The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Commentary 1: An Analogy

Chapter 1: The Orality of Language

This chapter is divided into two sections.  In the first section, “The literate mind and the oral past”, Ong introduces the reader to the concept of a division between orality and writing by quoting many linguists and other scholars throughout history.  He is painting us a picture of what human communication looked like before writing.  He first quotes Ferdinand de Saussure noting, “Writing has simultaneously usefulness, shortcomings and dangers”, and that, “Still he thought of writing as a kind of complement to oral speech, not as a transformer of verbalization” (2002, p.5).  This made me realize that is strikingly similar to how many people feel about information and communication technology (ICT).

Throughout the chapter, I was constantly thinking about the analogy between the introduction and influence of writing and that of computers knowing that the latter is one of the main themes in this course.  In this analogy, ‘orality’ (as pre-writing communication) represents ‘literacy’ (as pre-computer communication).  Therefore, Saussure’s second idea above would be translated into, “…computers are a kind of complement to written communication, and are not a transformer of verbalization”.  This is clearly not a perfect analogy, however it has given me an interesting and enlightening perspective on the influence of ICT.  For example, Ong points out that out of 3000 spoken languages presently, only 78 have a literature (2002, p. 7).  That is nearly 40% whereas the percentage of the world’s population using the Internet is less than 25% (2009).

Ong goes on to explain how, despite much resistance and criticism early on, writing gradually and eventually gained more credibility than oral communication of matters such as law, science, business, etc.  Part of that most likely had to do with how readily available the information was made as well as how objective it was.  If it were only available orally, than whoever was looking for specific information would have had to locate the person who actually knew the particular information.  Then when they found that person, the information might not be the same as the last time he or she said it.  Whereas, if it were written in a wall, scroll, book, etc, the information would be much easier to access and would be the same every time it was accessed.  This fits with the analogy where the Internet makes information much more accessible than traditionally having to go to a library to find written information that had a good possibility of being inaccurate because it was out of date.

The example Ong gives from “Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric” also fits nicely into the analogy; “rhetoric was and had to be a product of writing” (2002, p. 9).  Most students that have access to a computer would not even consider composing a weblog entry, much less an essay, on pen and paper.  If Aristotle were alive today, he might say that writing is and has to be a product of computers.  That might be stretching it somewhat; however the point is that the vast majority of all writing today is composed on computer.  Ong goes on to say, “Thus writing from the beginning did not reduce orality but enhanced it…” (2002, p. 9).  Many educators today argue that students consistently produce more and better written work when they are given the opportunity to compose their thoughts on a word processor.  The ability to easily correct mistakes, rearrange text, change words, etc helps students to relax and just let the thoughts flow.  Does writing have to be a product of a computer?  Probably not; but how often do you draft an important document with a hand held writing implement?

The second section of this chapter is, “Did you say ‘oral literature’?”.  This section brings us much closer to the present day thinking about the differences between orality and writing.  Eventually scholars accepted writing so much that, “oral art forms were essentially unskillful and not worth serious study” (2002, p.10).  Taking the analogy further, we can say that academic textbooks and journals are not (or will not be) trusted and used for research as much as electronic information found online.  This again comes down to availability, convenience and the ability to maintain the most current information.  In an online program such as MET, it is possible to complete all the coursework without ever setting foot in a conventional library.

One of the most interesting and perhaps difficult ideas to envision in this first chapter is what it was really like to live without any writing (2002, p. 11).  It is essentially impossible for literate people to grasp the idea.  Concluding the analogy, sometimes I find it very difficult to remember what life was like before computers.  Younger generations, of course, will not have the option of recalling that memory.  Of the few (predominately) oral cultures left, hardly any are unaware of writing and its many benefits.  They also know that by becoming literate, they will inherently give up many benefits of their primary orality.  Knowing this is very difficult, but “we have to die to continue living” (2002, p. 15).


Internet World Stats: Usage and Population Statistics. (2009). Internet Usage and World Population Statistics. Retrieved October 3, 2009 from Miniwatts Marketing Group. Web site:

Ong, W.J. (2002). Chapter 1: The Orality of Language. In Orality and Literacy. (pp. 5-15). London: Routledge.

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 5:41 pm }

Growing up literate it is impossible to imagine a world without books, the only thing similar was when I was forced to use a computer. I envied the computer literate, but I was scared to get involved.

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