Orality and Literacy Chapters 1-4

Orality and Literacy is a 1988 book by Walter J. Ong. It is a discussion of the differences in thought patterns in “primary oral” cultures (those cultures without writing, or which have not yet internalized writing) and literate cultures. The first four chapters introduce the basic subject of study and focus on two things: 1) The ways that lack of literacy impact human thought processes, and 2) The way that the development of writing technology change the human thought processes.

Ong supports neither orality or literacy as superior to the other, but he does note that many valuable developments in human society are simply not possible without the development of literacy. The core issues at work behind the shifts in thinking from orality to literacy (and vice versa) are memory and abstraction.

Early in the book Ong makes quite a big deal about the orality of non-literate language itself being important and necessary to the issues he is discussing. I feel that this is a mistake, though it actually has little bearing on the rest of his thinking. Ong seems to feel that the absolute impermanence and invisibility of spoken speech is a big part of what influences its development. He may well be right, but I do think it is unnecessary to put so much weight on the spoken word when it might have been the case that we all ended up communicating with sign language, or via smell. The dominance of spoken language is not really a historical accident, but is certainly attributable to the specific situations of early humanity: the need for long distance, large audience communication. Sound is just better at that than most media.

As I mentioned, this erroneous focus on aural transmission does nothing to dull Ong’s real point which is that oral conversation is impermanent. Oral records exist literally only in memory. It is impossible to go back and examine a conversation even as it is in progress. (This contrasts fascinatingly with things like email or IM conversations where the entire record of discussion is available verbatim at all times.)

According to Ong, and I certainly think he is correct, the need to remember everything forces an entire set of thought organization and speech patterns on primary oral cultures. Everything worth knowing must be easy to remember because otherwise not enough people will remember it for it to continue being useful to society. This means that things worth knowing must be set into formulaic phrases in order to allow them to better fix themselves in memory. What’s more, these phrases must be repeated constantly in order to reinforce that memory. Primary oral speech patterns are thus full of formulaic phrasings which are oft-repeated.

In addition to forcing this sort of highly mnemonic structure on language, primary oral situations also generate a sort of low-abstraction thought pattern. Since oral language is impermanent it is used only in immediate situations. When I talk about something (Ong uses the example of a tree) in an oral situation I mean a specific tree. Or, perhaps, I mean a tree in a specific location (as in “we should plant a tree here”). Even when recounting events that have occurred in the past I convey the situation in which they occurred: “We were out in the backyard and I was saying we should plant a tree there”. With such a direct level of connection between spoken utterance and direct experience high level abstraction doesn’t occur.

Ong’s book comes at a fascinating time historically. He makes clear distinctions between chirographic (cultures with hand-writing) and typographic (cultures with printing presses) cultures. Though literacy obtains in each, the impact of literacy on thought changes as writing technology does. Writing in the mid and late 80s, Ong missed the explosion of the next big writing technology: the internet.

The reason the internet pertains here is that, while Ong doesn’t seem to make a big deal of this, perhaps because he does not fully recognize it, the entire orality/literacy duality turns on one class of technology: memory aids. Writing is the first, easiest, and perhaps most flexible memory aid ever produced. Chirographic cultures are able to use it primarily for aiding personal memory: writing thoughts as they occur. But production is too slow and expensive to generally externalize one person’s or group’s memory to the culture at large. The printing press adds to the advantages of chirography the ability to mass-produce certain works and thus make them generally available. This allows certain thoughts to become generally stored in the cultural external memory.

The internet, and computer technology in general, allows for even more off-loading to external memory. And, perhaps more importantly, allows one to carry and/or access an entire library near-instantaneously. In a purely typographic culture one might know that one has access to an idea or thought, but must find the book which contains it and then find that thought. We are rapidly moving to a point where anyone can instantly search their library (or Wikipedia for that matter) for just the thought they are looking for. This large-scale near-instant access of printed material is beginning to produce yet another shift in thought processes.

The key observation Ong has is that as memory becomes less and less important humans are able to devote less and less of their linguistic and mental structures to it. This allows language and thought to shift in other directions, focusing on solving other problems. It’s a shift that I suspect we’re about to undergo again.



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