This week we’ll delve a bit more into theories of orality and literacy. How do spoken and written language relate? What effects do they have on cultures that use them? We’ll read excerpts from Walter Ong. (And possibly in class we’ll look at some bits of Marshall McLuhan.) I was going to post some other texts, but I think that’s enough for one discussion, and there are some other things I’d like to do in class on Thursday.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Introduction and Chapter One, and Chapter Three. (Chapter Three is rather long, although it is all interesting and worth reading. If you need to save time, please focus on pages 31-36, 57-68, and 71-75.)

Other related texts (for optional research):

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy.

Zumthor, Paul. Oral Poetry: An Introduction.

Lord, Albert. The Singer of Tales.

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  1.   Nick Matthews

    “With writing, the mind is forced into a slowed-down pattern that affords it the opportunity to interfere with and reorganize its more normal, redundant processes” (p,40).

    This line above all else has been lingering in my thoughts after this week’s reading. On one level, especially for anyone that writes, it renders the process so completely true. It captures best the dichotomoty between orality and literature, and forces one to question what is really lost in translation. In terms of Ong’s argument, this extends into the poignant differences among “primary” and “secondary” orality, and shows the burden of memory on a non-literate culture.

    What I’m most interested in is this whole “revisionary process”. The very idea that in writing the filter is inherent, that a mental tether eschews original, free-forming thought. If we as an oral species are so naturally “aggregate, redundant, and additive”, than what does that say about the very act of writing? Are we compromising the very act of creation by attempting to render it into text? Or is this an art form all its own?

  2.   alee909

    Reflecting on the comment above, I was asking myself, ‘Why does the “revisionary process” of putting ideas into writing have to be so painful?’ Just speaking for myself, it is one of the most painful things for me to write a paper — it’s such a long and arduous process. For me, I think one aspect of the revisionary process involves a painstaking editing of the thought in your mind into something that you view as ‘presentable’ in text form. So that added pressure is another step that a thought has to go through in order to become text. So for some reason, I find that finding text to create here on this blog is much easier and enjoyable than finding text for a paper.

    I just wanted to comment on the potential relationship between the picture of ‘stiffness’ I get from the reading this week and previous feelings of ‘stiffness’ that I’ve had before. On page 59-60 of Chapter Three, he talks about the ways that South Slavic poets created their songs – they used different formulas, never performed the ‘same’ songs twice, rhapsodized differently based on the audience, etc. . . It just made me think about the freedom, fun, and adventure that usually isn’t present in the way that we learn and create; we write papers that have to follow the standard format of introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion. I played clarinet for a lot of years, and I never felt that I learned to play ‘musically,’ but only ‘technically.’ Injecting literary theory into a conversation with your friends in an absurd way and laughing is fun, but hearing a sustained lecture on Derrida is anything but. So in these examples of oral tradition, people seemed like they were having some fun.

  3.   coreyfrost

    Thanks, Nick and Andrei, and for the rest of you, a reminder: I’d like each of you to comment on someone else’s post—the goal is to start a dialogue. Don’t be afraid to disagree, if you do, but it’s also useful to rephrase or extend a previously posted idea. Also, please sign your posts, to make it easier for people to respond. Thanks.

    So, I’m going to comment on what Andrei wrote: “It just made me think about the freedom, fun, and adventure that usually isn’t present in the way that we learn and create.” I think this idea bears interrogation. Why, Andrei (or anyone else), do you think that freedom/fun is hampered by formulas? The guslars (poets) Lord wrote about never performed a song exactly the same way twice, but they did use formulas. More generally, why isn’t it fun to write something following a standard format? What about a sonnet?

    What’s “fun”? Couldn’t a lecture on Derrida be fun?

  4.   Sarah

    First, to reply to Andrei’s comment about the revisionary process being so painful – I have to agree with you on that. One of my least favorite parts of writing is having to go back to something I already feel is complete and tinker with it more. Especially in terms of something like a research paper which a professor will comment on and then give back to you for revision, I don’t particularly like to have to listen to other people’s commentary on MY work. Constructive criticism, yes, but isn’t the whole point of that to help one with their own ideas, rather than tell them what to do / not do? As a writer of fiction and poetry as well, I feel that once I am satisfied with a piece of work, that should be enough. I do agree that it is very much a process of reworking something in your mind, and this is what I think makes it such an undesirable task – the extra work involved in something we’ve probably already put as much work and effort into as we can.

