The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Spelling with Flickr

I love fonts so in the spirit of our RipMixFeed activity, I found this tool for spelling out words using Flickr images. You can change up the images on-the-fly until you get a ‘word image’ that you like. Here is a sample of what I came up with:

typewriter key letter D I wood type letter G letter i T44 A l31

L orange letter I letter T letter E R A C Y

Create your own Flickr words at:

November 14, 2009   3 Comments

Knowledge-Power Literacy-Orality

The Secret and Magic Power: Orality and Literacy

Power-Knowledge Literacy-Orality

Noah Burdett

U.B.C. Master of Educational Technology Candidate

Knowledge is a difficult concept to define.  One point that has been made clear by Michel Foucault and others is knowledge is fundamentally connected to power.  Many have heard the cliché that  “knowledge is power.”  If power relations are viewed in terms of access to knowledge than how is access changed in oral and literate cultures?  The questions itself is of a great divide nature and will help to demonstrate the fallibility of setting oral and literate cultures as binaries.

By comparing characteristics of literate and oral societies one is able to demonstrate that the control of information in any form of society is an important factor in the creation of inequality, regardless of how that information is transferred.

Culture and Language

Culture will be examined in a broad context and will provide a platform for comparison, but it should be understood that “culture” is not meant to illustrate that difference do not exist, not all oral or literate cultures share the exact same attributes.  However, members of a specific community do share culture. To suggest that culture is shared also suggests that it is learned from others and that it is transmitted. If culture is shared than it is also not a private entity thus one cannot have a private culture and must be a participant.

The method of transmission is the medium of language.  Language is thus the key to membership within a culture and to learn a language is to become a cultural member; to become a cultural member is to learn a language (Parkingson and Drislane 1996).  As language is key factor in the creation of culture, does ones participation in relation to other depend on how that language is transmitted either orally or through a written system?

Oral Cultures

In a primary oral culture knowledge is embed within the knower.  To find knowledge one has to seek out a member of the culture that knows.  Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy attributes the need to be intimately connected to the knower because of the property of sound, “sound exists only when it is going out of existence,” (Ong 2008, p. 70). The time space relationship of sound prior to recording technologies creates a circumstance where members of a primary oral culture relate “intimately to the unifying, centralizing, interiorizing economy of sound as perceived by human beings” (Ong 2008, p.73).

When knowledge is embedded in the knower and the knower possess the power to chose and distribute the knowledge as he/she sees fit, a power structure is created. Thus in an oral society knowledge is power as it is embedded.  A member of an oral culture is positioned within their culture is determined by your situation within the collective and how others view your knowledge base.  The act of embedding knowledge within individuals creates a power structure of the knower and the seeker.  The structure is evident in Plato’s Phaedrus[i] where Socrates acts as the knower and Phaedrus as the seeker, the irony being that this is a written work. It can be said that knowledge as power works within oral societies to create inequality.

Literate Cultures

Written forms of language change the embodiment of knowledge, but not the power structure.  Writing provides a way to detach the knowledge from its author and audience, giving knowledge a form permanence, rigor, and objectivity. As Ong describes, with the written word “each reader enters into his or her own private reading world,” (Ong 1982, p. 73).  The act of separation would seem to create a power dynamic between those that can access the information in a written form and those that cannot.  Examining the history of education using Learned Latin and other chirographically controlled languages demonstrates how power and knowledge are still controlled within written systems even though the knowledge can be separated from the knower.

Learned Latin became the written language of scholastics for some 1400 years. Ong describes learned Latin as “a language written spoken only by males, learned outside the home in a tribal setting, (Ong 1982, p. 111).  Learned Latin became a chirographical language spoken and written by its users and separate from their mother tongue.  Learned Latin served as a way to isolate a community of male literate that wanted to share a common intellectual heritage. Creating a group that was in control of it of a form of language transmission further enhanced the isolating aspect of the written word and creates a scenario where knowledge and power create inequality.

Knowledge as power will be controlled and transferred within a culture regardless of how individuals are connected with that knowledge either through orality or literacy or both.  The similarity of the power-knowledge relationship exemplifies that within oral and literate society “differences of behaviour and modes of expression clearly exist, but psychological differences are often exaggerated,” (Chandler 1994).  The human ability to isolated and alienated is not text or orally based.  Demonstrating the connection between power-knowledge relationship in both oral and literate cultures also demonstrates that the binary opposition of the two misses the human component of both.

