneration. A fragile written culture can hardly defend itself against the omnipotence of the media. Only a profound understanding of the time-honoured oral tradition, which fully recognised the power of language as an aesthetic experience, can show us a way out of this dilemma.

By a stroke of luck, the mass protests against the corrupt government in early 2006 have reawakened the potential of language as a pillar of justice, freedom and morality. Oral and written traditions, manifested through speeches, pamphlets, poetry, songs and live performances, have conspired to function as an instrument of truth, a vindication of the real power of language.

When the people wake up, language too regains its strength.

Key Words: language and power; oral culture; written culture; media; morality

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