Ecology of Orality

The gradual shift from orality to literacy has been much discussed and marveled at. It is fascinating to see how orality dominated the human culture for so long and then was over taken by literacy. Now many call orality primitive and pre-logical and believe it to be inferior. Ong calls literacy the “ruthless reducer of sound to space” (p.99) and although he suggests that orality and literacy are both necessary for evolution of consciousness (p.175), his work implies literacy’s dominance. So where does orality stand in the literate world?

In his book, Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology, while contemplating the ravages of technology on the literate world, Postman gives an example of the effects of removing a caterpillar from its habitat and suggests that “one significant change generates total change.” (p. 18). These comments prompted me to examine the state of orality from an ecological perspective. For this I chose to apply the ecological metaphor used by Zhao and Frank’s (2003) to orality and literacy. Zhao and Frank endeavored to explain the invasion of technology in the world of education from an ecological point of view in their study. The premise of their discussion was that in when in ecosystems an invasive species takes over; the preexisting species need to make adaptations to ensure their own survival.

In their study about inadequate use of technology at school by teachers, Zhao and Frank examined the rapid invasion of the Great Lake ecosystem by the zebra mussels. Many factors like speedy maturation, high rate of fertility have allowed the zebra mussels, an invasive species, to make a niche for itself in the Great Lakes. Many native species of plants and animals in the Great Lake ecosystem either perished or had to adjust to the changes in their habitat. In their paper Zhao and Frank posit that teachers, the keynote species in the school ecosystem need to adapt to technology, the invasive species, in order to survive.

In applying this analogy to orality and the literacy intrusion, orality seems to be the keystone species whose habitat was invaded by the invasive species of literacy. Literacy has created a niche for itself by providing its users the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials (Ong, 1982). In such a situation orality needs to make some adaptation to survive in the same environment where literacy has established a stronghold or, go extinct.

Orality does seem to make changes and for that reason we still see its “residue” as Ong puts it, in literacy. To coexist, species need to develop reciprocal altruism. Zhao and Frank describe this as “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Orality and literacy have developed such a symbiotic relationship. Many oral habits and traditions like rhetoric, formulas, and mnemonics have been retained in the literate society from the primary oral culture. Literacy uses orality to become active and dynamic, while orality uses literacy to find permanence and space.

Zhao and Frank also discuss the need for the keystone species to evolve and adapt to ensure their survival. They are implying the need for teacher to engage in professional development to learn about technology. In regards to the ecosystem of orality and literacy, their comments made me think of Ong’s “secondary orality”. Ong states that orality exists in the present time but is not exactly like the old orality. Orality still fosters communal sense, concentrates on the present moment, and can be formulaic (p.134), but he says it is not old orality. “Orality has come more into its own” by capitalizing on the affordances provided by technology. Radio, television, telephones, and web 2.0 applications have revitalized orality. In fact orality in its new persona has generated a sense of group, which could not even have been fathomed in its former avatar. In the present time a new form of orality has sprung up. It appears that orality did make a valuable niche for itself in its ecosystem. But in its second coming, orality will not be able to become the keystone species again since the technologies that have helped orality resurface are dependent on literacy.

Every technology is created to fill in some void. Literacy was created to overcome the gaps of orality. Now orality is being used again to fill in the vacuum created by over dependency on literacy. The prudent human always retains the goodness of the past and embellishes it with innovation of the present. Such practicality has ensured successful coexistence of orality and literacy.


Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: the Surrender of Culture to Technology. New York: Vintage Books

Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing the Word. New York: Routledge

Zhao, Y. & Frank, K. (2003). Factors Affecting Technology Uses in Schools:
An Ecological Perspective. American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 40, No.
4 pp. 807-840 Retrieved from

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1 Response to Ecology of Orality

  1. technoob says:

    Jasmeet, what a wonderfully written commentary! Your ecological approach to describing the relationship between orality and literacy is quite effective. Your statement, “Literacy uses orality to become active and dynamic, while orality uses literacy to find permanence and space” is particularly insightful. Thanks for posting.

    Dave Symonds

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