If the move from orality to literacy continued existing forms of power than using technology of writing as causal mover of change may also be overstated.   For example, Ong attributes the isolating aspect of Learned Latin with making possible “the exquisitely abstract world of medieval scholasticism and of the new mathematical modern science which followed on the scholastic experience, (Ong 1982, 112).  Attributing these scientific and mathematic developments to the language in which they are expressed does not determine that it was because of the language that they were made possible.  Ong’s claim reduces a complex time and process to single phenomenon and does not incorporate a perspective that views the larger cultural and social context.  The above has shown that literacy and orality are components of the human experience but should never be seen as single driving forces for our behaviours.


Excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus (Retriever, 29 September 2009 from:

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved, 29 September, 2009 from:

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Parkinson, G. & Drislane, R. (1996). Exploring Society: Pathways in sociology. Toronto: Harcourt Canada.

October 4, 2009   1 Comment

Refuting the theory of the Great Divide

The theory of the Great Divide advanced by many cultural evolutionists would have us view world history as being the evolution of a primitive society to one where literacy is its hallmark.  Primitive societies, with their rich oral traditions, their prodigious memorization skills, their ability to keep large audiences rapt during discourses and storytelling are contrasted with literate societies whose characteristics include the ability to free up the mind spaces for exploratory thinking, the necessity of record-keeping to preserve details of times gone by and the ‘decontextualizing’ ( Peter Denny, 1991) of words to the extent that reference books are required to interpret the author’s meaning.

Oral societies are deemed to be pre-literate, lacking the ability for logical or rational thinking, humanized and immediate. (Ong, chapter 3)  In contrast, literates are isolated, often abstract, can manipulate data beyond the boundaries of context and are finally freed of the need to store historical or practical knowledge.  In so many of the descriptions, oral societies are thought to be less capable, perhaps even less able than literate societies who are seen to be generally superior.

Ong advances that both societies are not only different in their presentation of world knowledge but that the thinking process is actually altered as one moves away from Orality. “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form.” (Ong, p. 78)

This polarized view of  cultural evolution is flawed for many reasons. Chandler remarks that a more moderate view of the world is more accurate. (Chandler, p. 5) There is no evidence to suggest that primitives are less capable of logical or rational thought.  “Those in non-literate societies do not necessarily think in fundamentally different ways from those in literate societies… Although one commentator, Peter Denny, argues that ‘decontextualization’ seems to be a distinctive feature of thinking in Western literate societies, he nevertheless insists that all human beings are capable of rationality, logic, generalization, abstraction, theorizing, intentionality, causal thinking, classification, explanation and originality (Olson & Torrence 1991, p.81) All of these qualities can be found in oral as well as literate cultures.” (Chandler, p. 4)

A more precise view would be to admit that most societies are operating in a mixed mode.  Michael Clanchy uses the term “the growth of a literate mentality.  “He…argues that the shift [from memory to written record] was facilitated by the continuing ‘mix’ of oral and literate modes and that written forms were adapted to oral practice rather than radically changing it.” (Clanchy, 1979)

“The reality of social uses of varying modes of communication is that oral and literate modes are ‘mixed’ in each society. There is nothing absolute about a shift to a greater use of literate modes, which is better described as a change in the ‘mix’.  Oral conventions often continue to apply to literate forms and literate conventions may be applied to oral forms.” (Olson & Hildyard 1978 cited in Street 1984, p. 19)

Furthermore, it is difficult to reconcile Ong’s view of primitive societies when approached from a practical sense.  All societies, no matter how self-sufficient, must have the ability to register trade, administrative functions and perhaps legal data.  This quantitative data requires some recording process that is more permanent than an accounting of family histories or heroic exploits; a method that is not be dictated by the need to please the audience. (Ong p. 67)  It requires a practice that has more permanence than the spoken word, than sound itself. (Ong, p. 32)

Brian Street writes that even in oral societies, there is a component of literacy that is present.  He describes two kinds of literacies.  The use of record keeping for  commercial events, such as transactions, and all sort of bureaucratic events is called ‘Commercial literacy’. (Street, p. 157)  The ‘maktab’ literacy, the one taught in schools, is more representative of the arts, humanities and literature we would expect.  The first literacy is meant to support the social structure, the other as a way of distinguishing social classes. (Street p. 13)

So why then does the use of text seem the indicator of a higher civilization?  First, let us define text.  “Texts are material artifacts that take many different forms: cave paintings, tattoos, stone tablets, clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, manuscript books, musical scores, maps, printed books, engravings, newspapers, photographs, films, DVDs, computers. Every kind of text is produced by a special technology, but all those technologies share a simple purpose: they were designed to supplement the fragile human mind by providing a more durable artificial memory system. Those technologically preserved and transmitted memories are the foundation of all human culture.” (Pathways)

Ong uses Homer’s writings as evidence of a clear distinction between oral and literate thinking.  And indeed, Greek civilization is thought to have been one of the most advanced of its time.  But it is not the ability to suddenly free up their cluttered memory and launch into unprecedented creative and rhetorical thought that makes their society so exceptional.  Nor does it make them the prime example of shifting from oral to literate thinking.  The basis of their sudden evolution from Orality to Literacy lies in their reinterpretation of the Phoenician writing.

