The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

A Different Lens to View Through

Our ability for making and receiving sounds is amazing.  Sound is a resource central to humanity.  In Walter Ong’s book,  Orality and Literacy (1982) the importance of our oral nature is seen as a foundation for language and communication. Ong (1982) states that “language is an oral phenomenon” (p. 6) and continues by saying “in a deep sense language, articulated sound, is paramount. Not only communication, but thought itself relates in an altogether special way to sound.”(Ong, 1982, p. 7)   Ong’s analysis of the sound thought connection is enlightening.  However, beneath his analysis are remnants of another perspective that also reveals an enlightened view on human orality and communication.

This subtext can be seen emerging in the second chapter of the book titled “ The Modern Discovery of Primary Oral Cultures”.  In this section, Ong explores our understanding of orality by examining the mindset of the primary oral culture of ancient Greece.   He does this by discussing Millman Parry’s ground breaking literary analysis of Homeric Poetry.   Prior to Millman, “scholars and readers generally still tended to impute to primitive poetry qualities that their own age found fundamentally congenial “(Ong, 182, p 18).  In other words, these seminal artifacts of ancient oral culture were always seen through the biased lens of literate mindsets.  As a result, Homeric poems were given misguided adulation as “the most exemplary, the truest and the most inspired secular poems in the western heritage.”(Ong, 1982,  p. 18).  Millman, as Ong explains, proved otherwise.  By excavating the use of the hexameter line, Millman revealed that that the choice of words and word forms in Homeric poetry was dependent on the use of this hexameter form.  From there he went on to reveal an underlying cultural mindset embedded within these works.

Ong (1982) explains that “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.”(p.22)

The implications of this finding, according to Ong are significant.  These treasured exemplars of the western heritage were now seen to be products of  a culture dominated by formulaic thinking and clichés.

“…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.”(Ong, 1982, p 23)

Millman’s focus on the use of the hexameter line proved to be a shrewd and insightful “Rosetta stone” into the underlying formulaic constitution of thought of oral Greek culture.  Ong goes on to extrapolate on these findings in the next chapter, outlining a series of characteristics associated with thought and expression in oral cultures calling them, for example, additive rather than subordinative and redundant or copious (Ong, 1982 p. 37-39).  The result is a plausible analysis that is complex and abstract.   Yet, throughout his analysis Ong also exposes remnants of another perspective on the nature of oral cultures.  Less abstract and more fundamental in approach, this ulterior perspective offers a model for further analysis and comes through in the ways Ong and Millman describe the Greek oral processes at work.

For example, Ong consistently uses a vocabulary of production to describe these oral processes. “How could any poetry that was so unabashedly formulary, so constituted of prefabricated parts… Homeric poems valued and somehow made capital of… the set phrase, the formula, the expected qualifier” (p. 23) and “Homer stitched together prefabricated parts.”(p.23) Ong alludes to a practice of economy taking place in Greek oral expression.  He portrays the Greeks as craftsman plying their oral trade through the skillful manipulation of their sound medium.  And he describes Homer as such, “Instead of a creator, you had an assembly-line worker.”(Ong, 1982, p. 22)  And herein, lies the more fundamental perspective beneath Ong’s analysis.  We are assembling words and in its most elemental form, a spoken word is a sound wave.  Sound waves are naturally occurring physically explainable resources in our world, like copper and water.  And when we learn, over many thousands of years, to craft these waves into useful sounds, we are simply pursuing a human need to use and exploit another resource in our world. “THE HUMAN domestication of sound in the form of speech has taken us farther than our mastery of fire or tools or any of our other conquests. (Burrows, 1990, p. 39)  Just as we’ve harnessed the qualities of water to make energy and copper to conduct electricity, so too have we effectively harnessed the qualities of sound to make language.   And so beneath Ong’s analysis there is a compelling, organic determinism that offers a lens in which to view Greek orality more directly.

Like the ancient Greeks, we are all assembly line workers harnessing an earthly resource:  the sound wave.   Ong identifies some of the qualities of the sound resource calling it evanescent and dynamic. (p. 32) But he pulls up short of hauling the sound resource fully out of the mine.  Issues around the relationship of the signal to its source, its relationship to the receiver, questions of distance and direction and temporality are left unexplored.  If he and Millman had explored the qualities of sound more deeply and examined it in the context of resource development, they would have arrived at a view of the Greek mindset more directly.   Harnessing our earthly sound resources imposed foreseeable conditions on oral Greek thinking.  For example, sound has limited storage qualities therefore oral formulas were logical ways to improve the storage capacity of their sound products.  The additive uses of “and” increased the efficiency of manufacturing sound products on the spot.  And copious, colorful details allowed Greeks to market their sound messages more effectively to distracted listeners.   Seeing through Ong’s complex analysis , this resource perspective lets us postulate about Greek orality more easily.

Perhaps less detailed and literature oriented than Ong’s analysis, this resource perspective on orality is also less abstract and offers a lens through which we can make logical postulations not only in the study of orality but  as a useful lens for exploring the development of other communication wave forms such as reflected light waves (text) and emitted light waves (digital forms).


Burrows, David. (1990). Sound, Speech and Music. University of Massachusetts
Press: Amherst, MA.

Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved 28 September, 2009 from:

Ong, W.(1982). Orality and Literacy. Routledge: London.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 7:05 pm }

I enjoyed reading your commentary.

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