Ong (2002). The orality of language. (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.)

Ong, W. J. (2002). The orality of language. In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (pp. 5–15). Routledge.

[“The Literate Mind And The Oral Past” (p 5) …]

“Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), the father of modern linguistics, … Writing, he noted, has simultaneously ‘usefulness, shortcomings and dangers’ (1959, pp. 23–4). Still he thought of writing as a kind of complement to oral speech, not as a transformer of verbalization (Saussure 1959, pp. 23–4).” (p 5)

“… for all their attention to the sounds of speech, modern schools of linguistics until very recently have attended only incidentally, if at all, to ways in which primary orality, the orality of cultures untouched by literacy, contrasts with literacy (Sampson 1980).” (p 5)

“… Jack Goody … _Literacy in Traditional Societies_ (1968), still provide invaluable descriptions and analyses of changes in mental and social structures incident to the use of writing.” (p 6)

“Not only communication, but thought itself relates in an altogether special way to sound.” (p 6)

“Writing, commitment of the word to space, enlarges the potentiality of language almost beyond measure, restructures thought, and in the process converts a certain few dialects into ‘grapholects’ (Haugen 1966; Hirsh 1977, pp. 43–8). A grapholect is a transdialectal language formed by deep commitment to writing. Writing gives a grapholect a power far exceeding that of any purely oral dialect. … A simply oral [page break] dialect will commonly have resources of only a few thousand words, and its users will have virtually no knowledge of the real semantic history of any of these words.” (p 7-8)

“‘Reading’ a text means converting it to sound, aloud or in the imagination, syllable-by- syllable …. we can style writing a ‘secondary modeling system’, dependent on a prior primary system, spoken language.” (p 8)

“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 phenomena or of stated truths is impossible without writing and reading.” (p 8)

[Greek etymology: technē rhētorikē (p 9)]

“But the speeches — or any other oral performances — that were studied as part of rhetoric could hardly be speeches as these were being orally delivered. After the speech was delivered, nothing of it remained to work over.” (p 9)

[“Did You Say ‘Oral Literature’?” (p 10) …]

“We have the term ‘literature’, which essentially means ‘writings’ (Latin _literatura_, from _litera_, letter of the alphabet), to cover a given body of written materials … but no comparably satisfactory term or concept to refer to a purely oral heritage …” (p 10)

“Today primary oral culture in the strict sense hardly exists, since every culture knows of writing and has some experience of its effects. Still, to varying degrees many cultures and subcultures, even in a high-technology ambiance, preserve much of the mindset of primary orality.” (p 11)

“Written words are residue. … scholarship in the past has generated such monstrous concepts as ‘oral literature’. … inability to represent to our own minds a heritage of verbally organized materials except as some variant of writing …” (p 11)

“One might argue (as does Finnegan 1977, p. 16) that the term ‘literature’, though devised primarily for works in writing, has simply been extended to include related phenomena such as traditional oral narrative in cultures untouched by writing. Many originally specific terms have been so generalized in this way. But concepts have a way of carrying their etymologies with them forever. The elements out of which a term is originally built usually, and probably always, linger somehow in subsequent meanings, perhaps obscurely but often powerfully and even irreducibly. Writing, moreover, as will be seen later in detail, is a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity that tends to assimilate other things to itself even without the aid of etymologies.” (p 11)

“‘Preliterate’ presents orality — the ‘primary [page break] modeling system’ — as an anachronistic deviant from the ‘secondary modeling system’ that followed it.” (p 12-13)

“‘Text’, from a root meaning ‘to weave’ … Oral discourse has commonly been thought of even in oral milieus as weaving or stitching — _rhapsōidein_, to ‘rhapsodize’, basically means in Greek ‘to stitch songs together’. … In the literate’s vocabulary, the ‘text’ of a narrative by a person from a primary oral culture represents a back-formation …” (p 13)

“… to dissociate words from [page break] writing is psychologically threatening, for literates’ sense of control over language is closely tied to the visual transformations of language …. … all languages have elaborate grammars and have developed their elaborations with no help from writing at all …” (p 13-14)

“Oral cultures indeed produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances of high artistic and human worth, which are no longer even possible once writing has taken possession of the psyche. Nevertheless, without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials, cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations. In this sense, orality needs to produce and is destined to produce writing. Literacy, as will be seen, is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.” (p 14)

“… we can never forget enough of our familiar present to reconstitute in our minds any past in its full integrity.” (p 14)

Selected References

  • Finnegan, Ruth (1977) Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press).
  • Goody, Jack [John Rankin] (ed.) (1968a) Literacy in Traditional Societies, introduction by Jack Goody (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press).
  • Haugen, Einar (1966) ‘Linguistics and language planning’, in William Bright (ed.), Sociolinguistics: Proceedings of the UCLA Sociolinguistics Conference 1964 (The Hague: Mouton), 50–71.
  • Hirsch, E.D., Jr (1977) The Philosophy of Composition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press).
  • Sampson, Geoffrey (1980) Schools of Linguistics (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press).
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de (1959) Course in General Linguistics, trans. by Wade Baskin, ed. by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, in collaboration with Albert Reidlinger (New York: Philosophical Library).
See this page at

Leave a Comment