    Second, with regard to the Ong reading – he makes a point in chapter one about language being so overwhelmingly oral, which I found interesting. I particularly liked his point about sign language. Though it is referred to as a “language,” Ong makes a good point by stating it is a “…substitute for speech and dependent on oral speech systems.” What I found most interesting, though, was the fact which he goes on to say – that of the many languages which have been used over time, only such a small fraction of them have actually been recorded. If you really think about it, without oral language (indeed, oral sounds / communication at all) we would not only not have written sounds, but we would have no basis for any language at all. Think about what the world would be like today if we had no written or oral traditions or ways of communication. We couldn’t exist! I think the point I’m trying to make is that coming away from this reading, I feel very..small.

  5.   nahmed

    To agree with Sarah’s (as well as previous posts) points from this weeks reading, I feel the same disdain for revising. As I am writing a paper for class I write as I think, therefore I sometimes feel that forcing me to revise, is stating that my original thought isn’t good enough. I also notice that when revising, I sometimes end up changing things, which can potentially change the meaning of what I am writing.

  6.   nahmed

    In Response to Professor Frost’s comment/question:

    I believe what makes following formulas not fun is the extreme dislike many of us have for RULES. Rules makes us feel confined, stifled even. When giving students rules and formulas to follow it also makes us feel vulnerable. It makes them very self conscious about not following the formula ”correctly” and then being penalized or embarrassed. I found that the following of formulas and rules is the exact thing that makes high school English students shy away from writing their own poetry.

  7.   nahmed

    Focusing on Ong’s writing, I would like to jump around to different parts that I found interesting. I first have to say that this piece made me really think about, and notice things that I have never really took the time out to think about before.

    Ong gives much importance to orality, importance that it has never quite received lately. When asking why it is important to study orality, Ong gives numerous reasons. He points out the various ways in which humans communicate. These non-oral ways of communication can be very strong and relay the message we want to relay quite well but the need to verbalize this is also of the utmost importance. For example, instead of constantly telling your child/spouse that you love them, you do things to SHOW them. In this case sometimes…words just aren’t enough to express your feelings. However, at the end of the day that child/spouse still feels the need for that love to be verbalized. Ong uses the example of the statement “a picture is worth a thousand words” to make this point as well. This is because, as Ong states “thought relates in an altogether special way to sound”.

    Another point that Ong brings up that I never thought about was when he states that when reading a word, we cannot help but to make it into a sound- either in our head or aloud. Words are directly connected to sound. I thought about this in the sense that when confronted with a child who doesn’t know how to spell a word, you tell them to “sound it out”. Sound (orality) helps them to write. Writing cannot exist without orality. On the other hand, Ong argues that “Words are grounded in oral speech but writing locks them into a visual field forever.” When we hear a word, we automatically associate it with the spelling. I cannot say I completely agree with this statement, but I do find myself SOMETIMES doing this…or perhaps now that I am aware of this theory, I’m incapable of doing it consciously?

  8.   gfl11131988

    Queens College
    Professor Corey Frost
    ENGL 781
    Response # 3
    George Festin Lorenzo

