The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Verba Volant Scripta Manent

Verba Volant Scripta Manent 

(Lat. “spoken words fly away, written words remain” )

            In describing the qualities of sound, Ong (2002) points out to its evanescent nature as well as its capability of surrounding the speaker and immersing him/her in the center (p.71). In primary oral cultures this immersion affected man’s perception of the world and consequently generated an ego-centric approach in its interactions with it. On the other hand, spoken words have the power of binding together the speaker and the audience, uniting them in the “interiorizing force of the oral word” (p.74).

             In both Western and Eastern cultures, bards used to (and still continue to do in some parts) travel and recite or sing poems and personae tell stories to sustain the cultural heritage in a society. This helped build a “communal soul” (Ong 2002) that caused them to react to situations in a collectivist nature rather than an individualist’. The bards used to rely on their memory for recitation, but made slight modifications depending on the mood and receptiveness of the audience.

             As natural as the need to communicate orally with others, man’s desire to leave a permanent artifact that would withstand time led him to create a “sequencing of standardized symbols in order to graphically reproduce human speech, thought or other things in part or whole” (Fischer, 2001). This definition incorporates the first varied forms of bone and stone markings dating back to 100,000 years that point out to purposeful engraving as a form of writing, As mankind developed higher level thinking and artistic skills, he began to create more sophisticated artifacts. Cuneiform writing – which has been used as earliest as 3500 BC by the Sumerians and then the Assyrians in Mesopotamia grew out not only of the need to record business transactions, but also to spread the “word of wisdom” through epics, myths and proverbs (Kramer, 1961).  

            Ong (2002) describes how when an alphabetical or other script enters into a particular society, it is looked upon with skepticism and even regarded as dangerous. Even nowadays, book burning is not an uncommon practice in parts of the world governed by totalitarian regimes. If written words cannot defend themselves because they are unreal, as Plato has Socrates declare in Phaedrus, then why is there such intolerance for them?

             There is no doubt that writing leaves a permanent mark in time when sound vanishes into air just like thoughts that flicker in a human’s brain do. Writing is indeed “the most important invention that has transformed human consciousness” (Ong, 2002).


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

Kramer, S.N. (1961). Sumerian Mythology: A study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C. [Rev. ed.]. Retrieved from

 Fischer, S.R. (2001). A History of Writing. Retrieved from






1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 5:20 pm }

I just wondered if in the future whether it will be as exciting to discover a digital book as it has been to discover books and scrolls.

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