Orality and Text

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” ― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Reading Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy over the past two weeks has been fascinating to say the least. As I get more to the heart of primary oral culture, it has become clear to me that a fundamental difference between oral cultures and typographic cultures is the significance of sound, rhythm, communication. Much like what Maya Angelou alludes to, there is a “magical potency” in the spoken, the sounded. In contrast, “deeply typographic cultures forget to think of words as primarily oral, as events…for them, words tend rather to be assimilated to things, ‘out there’ on a flat surface…for they are not actions, but are in a radical sense dead, though subject to dynamic resurrection” (Ong, 33).

In his Introduction, Ong discusses the age of “secondary orality” – telephones, radios, televisions, and the like – and I found myself doodling a cyclical image at the bottom of the page that goes from orality to chirography, to typography, and back to orality. It seems that the written word needs the spoken word and vise versa.

(Thanks to Maya Angelou for saying so clearly and beautifully what I have been struggling to articulate!)

About smyers

Hi Everyone, I am a high school alternate school teacher living in Vancouver, BC. I have been teaching for 15 years, though I am not sure where all that time has gone. I love working with teenagers, and am grateful that I have the opportunity to share my love of learning with young people every day. It's a pretty sweet gig!
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1 Response to Orality and Text

  1. cmck says:

    Hi Andrew,
    That’s a great quote. Thanks for sharing it. I was thinking that it’s especially true when you think of tone. It’s tough to write a certain tone, especially in a work of fiction or a play. That’s why students often miss subtle humor in an otherwise reflective or serious piece of writing. So, in a way, reading the text really does give it more meaning. Whether the tone is interpreted as the author meant it to be is another question.


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