    The thoughts and ideas surrounding oral language and written language are very unique as well as opposing at times. Questions such as which came first, or which is more significant is brought up and they are relevant questions, especially in today’s world with the powerful technology we have to offer. In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Walter Ong goes deep into explaining the nuances of oral literacy and helps explain it’s importance in the world, as well as the contrasting characteristics it has when it is put up against written literacy.
    Inside the first chapter, “The Orality of Language”, Ong emphasizes many points of Oral Literature but one aspect of it that really stood out was when Ong wrote, “At present the term ‘oral literature’ is, fortunately, losing ground, but it may well be that any battle to eliminate it totally will never be completely won” (14). Ong has a strong argument in his belief that oral literature will never disappear from the world of education and society. It simply has too strong a place in it to become irrelevant. It is true, he admits, that the popularity of it has plummeted but for it to be gone completely just will not happen because, as he writes, “The words keep coming to you in writing, no matter what you do” (14).
    To comment on what Sarah said, I agree with that statement wholeheartedly. You wrote that, “If you really think about it, without oral language (indeed, oral sounds / communication at all) we would not only not have written sounds, but we would have no basis for any language at all”. I feel that you make an extremely valid point and it only helps emphasize the writing of Ong. The whole study of oral language and their lack of recordings are extremely unfortunate and oral recordings are truly underrated. Ong states, “despite the oral roots of all verbalization, the scientific and literary study of language and literature has for centuries…shied away from orality” (8) and it has much validity. The fact is, language always starts out from an oral standpoint and then it is put onto paper and is used in creating texts, literature and other forms of writing. However, the whole idea of oral literature suddenly becomes lost in translation and people forget that without oral language, there would be no written language. It is often not given the credit it deserves and that is a shame.
    In the third chapter, “Some psychodynamics of orality”, Ong continues his explanation on the characteristics of oral literature and he helps emphasize his points well. The part that proved significant was towards the end, in his section titled, “The interiority of sound”. In this section, Ong goes heavily into the ideas of sound and it’s correlation to physiology. To contrast, Ong brings up the characteristics of vision and he writes, “Sight isolates, sound incorporates…Vision comes…from one direction at a time…When I hear…I gather sound simultaneously from every direction at once” (72). The observation may seem somewhat obvious but it is more so astute. And often, it is sound that triggers actions involving vision. For example, if you are driving and you suddenly hear ambulance sirens, that will prompt you to use your vision and look around, to see if you need to drive out of the way or not. Ong makes many valid points throughout his text, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, and it is often hard to disagree with his points. Obviously, despite the lack of credit oral literacy receives, it truly has a legitimate place in education and society.

  9.   Sean Nicholson

    With regards to the various postings on rules and formulas, I think there has to be an establishment of balance between formulas and creativity. If producing a good work of literature was as mundane as following a formula, everyone who has ever passed high school english would be a published author. As will all things in life the difficulty is in finding the balance, in this case that balance lies between the rules that govern the world of literature and the author’s drive to create something that is not formulaic but original. I think that NAHMED could try to explain this to their students in the hopes of coaxing out more original works from the students. Also when it comes to poetry I always think of the work of William Carlos Williams in which there almost are no rule to the content of a poem.

  10.   jaygwelsh

    In response to what Professor Frost mentioned earlier about the constrictions that formulas place on creative freedom, I would agree on the example of a sonnet (although this in turn can be easily applied to any other poetry form as well). A sonnet not only has a line limitation – fourteen lines – but also has a certain meter imposed (depending on if the sonnet was Shakespearean, Petrarchan, etc). With all of these limitations in place, one would suspect that all sonnets would sound the same. If anything, the opposite is true – sonnets can cover essentially any topic in almost any fashion with little exception to its own rules. How? True, there is a factory formula to a sonnet, but a sonnet is still written by a person, a person who thinks differently from everyone else. A person’s voice is loud enough to shout down the limitations and impose their own style upon the sonnet. After all, isn’t a sonnet a poem, and a poem an expression of the poet? This, of course, fits in with Lord’s research concerning the Slavic poets, who subtly shift their oral poetry into something new for nearly every performance (59-61). Although it takes immense skill to twist a line into something new while retaining its same meter, it is perfectly doable. The only thing that metric limitations truly accomplish is giving all of the poets – both masters and amateurs – a rough path to follow to the poem’s end.

    And as for what Sarah said concerning the linguistic extinction in the modern day, it is a sad matter. I have studied linguistics before and I was shocked to see how many languages are not only dead, but also how many of the ones left are teetering on the edge as well. We could commit these languages to paper in an attempt to preserve them. However, we have been discussing how oral cultures use language mainly as a means to pass information down to the next generation. And in a world where indigenous people are constantly threatened and globalization is spreading English as the lingua franca, there is no longer a point to passing down the local history and – in some cases – there is no next generation to pass the language down to.


