A Moderate View

In Orality and Literacy, Ong (2002) presents an elaborate account of a well reasoned, and highly detailed, but polarizing description of the social and psychological consequences associated with technological determinism as it applies to literacy and literate culture.  This account sets up a hierarchical structure that places literacy superior to orality.  While he is easy to follow, fascinating, and insightful, Ong’s presentation is unsatisfying in its strong technological determinism and unnecessary hierarchical treatment of orality and literacy.

Ong (2002) neglects to discuss the possibility that literacy and orality can be complementary technologies.  Indeed his consideration of orality as “natural” and writing as “artificial” (p. 82) suggests that he does not fundamentally consider speech as being technology in itself; however, in Chandler’s Biases of the Ear and Eye (1994), Josipocivi reminds us that, “to use language at all is to use an instrument which is forged by others… that is to say… It is never my language, for ‘I’ have no language.” Arguably then, oral language must be a technology, and since it has not gone out of use with the advent of written language, then it must serve some useful purpose and be complementary to written language.  Chandler (1994) presents a list of dichotomies between the spoken and written word that illustrate some complimentary purposes.  These dichotomies include being fluid versus fixed, rhythmic versus ordered, subjective versus objective, resonant versus abstract, present versus timeless, participatory versus detached and communal versus individual.  Each attribute here being neither positive nor negative but is useful in context.

Ong’s discussion of orality as natural and writing as artificial (1967) is further problematic in that he makes the argument by describing the “most arduous discipline” required to learn to write and glibly claiming that human that is physiologically and psychologically capable will learn to speak.  This implies that learning to speak is not so arduous, yet there is evidence to the contrary that it is and it comes from the experience of parents.  Most parents will not hesitate to agree that their children can understand much oral language long before they are able to speak it, but there is a lag between the time a child is psychologically able to understand oral language and when they can produce it even though the physiological change in that time is minimal.  Furthermore, a child who learns baby sign language is often able to use this language long before they can use oral language.  These parental experiences involving babies who are able to understand and produce language before they are able to speak gives evidence that speaking is more arduous than Ong would have one believe.

If orality and literacy are both technologies, then consideration of them as complimentary can be given.  A complimentary relationship demands that one is not subordinate to the other and that each serves a different purpose, but with a common intent.  While it may seem that literacy is a natural progression from orality and even that orality is a necessary condition for literacy, the mere existence of literate people who are mute and hard of hearing dispels that myth.  It is possible to be literate without being oral or even aural, and so orality is not inferior to literacy.  Furthermore, Ong himself (1982) brings attention to the fact that relatively few languages have developed literacy and those that have, do not forsake orailty.  Both orality and literacy serve to express human thought.  They are subordinate to it and they have the common intent to express thought, which they do complimentarily through the dichotomies described earlier.

The subordination of orality and literacy to thought reverses the direction of control in the technological determinism described by Ong, yet a complete pendulum shift to humanism would go too far as well.  This is illustrated in the tendencies of many people who “speak before they think.”

Such detached and polarized theories as these may be used to attempt to understand what is not necessarily well-definable, but are not particularly accurate in describing the complexities and nuances of reality.   A more accurate theory to describe the ways in which we use language is likely to resemble Chandler’s (1995) description of moderate Whorfians that accounts for a two-way interaction between thought and language and also emphasizes the importance of social context.


Chandler, Daniel (1994): Biases of the Ear and Eye: “Great Divide” Theories, Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online] U Retrieved from:  http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/litoral/litoral.


Chandler, Daniel (1995): Technological or Media Determinism [Online] Retrieved from: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html



Ong, Walter (1967): The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. New York: Simon & Schuster


Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

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2 Responses to A Moderate View

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    I think that it is true that both oral and written language are complex and that both are interelated. Your example about babies who understand very well before they start to speak can be compare to language students who can read and write before they can even say a word. Perhaps, of all, the oral interpretation comes first. A person has to understand the language before even thinking of trying to talk or write. That is why, I guess, immersion courses in the target language environment are the best to learn a language. So, I guess it places oral (interpretation) the most important of all.

    This is just my humble point of view on the question. ;o)


  2. mckay says:

    I like how you succinctly put forth the idea of spoken language itself as a technology. In my commentary I spoke on how a language only exists so long as people speak it; a close parallel to your point.

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