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Orality and Literacy

Page history last edited by Jeff Martinek 15 years, 7 months ago

Orality and Literacy



Orality is the defining of thought and the verbal expression in societies where literacy and the technology of written word and print has not yet impacted the culture. Literacy can be defined as knowledge through the written and printed word. Those who are literate can read and write language. Walter Ong was a key scholar in defining how differently oral and literate cultures functioned.


How Literacy Impacted Society

Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan were among some of the first to distinguish the word as a new technology. Before the invention of the written word, which spawned into pictographs, the alphabet, and eventually print, people communicated through the transfer of verbal communication. Walter Ong described oral culture as one in which people relied extensively on their elders for information of the history and values of their culture. Oral cultures were closely knit and depended on the memorization of important facts to carry on information from generation to generation. With the rise of the written word, or literacy as a technology, people have stepped into the age of individuality. We define ourselves based on what we read.


Primary Orality

This was a term developed by Walter Ong in describing pre-literate societies. Peoples in primary oral cultures view language as “a mode of action and not simply a countersign of thought…” [1] Oral peoples put great emphasis on the power of words and naming. As Ong states, “…Oral peoples commonly and in all likelihood universally consider words to have magical potency… at least unconsciously, with their sense of the word as necessarily spoken, sounded, and power driven.” [1] This explains that oral peoples put great emphasis on what was spoken and what was remembered. But how did oral people remember everything? Ong sums this question up in two sentences, “Think memorable thoughts. In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for read oral recurrence.” This thought leads into the idea that oral people memorized things with certain rhymes and meters which made them easier to recall. These same little sayings are apparent in today’s culture, and each helps us remember a lesson with it. “The early bird gets the worm.” “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” “Early to bed early to rise.” These are all examples of how thought patterns would have worked within primary orality. However, with the rise of literacy, the thought process began to change.


The Rise of Literacy


With the invention of pictography and the alphabet, it opened the door for a different type of thought process. People now had the freedom to think more abstractly because they didn’t have to be concerned with remembering everything. With there being no need to remember what was said, new ideas were developed and the technology of the written word flourished. Literacy gave the opportunity for the first time for language to be translated. Because of the use of symbols in the alphabet, people could write down the sounds of each language and then using the symbols, begin to learn the other language. Plus, the rise of literacy, especially after the invention of the printing press, enabled the common man to know what his government was engaging in. In a way, literacy empowered man to the extent that he was more aware and placed on an equal plane with those who knew how to read, especially after Martin Luther printed the Bible in the common vernacular. Now, not only could one hear God speak, but he could hear Him speak in his own language, not just Latin.


Evolutution of Secondary Orality


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Walter Ong stated that with today's media, we have developed another form of orality which he referred to as Secondary Orality. Many theorists believe that this secondary orality has caused society to become more isolated in becoming increasingly engaged with interactive technology. [1] For example, the internet and instant messaging encourages conversation between people, a root basis of orality. However, it is a false orality in that people aren't actually interacting. They are using a print medium to communicate directly. Andrew Sullivan, in his essay, "We Have Retreated into an I-World" referred to how people isolate themselves by communicating with cell phones. He believes that through this isolation, people begin to miss subtle social cues, cues that are the foundations of an oral society. [2] This is the false sense of orality that Ong spoke about. People seem to be communicating orally rather than merely being comsumed in literature, however, in their communication through media, they are further isolating themselves from their society and becoming increasingly less part of a community.


Application to Media Ecology

In thinking about the differences between orality and literacy, it’s easy to find the best parts in each. Ong noted that literacy gave a new form of thought to speech because not only did people think differently, but they began to think like they wrote. Just as Ong said that a new technology doesn’t necessarily make the old obsolete, it just changes the old technology. Once literacy became widespread, how people communicated verbally changed forever. Now, in order to sound intelligent, one must reiterate the common philosophy and psychology that was being recorded. One can also argue that because of the mass production of print since Gutenberg invented the printing press, people take for granted the idea of accessibility of knowledge. Instead of actually absorbing the information, people know that they can access it any time they have need.




[1] Communication in History, Technology, Culture, Society Fifth Edition.David Crowley, Paul Heyer. Pearson Education, Inc. 2007

Comments (2)

Jeff Martinek said

at 10:39 am on Sep 12, 2008

McLuhan makes interesting claims about orality and literacy. We began as an oral culture, creating community. When we moved to a literate culture, we abandoned community and moved to individualization. Oral culture emphasizes a fairly even uses of the senses, while literate culture emphasizes visual domination and with the disproportional development of senses comes many of the problems of the world. Modern media are an attempt to return to an oral culture. If you are interested, I'll share some research with you, if not, it may be worth linking to the MarshallMcLuhan page.
-- ZachReiter (2008-04-13 22:43:15)

Jeff Martinek said

at 10:39 am on Sep 12, 2008

The idea that words have a sort of magical power has been reclaimed by some contemporary writers who balance between tribal cultures (with their strong and persistent oral traditions) and Western culture 'of the book.' N. Scott Momaday is perhaps the best-known of these writers (his tribal background is Kiowa). I think I recall that in our library media collection there is an audiotape of Momaday speaking about this matter; it would be worth hearing. His voice is so resonant that its sheer aural force can convince a skeptic of the power of language!

Jean Thomson
-- PR21-01 (2008-04-23 10:45:31)

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