The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing


Discussions between orality and literacy have old roots. In one of the poems of Rumi, (the great philosopher, 1207-1273) there is a story with the title of “Moses and the Shepherd”. In his beautiful poem,

Moses (symbol of literacy) heard a shepherd (symbol of orality) on the road praying, “God where are you? I want to help you, to fix your shoes and comb your hair. I want to wash your clothes and pick the lice off. I want to bring you milk to kiss your little hands and feet when it’s time for you to go to bed. I want to sweep your room and keep it neat,…

Moses could stand it no longer, “Who are you talking to?” “The one who made us, and made the earth and made the sky.” “Don’t talk about shoes and socks with God! And what’s this with your little hands and feet? Such blasphemous familiarity sounds like you’re chatting with your uncles. Only something that grows needs milk. Only someone with feet needs shoes,…

The shepherd repented and tore his clothes and sighed and wandered out into the desert.

A sudden revelation came then to Moses. God’s voice:
You have separated me from one of my own. Did you come as a prophet to unite, or to sever? I have given each being a separate and unique way of seeing and knowing and saying that knowledge. What seems wrong to you is right for him.

This broken-open lowliness is the reality, not the language! Forget phraseology….

I won’t go to the remaining of the poem and its main spiritual message but it may emphasize the differences between the cultures, even 800 years ago.

In module 2 of this course, Ong shows lots of valuable points to us in his book. According to Lippert (1982) “Ong’s book is a landmark for studying culture and communication”. In his well written book, Ong considers communication via different approaches by looking at the environment for communication, the environment of communication, and the environment created by communication. He explains how they are connected to each other.

However, there are also some criticisms to Ong. The most serious of them comes from the categorical distinctions between orality and literacy. According to Connors (1988) there are numerous literacies, and to believe that reading-writing abilities in contemporary culture create cognitive abilities or constitute the only meaningful sort of literacy is narrow and discriminatory. Kaschula (1995) approaches oral cultures and the interaction with literacy from an African perspective that is close to orality in fact (in the analysis of the use of Xhosa poetry techniques in preaching styles). He objects that “One needs to be careful not to be rigid in one’s views of what exactly should make up orality as opposed to literacy in a society where both clearly coexist side by side” and feels that Ong’s description is too close to the great divide theory.

Ono and Sloop (1992), also believed that Ong privileges a moment in Western culture, “to the exclusion of a wider perspective of culture that sees Africa and Asia as central moments in the genesis and revelation of orality.”

Ong is also criticized for his philosophical assumptions of technological determinism and neutrality of media. In addition to Chandler (1994), Ess, Kawabalta, and Kurosaki (2007) considered Ong to have a tendency toward a technological determinism that is no longer seen to hold up in the face of empirical evidence

However, even after 27 years of its original publication, Ong’s book is reprinted again and again. This proofs that his book to be a valuable source by readers to discuss. It is an open-ended study that invites more research to be done on human-literacy relationship.

Perhaps if Ong had coined and used the term ORACY (orality/literacy) to indicate a continuity of his categories, more admires and less criticisms would have existed !

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

Connors, R. J. (1988). [Review of the book The muse learns to write: Reflections on orality and literacy from antiquity to the present.] Quarterly Journal of Speech, 74(3), 379-381.

Ess, C., Kawabalta, A., & Kurosaki, H. (2007). Cross-cultural perspectives on religion and computer-mediated communication. Journal of Computer-mediated Communication, 12(3), 939-955.

Kaschula, R. H. (1995). Preachers and poets: Oral poetry within the religious cosmology of the Xhosa. South African Journal of African Languages, 15(2), 65-73.

Lippert, P. (1982). [Review of the book Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word]. Etc., 39, 399-402.

Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York: Routlege.

Ono, K. A., & Sloop, J. M. (1992). Commitment to telos–A sustained critical rhetoric. Communication Monographs, 59, 48-60.


1 Drew Ryan { 10.05.09 at 1:50 pm }

Hosein, a poignant and poetic review of Ong’s insights and oversights!

I too see that the omission of cultural content, as put forth in Ono and Sloop, places Ong’s hypotheses in a Western (ethnocentric) viewpoint. But, as you mention, this book has proven to be a valuable resource with regard to literacy and education.


2 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 5:24 pm }

I would love to do more research into oral cultures, but I have realised that with my literary background I will never really understand what it is like to have no written word.

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