  11.   Sean Nicholson

    While reading the work by Ong one of the things that stood out to me was his discussion of and departure from the term ‘oral literature’. I found it interesting in a chapter in which he makes note several times of the sheer number of words in languages like English, that he finds himself unable to come up with a better replacement for the term oral literature. Eventually he settles on the term ‘voicings’ but quickly acknowledges its shortcomings in the following lines, “‘Voicings” seems to have too many competing associations, though if anyone thinks the term buoyant enough to launch, I will certainly aid efforts to keep it afloat” (pg. 14). Maybe it is a testament to the second-chair treatment that orality experiences that there isn’t a proper term for it in our writing based system of language.

  12.   etanzer

    On principle I have to disagree with what the author has said about sign languages, that “despite the richness of gesture, elaborated gestures or sign languages are substitutes for speech and dependent on oral speech systems even when used by the congenitally deaf.” (7) True, in the past teachers of the deaf focused on teaching Signing Exact English to their students with the belief that it would help their students be better readers and writers. However, this was proven to be an inferior method of communication. Since the 1990s, teachers of the deaf have communicated using American Sign Language, which is a visual/pictorial language. It has its own grammar, etc. In a way, ASL is the “oral” language of the deaf. If you’re interested, there are ASL poems online. A favorite of mine is “ASL Bully”

    Another point that I thought was interesting was the fact that oral performances are more likely to be considered “voicings” (14). This makes me question what oral literature is produced these days. Is the question “what is literature” applicable even to oral literature? Is oral literature simply NOT written literature? I wonder if this is too strong a distinction in the modern world. Thoughts?

  13.   Sean Rogers

    I suppose revision and it’s corollary bridles on unattenuated freedom seem to be what’s pissing everyone off. Revision and it’s rules. But as members of the physical universe we’re constantly governed by rules, kinda you know how like Santa’s always watching. In the trees and clouds and in brains. The evolution of consciousness and it’s ability to foster abstraction and interior presence just makes the rules a little fuzzier. Mired in solipsistic anxiety over the presentation of a paper or down to a text message to someone new, that you might like, you think you like, definitely for sure could like if it weren’t for this endless guessing of what’s going on in there while she/he is obviously doing the same thing. Which is akin to the verbal parry’s of I think Ireland where agonistic bartering in a game of questions was simply more overt where now everything is a secret: cue paranoia and the prescription of xanax to return you to pre literate self. So we’re constantly revising except that with writing we know the basic rules and we have access to essentially a time machine that would be infinitely more useful socially. Which brings me to an interesting little paradox from IJ where the tennis coach basically believes that there is no freedom without rules, as rules create standards to make choices and freedom is about the exercise of choice, not actually doing whatever you want. So as agonizing as it can be in the “hell is other people” sense it does offer a chance at the divine which could be the swelling of individual ego that corresponded to the schizoid talking to yourself that began the day they started writing stuff down but it seems to make sense, to me at least (obviously). I think part of the sentimental pang that the essay created was the kind old republicans get about the 1950’s. It seems like to exist beyond yourself, outside of time in the “evanescence” of sound where communities subsisted on immediacy is the paradise that Eve killed (Adam too for the feminists). But communal consciousness was simply a broader trap, as those within that construct couldn’t communicate with the people of an entirely different oral tradition. So for the integration of cultures and the kinds of diversity that keep CUNY schools in business we had to abandon this broader construct in order to communicate more broadly. Which is paradoxically a more lonely existence, I agree. I haven’t talked to a new person comfortably since freshmen year of undergrad when everyone was so happy to see everybody only to be incredibly paranoid about the intimate faux pas casually expiated to essentially a stranger and how that was going to reach others down the hall etc. This was a long article with a lot in it and it’s making me ramble a little and since blogs have very little rules I’m enjoying my “freedom” I suppose, which is really a disinterest in rules as this still has an audience, with their own solipsistic worlds creating French existential hell for a scribe once he takes a second to think about it. Submit. Oh by the way, favorite part of the essay is the “stop kicking my body” part.

