Ong: Orality as King?

Walter J. Ong’s book ‘Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word’ was written in 1982 and because of its age it reads often times as a historical artefact on the Orwellian fears of the time. Ong looks back onto the history of written literacy versus primary orality to expose the hidden truth that orality is the true original while the written word will always be the dependent: “Oral expression can exist…without any writing at all, writing never without orality” (p. 8). The lens of this work is trained toward hailing the oral as a part of language oft forgotten in the modern age.
In his first chapter entitled ‘The Orality of Language’ he seeks to explain both the importance of orality as well as the impossible quest we, as literate and scholarly beings, must embark upon to try and comprehend a truly oral language. He uses the analogy of a horse being explained to people that originate from an entirely vehicle-based culture. (p. 12) To these people the horse would only ever be not a vehicle, a wheel-less automobile; just as to a literate mind oral language is only ever not written. The irony of this work is, of course, that Ong is writing his condemnation of written literacy. If oral language is the vessel of the truly original and “writing tyrannically locks them into a visual field forever” (p. 11) why wouldn’t this work be attempted as an oral experiment? Perhaps because by the end of this chapter even Ong must admit “without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials…orality needs to produce and is destined to produce writing.” (p. 14)
The age of this book becomes an issue quickly as Ong cannot be aware of the changing culture of writing. He claims that “it would seem inescapably obvious that language is an oral phenomenon” (p. 6) however at this point the internet and computers were too early to have any real impact on his way of thinking. One could argue that in the 21st century language has become increasingly written while orality has remained as a tool to share more written language. The advent of cell phones, social media sites, online journalism and the like have promoted an entirely written culture while also creating new language that has been shaped by writing alone. This is something Ong thought impossible as stated earlier because up to his point in history he stated: “language is so overwhelming oral that of all the many thousands of languages-possibly tens of thousands-spoken in the course of human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing” (p. 7). A third option has been revealed in the past thirty years, written language from writing alone with leetspeak, SMS and the social media lexicon at the forefront.
Oral Literature is term disliked by Ong because it carries with it the baggage of the wheel-less automobile. To Ong the term is base and inaccurate: “we have the term ‘literature’ which essentially means ‘writing’…but no comparably satisfactory term or concept to refer to a purely oral heritage (p. 10). Ong postulates that the term ‘oral literature’ will die away soon to hopefully be replaced by a more fitting noun; however a quick Google search tells us that oral literature has only grown as a commonly used term to describe oral histories, folklore and other storytelling in various cultures around the world. That is not to say that his concern was incorrect, the term is essentially an oxymoron and the fact that we haven’t found a more fitting word would seem to support the claim of Ferdinand de Saussure that writing is too basic a form of language (p. 5). Perhaps writing is unable to explain or define orality and they should be seem as separate entities much like painting and dancing. The assertion of Saussure that writing is a complement to orality or Henry Sweet’s concept of words being a translation of sounds are both too simple to encapsulate the power of the written word. The divisive nature of this chapter should lead us perhaps to see them as unique rather than hierarchical.
Even as I write these words onto a computer I hear my own voice speaking them in my head. My written literacy is steeped in oral culture and vice versa. Like art which takes on so many forms that can influence and shape one another, perhaps literacy is capable of such interdisciplinary action. Why must we choose one to be the better? Ong and Saussure seem to agree that because orality was first everything else will pale in comparison. By this token all paintings would be superior to all films; all symphonies would reign superior over all new media. Age is not a prerequisite for greatness.
The popularization of the internet has certainly changed the modern, technologized world; whether this has been for the better as Edison might postulate, for the worse as Thamus would see it or neither better nor worse in the eyes of Freud has yet to be decided. Yet I believe even Ong would agree that written language has begun to asexually reproduce in a way he may never have thought possible. It remains to be seen if this will be the death of orality or simply a trend in the ever-evolving lexicons of the world. The future may hold written language entirely dependent on sound as Sweet had predicted, it may lead us into a world where texting is the norm and orality is long forgotten (a dystopia Ong may have long feared) or it may continue to allow both literacies to flourish. From Ong’s work, we should hope mainly for the latter as both oral and written language allow us unique ways to envision process and recreate the world around us.

Ong, W.J. (1982). The orality of language. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. (pp.5-15) London and New York: Routledge.

About Jessica Dickens

I am an English Language Arts, Drama, Film Studies and ESL teacher in Vancouver, BC. I have recently begun a new position at a new private secondary school called Alexander Academy in downtown Vancouver. I am building a curriculum for each of my classes and creating my department from scratch. It is incredibly challenging and rewarding. I live in downtown Vancouver with my husband, Jordan, a freelance illustrator. I am a pop culture addict with a passion for classic films, modern television and all kinds of music. I would much rather spend an evening on Netflix than on a campground, so I am not your typical Vancouverite. I am hoping to finish MET in August 2014.
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3 Responses to Ong: Orality as King?

  1. mwaters says:

    I appreciated your comments about the comparison between the written and spoken word. At this point in time they are so intertwined it is difficult to separate them yet alone determine which is superior.

  2. Kim Wagner says:

    In response to this statement: “One could argue that in the 21st century language has become increasingly written while orality has remained as a tool to share more written language.”

    When we communicate using technology, we can do so in print, using audio, and/or using video. Even though our communication is in print on social media sites, it really has more of an oral sense about it–as it’s a conversation of sorts. It can be given a digital voice or an animated character (physical shape) as well. Even though we are not physically present while communicating, it has a real sense of human connection. When I Face Time with a friend, it feels like we are actually together.

    • Jessica Dickens says:

      Ii wonder how Ong would view the advent of digital language and where he would place such communication on the spectrum of orality and literacy. One could argue that the literacy of online language detracts from the common definition of literacy as it may promote autocorrect over ingrained knowledge. Can we be illerate digital literates?

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