Notes on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy #1

This post is the first in a series of notes on Walter Ong‘s book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. The book, so far, is a corker, and looks to have significant implications for any discussion of “markets as conversations” and the like.

Chapter 1: The Orality of Language

  1. The Oral Character of Language
    • We’ve only recently woken up to the oral character of language and the differences between oral/written modes of thought and expression
    • Linguistics has been sounding a faint alarm. Ferdinand de Saussure commented that: writing has “usefulness, shortcomings and dangers”, but he saw writing as a complement to verbal speech, not a transformer of it.
    • More recently applied and socio-linguistics looking at changes in mental structures incident to writing
    • The BIG awakening, though, came from Literary Studies and Milman Parry‘s work on Homer and the more recent Slavic oral epic tradition
  2. Why was any awakening needed?
    • It seems obvious that orality and literacy are different.
    • e.g. roughly 3000 languages spoken today of which only 78 have a literature
    • e.g. writing extends word resources: English has more than 1.5million words (see OED), and most oral dialects have only several thousand words
    • in short, writing implies some orality in a culture, orality does not imply writing.
    • But: the reason our studies have focused on written texts rather than oral “texts” has to do with the relationship of study itself to writing.
    • “All thought, including that in primary oral cultures, is to some degree analytic: it breaks its materials into various components.. But abstractly sequential, classificatory, explanatory examination of stated truths is impossible without writing and reading. Human beings in primary oral cultures, those untouched by writing in any form, learn a great deal and possess and practise great wisdom, but they do not ‘study’.*” (p.8/9)
      * Study meaning extended sequential analysis.

    • Once writing makes study possible, one of the first things we tend to study is ‘oral’ language. e.g. Aristotle’s Rhetoric
    • BUT (and here’s the catch) the oral language we study tends to be written down. And that blurs the divide and so means we needed to be reawakened to it – e.g. understand that we can’t read a speech.
  3. Oral Literature
    • The assumption that oral verbalization essentially the same as written verbalization has odd consequences for thinkers
    • The notion of “Oral Literature” is perhaps the oddest.
    • because Literature wrapped up with writing (the Latin for letter of the alphabet is litera)
    • and because
      “Written words are residue. Oral tradition has no such residue or deposit. When an often-told story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it. We (those who read texts such as this) are for the most part so resolutely literate that we feel uncomfortable with a situation in which verbalisation is so little thing-like as it is in oral tradition.”

    • If you don’t think you’re resolutely literate try thinking of a word for sixty seconds without spelling it out or visualising it in your head.
    • Oral “texts” makes more sense than oral literature, in that a) Homer et al were often referred to as rhapsodein (stitching songs together), and b) text stems from the word texere meaning “to weave together”. However, texts are predominantly thought of as written. Ong suggests oral “epos” or “voicings” as alternatives
  4. And the point of this book?
    • To use literacy to reconstruct primary orality, untouched by writing, and so to get a better understanding of how our literacy affects our approach to current and new modes of communication.