  14.   Najila

    I feel that one reason some people might not enjoy writing something by following a standard format is because it hinders one’s “creativity.” For some people, formulaic writing may come easy but for others it puts a sort of pressure on the piece and they stress about not deviating from the rules. Personally, if I were asked to write a sonnet, I would painstakingly try to come up with lines and words that would in the end fit a sonnet shape rather than a piece that naturally flows out like a sonnet. The piece would then be more about the concept of a sonnet than it would be about the message in the piece. That creative piece would not stand on it’s own as something separate and new.

    I feel that some parts of an oral culture is with us still and will always be with us. Someone said last week in class much of the Judaic culture was oral and I realized that much of the Islamic culture was/is, too. The Qu’ran, in fact, is only the Qu’ran when recited orally, not read. Muslims do not consider the written book as the actual Qu’ran. In the first few years the Arabs had the entire Qu’ran memorized and it was only written down after many years later. I kept this in mind throughout the first part of chapter 3 under “Sounded word as power and action” where Ong discusses the total absence of writing and the art of rhythmic thinking and mnemonic patterns. Though one has to do more with memorization I feel that once someone has memorized something that important to them, it does become a part of their every day thought.

    In regards to his earlier chapter, I felt unsettled by Ong’s comparison of oral literature to that of horses as automobiles (12-13). I wasn’t satisfied with that comparison because I feel that it doesn’t convincingly cement the idea of oral literature “only being what it is not.” Automobiles do not come from horses in any way in the sense that there is no part of an animal that goes into the making of a machine that is the automobile. Mainly because I wonder if this could work in reverse. Is an automobile just what it is not? Is literature just an un-oral-ness, so to speak?

  15.   mmullin1

    Ong’s points about the early “primary oral” societies that were not connected to literacy in any way was very interesting. In those times, people did not have anything to reference to when speking of he past or explaining something. It is crazy to see how such a society could survive when you look at how lost someone can get without some form of literature reassuring them that they are not wrong. But how were these societies not in some form lierate and can have a record of it. At some point, every society has to become literate because how else can a literate based society know about them. I guess what I am saying is that if you are a literate society, word of mouth, orality, is always turned into text.

    To answer Nick’s post, I don’t think we are compromising the very art of creation by rendering it to text. The reason I think this is because ideas can only be improved upon when they are made into text. Teachers often let students revise papers because they think that a student can go over a previous copy of their own text and improve it.

    —Matt Mullin

  16.   dsykes

    The assertion by Matt that “ideas can only be improved upon when they are made into text” resonates the relationship between writing and study the Ong declares in chapter one. Ong writes, “Human beings in primary oral cultures, those untouched by writing in any form, learn a great deal and possess and practice great wisdom, but they do not study”(Ong, 9.) Although the writing process of revision affords us the opportunity for the effective building up of ideas, it is not the only means for development of clarity, eloquence or scrutiny of learned materials.
    I would venture to examine that text is merely a medium for expression that has a different dynamic than that of audio and speech. The process of studying is not necessarily bound by the constraints of this medium as there are various ways in which people are able to “learn”; depending upon the individual, they are most susceptible to visual, auditory or kinesthetic learning. In turn, the different methods of teaching must have different ways of “studying” or developing theories and practices. Student who are better able to learn through carrying out an activity are able to study through honing learned skills. I am sure that although this may not necessarily be observed as “studying” in circles of academia, a mechanic or electrician would find that performing or listening are valid forms of study for various trades.

  17.   mooneydanielle7

    I think this is answering a few different posts. I find that the formulaic nature of a paper is too different from the fluidity of thought or speech. I might know exactly what I’d want to convey in an essay, but then sit there and stare at the computer screen for an hour figuring out how to write the first sentence. Then I’m bound by the challenge of writing an introduction that attracts the reader without giving away too much. The fluidity is gone once I have to construct it onto paper.

    When I was student reaching, I would stay after school to help students with their AP essays. There was this one girl whose essay never really had any substance and she would come to me for help time and again. I’d say to her, “okay, paper aside, what do you know about this topic?” Then she’d proceed to tell me correct facts and good analysis of the novel. My suggestion would be to write down exactly what she said, and she responded “I did.” There was a gap from the information in her head to the information on the paper and she didn’t seem to understand why. Her essay made sense in her head because she knew what she meant, but to the outside reader it was vague and fluffy.

