From Orality to Print: How Memory Aids Saved the Epic Tale


In his book, Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong compares the differences between how oral and literate cultures communicate knowledge. Chapter 3 specifically addresses the qualities of primary oral cultures in contrast to the chirographic, typographic and literate cultures of today. Ong notes the difficulty a literate person has understanding primary oral culture. Literate culture depends on looking up and documenting information to preserve knowledge whereas oral culture relies on memory. A major focus of this chapter is the examination of the linguistic features associated with characterization in oral storytelling. Traditional narratives remain in tact due to situational concepts, formulaic structure and reference to the human world. The classic stories from our childhood and the historic narratives we studied in university have endured due to oral preservation, as well as the increased distribution of print text.

Ong highlights oral culture’s reliance on memory. In an oral culture, the lack of visual aids, such as text requires verbal thinking to take place in the form of patterns, and mnemonic terms. Systemic repetition and linguistic embellishment is used to ensure that information will be passed on to the next generation. Epithets bring colour and richness to speech through descriptions of “bizarre figures” that “add another mnemonic aid” (p.69). Although the prolixity of oral narration is often rejected by high literacy, the attention to vibrant character description offers a rich platform for a variety of the modern day story genres. The scene of an oral tale is most commonly known for the description of physical and often violent behaviour. The elaboration of story elements create a “highly polarized, agonistic, oral world” where language is used to juxtapose “good and evil, virtue and vice, villains and heroes” supporting the memory of the oralist (p.45). By referencing classic tales, Ong confirms that oral culture depends on memory to pass down knowledge from generation to generation.

Oral cultures refer to human experience in order to pass on knowledge to the younger generation. Ong explains the importance put on real life experience by describing the way in which job skills are acquired through apprenticeship training as opposed to print manuals. Oral cultures see the importance of “observation and practice with only minimal verbalization,” a practice that would certainly involve the development of problem-solving skills in real-time settings (p. 43). For the oral mind, the acquisition of knowledge is most commonly situated “within the context of a struggle” (p.43). The element of everyday struggle is documented in texts, such as the Iliad and Beowulf and associates the oral world with an endless sense of hardship.

Among all of the memory aids, Ong suggests that the epithet creates a strengthened formula that, once an “expression has been crystallized, had been best kept intact” (p.39). Even today, timeless sayings such as “beautiful princess,” “brave soldier” and “sturdy oak” cannot break away from their descriptors (p.38). Modern literacy views “epithets and other formulary baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant” (p.38). Literate culture would contest that the act of writing frees the mind of memorizing but for primary oral culture, it was thought to “downgrade the figure of a wise man” (p.41). Oral culture unites groups of people who receive and respond to information in the same physical place, at the same time. Narrators can bring new variations to a story based on the audience they are speaking to. It is far too difficult to question the stories of a narrator because once a word has been spoken, it “soon vanishes” (p.41). A literate culture enables the distribution of current information in print while documenting events that can be retrieved at a later date. Once written text has been received, literate cultures have more freedom to react or objectify the news differently. Oral culture would say that this form of distribution isolates literate people, giving them the ability to have differing opinions towards a situation. Ong implies that although epithets transmit orally, they are protected under the authority of orality and therefore cannot be forgotten.

In oral culture, knowledge is dependant on what an educated person can recall. In contrast, a literate person would surely ask how a person recalls information without reference to text. Ong develops the idea that literate culture anticipates a set of writing conventions because of the way writing shapes the brain. Although Ong spends much of the chapter drawing attention to the differences between oral and literate culture, he ends by noting the evolutionary changes in verbal and written communication that make it impossible for either to exist independent from the other. From the beginning of chapter 3, Ong explains the difficulty a literate person has understanding the psychodynamics of primary oral culture, yet he manages to give ample explanation as to how certain memory tools bring structure to oral culture.


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

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