Ong (2002). The modern discovery of primary oral cultures. (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word.)

Ong, W. J. (2002). The modern discovery of primary oral cultures. In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (pp. 17–30). Routledge.

[“Early Awareness Of Oral Tradition” (p 17) …]

“By the start of the twentieth century, the Scottish scholar Andrew Lang (1844- 1912) and others had pretty well discredited the view that oral folklore was simply the left-over debris of a ‘higher’ literary [page break] mythology — a view generated quite naturally by the chirographic and typographic bias …” (p 17-18)

[“The Homeric Question” (p 18) …]

“Wood believed that Homer was not literate and that it was the power of memory that enabled him to produce this poetry. Wood strikingly [page break] suggests that memory played a quite different role in oral culture from that which it played in literate culture.” (p 19-20)

[“Milman Parry’s Discovery” (p 20) …]

“As matured and demonstrated in his Paris doctoral dissertation (Milman Parry 1928), Parry’s discovery might be put this way: virtually every distinctive feature of Homeric poetry is due to the economy enforced on it by oral methods of composition. These can be reconstructed by careful study of the verse itself, once one puts aside the assumptions about expression and thought processes engrained in the psyche by generations of literate culture.” (p 21)

“The oral poet had an abundant repertoire of epithets diversified enough to provide an epithet for any metrical exigency that might arise as he stitched his story together — differently at each telling, for, as will be seen, oral poets do not normally work from verbatim memorization of their verse.” (p 22)

“In any case, in the _Iliad_ and the _Odyssey_ Homer was normally taken to be fully accomplished, consummately skilled. Yet it now began to appear that he had had some kind of phrase book in his head. Careful study of the sort Milman Parry was doing showed that he repeated formula after formula. The meaning of the Greek term ‘rhapsodize’, _rhapsōidein_, ‘to stitch song together’ (_rhaptein_, to stitch; _ōide_, song), became ominous: Homer stitched together prefabricated parts. Instead of a creator, you had an assembly-line worker.” (p 23)

“Moreover, the standardized formulas were grouped around equally standardized themes, …. A repertoire of similar themes is found in oral narrative and other oral discourse around the world. (Written narrative and other written discourses use themes, too, of necessity, but the themes are infinitely more varied and less obtrusive.)” (p 23)

“There was no use denying the now known fact that the Homeric poems valued and somehow made capital of what later readers had been trained in principle to disvalue, namely, the set phrase, the formula, the expected qualifier — to put it more bluntly, the cliché.” (p 24)

“Homeric Greeks valued clichés because not only the poets but the entire oral noetic world or thought world relied upon the formulaic constitution of thought. In an oral culture, knowledge, once acquired, had to be constantly repeated or it would be lost: fixed, formulaic thought patterns were essential for wisdom and effective administration. … The new way to store knowledge was not in mnemonic formulas but in the written text. This freed the mind for more original, more abstract thought.” (p 24)

“Plato expresses serious reservations in the _Phaedrus_ and his _Seventh Letter_ about writing, as a mechanical, inhuman way of processing knowledge, unresponsive to questions and destructive of memory, although, as we now know, the philosophical thinking Plato fought for depended entirely on writing. … The importance of ancient Greek civilization to all the world was beginning to show in an entirely new light: it marked the point in human history when deeply interiorized alphabetic literacy first clashed head-on with orality.” (p 25)

“Foley (1980a) has shown that exactly what an oral formula is and how it works depends on the tradition in which it is used, but that there is ample common ground in all traditions to make the concept valid. Unless it is clearly indicated otherwise, I shall understand formula and formulary and formulaic here as referring quite generically to more or less exactly repeated set phrases or set expressions (such as proverbs) in verse or prose, which, as will be seen, do have a function in oral culture more crucial and pervasive than any they may have in a writing or print or electronic culture.” (p 26)

“… formulaic style marks not poetry alone but, more or less, all thought and expression in primary oral culture.” (p 26)

“Many modern cultures that have known writing for centuries but have never fully interiorized it, such as Arabic culture and certain other Mediterranean cultures (e.g. Greek — Tannen 1980a), rely heavily on formulaic thought and expression still.” (p 27)

[“Consequent And Related Work” (p 27) …]

“Plato’s exclusion of poets from his Republic was in fact Plato’s rejection of the pristine aggregative, paratactic, oral-style thinking perpetuated in Homer in favor of the keen analysis or dissection of the world and of thought itself made possible by the interiorization of the alphabet in the Greek psyche.” (p 28)

“Jack Goody (1977) has convincingly shown how shifts hitherto labeled as shifts from magic to science, or from the so-called ‘prelogical’ to the more and more ‘rational’ state of consciousness, or from Lévi-Strauss’s ‘savage’ mind to domesticated thought, can be more economically and cogently explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy. … The late Marshall McLuhan’s well-known work (1962, 1964) has also made much of ear-eye, oral-textual contrasts, calling attention to James Joyce’s precociously acute awareness of ear-eye polarities …. McLuhan attracted the attention not only of scholars (Eisenstein 1979, pp. x–xi, xvii) but also of people working in the mass media, of business leaders, and of the generally informed public, largely because of fascination with his many gnomic or oracular pronouncements, too glib for some readers but often deeply perceptive. … His cardinal gnomic saying, ‘The medium is the message’, registered his acute awareness of the importance of the shift from orality through literacy and print to electronic media.” (p 29)

Selected References

  • Eisenstein, Elizabeth (1979) The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early-Modern Europe , 2 vols (New York: Cambridge University Press).
  • Foley, John Miles (1980a) ‘Beowulf and traditional narrative song: the potential and limits of comparison’, in John D.Niles (ed.), Old English Literature in Context: Ten Essays (London, England, and Totowa, NJ: Boydell, Rowman & Littlefield).
  • Goody, Jack (1977) The Domestication of the Savage Mind (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press).
  • McLuhan, Marshall (1962) The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).
  • McLuhan, Marshall (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill).
  • Parry, Milman (1928) L’Epithète traditionelle dans Homère (Paris: Société Éditrice Les Belles Lettres). In English translation, pp. 1–190 inMilman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse, ed. Adam Parry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).
  • Plato. References to Plato are given by citing the usual Stephanus numbers, by which the references can be traced in any scholarly edition and in most popular editions.
  • Plato (1973) Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII, trans. with introductions by Walter Hamilton (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books).
  • Tannen, Deborah (1980a) ‘A comparative analysis of oral narrative strategies: Athenian Greek and American English’, in Wallace L.Chafe (ed.), The Pear Stories: Cultural, Cognitive, and Linguistic Aspects of Narrative Production (Norwood, NJ: Ablex).
  • Wood, Robert (c. 1717–71), English diplomat [unknown source].
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