    In chapter one of Ong there was a line I found interesting. It states, “‘Reading’ a text means converting it to sound, aloud or in the imagination” (8). This makes me think about how writing works the same way. When we think about anything it sort of just floats around in our minds, but once we have to write a paper about it we stop and search for the best word, and then harp on grammar and citations. Typing into this blog right now is flowing as though I were typing in an IM or text, but if this needed an intro and conclusion I’d be typing much slower and jotting notes on a side sheet of paper. So why is it that brainstorming or typed-out conversation isn’t visualized in my head, but paper writing forces me to almost think slower and figure out the language I want to use?

  18.   Jason G.

    I felt compelled to respond to Professor Frost’s question “do you think freedom/fun is hampered by formulas”. As a creative writing student I’m constantly following rules as well as breaking them. While I agree that learning formulas can be a bit tiresome and monotonous in the end they are essential to having fun. For example
    learning literary terms and devices can be a dry process but how else will be improve and thus enjoy our writing if we do not have them. Getting to the second part of the question, “why isn’t it fun to write something following a standard format, what about a sonnet”. I’d argue that it can be a lot to create following a standard format. In my own writing I find poetry can take on an endless amount of forms so having a set of rules from time to time can be a nice change of pace as well as inspire ideas I wouldn’t normally have when writing free form.

    -Jason G.

  19.   pseraphin

    I don’t understand why we have to make a difference between orality and literacy. I don’t agree that literacy began with writing. How were people able to communicate before writing? Everything we do in writing is done in spoken language. I am well aware of the thousands of languages that have not produced any literature. It is sad because written literature suvives for centuries but it doesn’t mean that becausse it was not written that they don’t have literature. A lot of the written literature were oral tales that were culturally passed from on generation to another before someone ever even thought of writting them. Sometimes they have been around for so long that the author is unknown.
    “The purely oral tradition or primary orality is not easy to conceive of accurately and meaningfully. Writing makes words appear similar to things because we think of words as the visible marks signaling words to decoders: we can see and touch such inscribed ‘words’ in texts and books. Written words are residue. Oral tradition has no residue or deposit.” I disagree with this statment. To say that writing makes words appear similar to things is to say that oral language diminishes the power of words. As we read what is written we have to focus more because the sound is not present therefore we transform these sounds as images in our brain to better process what we are reading therefore I believe we do the same with oral language except we may not take the time to create images because the proces of undersatnding is done faster.
    “Without writing, words have no visual presence, even when the objects they present are visual. They are sounds.” I totally disagree.

  20.   Joshua Lindenbaum

    As I read Chapter One I asked myself: is it really important to compare and contrast oral culture to literate culture? I do find it interesting that Homo Sapiens have supposedly been around for roughly 50,000 years and the earliest writing found is only 6,000 years old. If this is the case, then we as humans have moved far away from our foundations. And according to some authors, we have ignored that oral culture. Have we? Or has it transformed. . . morphed into something new?

    With recording equipment widely available, you see people listening to music everywhere, watching television, and using cell phones. There is no longer a need to memorize. But it may be important to see how writing affects us and the benefits and weaknesses of a literate culture. I guess this is why this comparison is important.

    Have we lost our ancestors’ skills? Most people can’t even memorize a phone number let alone a book. Perhaps, even though we have writing, it would be nice to be able to memorize . . . to have language at your disposal and not be completely reliant on technology and text. But having writing allows for “study,” growing language, documenting of history, preservation of the conventions of English, and having the opportunity to access a wealth of information. In a writing or literate society you can be an independent learner, and not have to rely on a sage for information. Both societies have their ups and downs. It may be wise that we pay more attention to those of the past. For a picture can say a thousand words, but that same picture says three thousand sounds. It would be nice if we could combine the positive aspects of both cultures to be a more well-rounded society.

  21.   coach アウトレット

    I really like it whenever people come together and share
    thoughts. Great site, continue the good work!

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  • Listening “Literature” implies a written text. But what about the audiotext? Why do we refer to the “audience” (from the Latin audiens, listening) of a literary work? This course is about listening to literature and reading performance. ____________________________________
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