The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Immortal stories: from orality to literacy

Commentary #1 – In response to: Ong-Orality and Literacy Chapter 3 “Some Psychodynamics of Orality”

Chapter 3 of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy addresses the characteristics of primary oral cultures in relation to residual oral, chirographic and typographic cultures. The crux of Ong’s argument in this chapter is that it is extremely difficult for literate people to truly understand the nature of a primary oral culture because understanding demands the complete suspension of knowledge regarding literacy. One of the most profound explorations within the chapter is the nature of traditional stories and characters and their relevance today, not only as immortal components of the storytelling culture but also as historical landmarks indicative of the orality or literacy of a time.  Many of the classic stories modern literate cultures grew up with could be seen as lasting because of their abundance in print, but in actuality it is their ability to survive the test of orality that has solidified their place in history.

Ong explains that memory and the ability to repeat information without visual aids was crucial in primary oral cultures.  Since “colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics”, the description of people and events must contain bizarre figures, formulary number groupings and/or epithets in order to be memorable (p.69).  These colorful elements that served as memory tools in oral cultures act as devices of fantasy for literate cultures; the same words play out differently as a result of levels of orality and literacy within a culture. Whereas such colorful descriptions would be part of oral rhetoric, they invoke the spirit of fantastical fiction, of fairy tales, myths and legends in modern literate cultures. Ong describes the nature of oral world as “highly polarized, agonistic… [defined by] good and evil, virtue and vice, villains and heroes” which supports the notion that these characteristics serve as mnemonic aids first and story elements only as residual effect (p.45). By invoking the likes of Mark Antony, Odysseus, Cyclops, Little Red Riding Hood and more, Ong draws upon characters that have withstood the test of time and forces the reader to examine them within the oral context.

If the opposite of agonistic name-calling in oral cultures is praise, then Mark Antony’s funerary oration confirms Ong’s assertions about the use of polarities as mnemonic devices. The lines directly following “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” are “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” (III,ii). To a listener in oral cultures, these polarities have a sort of musical quality that commits the tune to memory, while to the reader, these lines are simply Shakespeare. Within the same short passage of Shakespeare comes multiple references to “honourable Brutus” and “ambitious Caesar”.  In the true spirit of the oral world of both ancient Rome and 16th century Shakespeare, these mnemonic aids are indicative of the true content of an oration. In pointing out the origin of these subtle stylings, Ong lays the framework for a cognizant analysis of texts born from primary oral or residual oral cultures.

The importance of epithets is evident in the polarized oral world of heroes and villains. Ong refers to the presence of epithets as “formularly baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight”(Ong, 1977 as found in Ong, p.38).  Modern conventions of English are weary of the kind of repetition that would suite an oral culture. However, it is an interesting feature of oral cultures that epithets were required in order to establish the foremost characteristic of an individual in order to make them memorable. Ong asserts that “once a formulary expression has crystallized, it had best be kept intact” although today, we might refer to this as oral typecasting (p.39). It is interesting that once an epithet or memorable expression is built up in an oral culture, it is almost impossible to escape. The nature of how oral communication dispenses means that it would be impossible to track everyone down who had heard something and correct their memory. However, literacy allows for the spread of the written word and while information is not erased in literate cultures, the dissemination of current information is much easier. A newspaper could proclaim a man guilty one day and then retract the next day and while a record would exist of both occurrences, the existence of a paper trail is the authority in changing appearances and opinion. Ong suggests that oral cultures kept oral epithets and formulary expressions intact because it would be very difficult to undo them under the authority of orality.

In literate cultures, Ong muses “you do not need a hero in the old sense to mobilize knowledge in story form” which is likely why stories that originated in a primary oral or residual oral cultures have a magical and fantastical quality about them (p.68).  On the surface, texts and transcripts of facts and stories that emerged from oral cultures appear to have their own style, but Ong points out that the conventions of writing we abide by today were not in existence in oral cultures. Polarities provided structure in the oral world and Ong does an excellent job of unpacking the nature of communication in the absence of literacy.


Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 6:50 pm }

Your commentary made me wonder, if instead of information being erased, it is more likely to be lost among the myriad of digital stories now being told.

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