“The changes introduced into the Phoenician script by the ancient Greeks should not be regarded as ‘improvements’, but as a revolution that forever altered the Greek society and the human history by creating a new state of mind, the ‘alphabetic mind’.” (Havelock, 1982a, p.7 cited in  Jahandaríe, p. 12)

The Greeks created  syllabries, comprised of the actual sounds of human speech. (Jahandaríe, p. 12) “The new script also democratized literacy.” (Jahandaríe, p. 12) The simplicity and ease of use of this new alphabet meant that priests and scribes were no longer the only ones able to utilize this technology. And thus, Greek and Roman civilizations became the first on earth “to be equipped with the means of adequate expression in the inscribed word; the first to be able to place the inscribed word in general circulation; the first, in short, to become literate in the full meaning of that term, and to transmit its literacy to us.” (Havelock, 1976, p. 2)

This does not mean that the characteristics of their mind were altered but that they finally had a method to record, in a permanent and accurate fashion, the intricacies of human thought and the nuances that make up all cultures.  And so, the newly literate were to become a society of  “Conservators of knowledge”. (Jahandaríe, p. 13) Their alphabet, which allowed a faithful reproduction of the range of sounds and “the preservation of the subtlest of linguistic nuances” (Jahandaríe, p.14) provided the means of converting heretofore oral poetry into historical records.  It is interesting to note that other societies may have had as sophisticated and advanced a culture as the Greeks and Romans, but their permanent records, by virtue of the shortcomings of their own alphabets, lacked the sufficient details to document its glory.

As an illustration, Havelock argues that “the Old Testament, the Vedas, the Koran, and the Epic of Gilgamesh are less sophisticated in both language and content than the Homeric texts not because they are the products of simpler minds, but because they were inscribed in scripts that…[could not convey] the full richness of the original oral tradition.” (Jahandaríe, p. 15)

Ong’s illustration of the Oral mind as contrasted to the Literate mind is enlightening as an illustration of how cultural evolution is affected by technology.  And indeed, the invention of the Greek alphabet may have been one of man’s most significant innovations.  But it seems unlikely that any civilization could be so primitive as to not require some form of recording device beyond oral tradition.    I cannot conceive of a time when there is a clear line between Orality and Literacy.


Chandler, Daniel (1994): ‘Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism’ [WWW document] URL [28 Sep. 2009]

Goody, Jack (Ed.) (1968): Literacy in Traditional Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jahandaríe, Khosrow. “Spoken and written discourse: a Multi-Disciplinary Perspective – Google Books.” Google Books. 3 Oct. 2009 <>.

Olson, David R & Nancy Torrance (Eds.) (1991): Literacy and Orality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Ong, Walter (1982): Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen

“Pathways of Excellence.” Pathways of Excellence. 1 Oct. 2009 <>.

Street, Brian. Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1984.

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

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.

October 3, 2009   1 Comment

Australia Indigenous dancers

Aboriginal dancers, originally uploaded by NeilsPhotography.

Hello everyone, my name is Ashley Jones.

I picked this picture of Aboriginal dancers for a couple of reasons. I am currently residing in Australia and the beliefs and traditions of the Indigenous People facinate me. Oral communication is greatly valued within Aboriginal communities and serves as a method of passing down specific cultural practices, values, beliefs, languages, laws, histories and family connections. These can be communicated through storytelling, song, dance and art. It is believed that there were over 700 distinct language groups in Australia prior to the European Invasion.

As for myself, I completed a Biology degree and then went on to complete a year-long internship to obtain my teachers certificate. Soon after I took off to teach for a year in a small town in Costa Rica where I developed a passion for surfing and cooking with hot chilli peppers!

Upon returning to Canada, I taught at a Secondary Distributive Learning School in Victoria, BC for three years. The courses I taught and developed were all online for the students to access, while I was avaliable at the school for drop-in help, tutorials and to supervise test writing.

This year, my husband took a year-long job in Australia so I am fortunate to be able to complete my Masters while in beautiful Perth!

I look forward to getting to know you all as we go through this course!

September 8, 2009   No Comments