Response to Ong’s Orality and Literacy – Chapters 1-4

Week 2 of Communications Lab @ ITP:

In Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong draws from cultural anthropology, Greco-Roman classical antiquity, and modern (McCluhan and company) to illustrate the differences between primary oral cultures (societies that do not have written language) and “chirographic” or literate cultures.  Ong rejects the term “oral literature” as “preposterous.”  The term “literature” implies writing, but oral storytelling is not simply unwritten stories.  Ong claims that there are fundamental structural differences between orality and literacy.  He points out that these differences are hard to grasp for people like us in predominately literate societies, as the written word has influenced so much of our culture.  From a historical standpoint, orality is more the norm than literacy.  Writing is a relatively recent development in human history, and even today, with about 3,000 languages in the world, only 78 have what could be considered “literature.”

The sharp distinction between orality and literacy are is inherently problematic.  Ong himself admits that the origins of language is oral.  In the state of cognitive development, even in literate societies, people start out oral first, then they become literate.  Ong introduces the concept of “residual orality,” meaning vestiges of orality even in literate cultures.  In this way, orality is so central to the human condition, as a cognitive and psycho-linguistic phenomenon, that it does not disappear with the onset of orality, but rather changes and is augmented by literacy.  But of course this change and augmentation is not necessarily “lossless.”

Ong provides a list of 9 characteristics of thought and expression characteristic of oral cultures that differentiate them from chirographic ones:

1. Expression is additive rather an subordinative

2. Aggregative rather than analytic

Ong claims that oral cultures are more likely to use set expressions or “clichés” than literate cultures, although these set expressions linger even in post-literate cultures.  Even if Ong meant no value judgement, I question whether this is not due to social prejudices and taste, rather than something instrinsic to literacy.

3. Redundant or “copious”

I’ve read some pretty redundant and copius text in my day, and heard a lot of redundant and copius speeches and sermons, so I don’t know if this is something we have moved away from in a literate society ;).  In any case, Ong admits that this redundancy and “copiousness” of style persisted up until the early 20th century in Anglophone cultures, so is this really something unique to orality, or is it merely a shift in stylistic norms?

4. There is a tendency for it to be conservative

With no way to preserve knowledge in the long term, oral societies must spend a great deal of energy in repeating and performing oral knowledge as a way of remembering and transmitting that knowledge.

Even though writing allows you to preserve culture and collective memory, the written corpus becomes to vast for people to keep track of.  Knowledge still has to be repeated and orally performed in post-literate cultures in order for it to be passed down.

5. Close to the human lifeworld – “primary oral culture is little concerned with preserving knowledge of skills as an abstract, self-subsistent corpus.”

Even so, oral cultures are able to construct elaborate and fantastical legends and fables, so there is no lack of imagination there.  I would argue that there is rich metaphor and symbolism in oral traditions, even if there is not what Ong would consider to be “abstraction.”  But maybe I am missing Ong’s point here.  In any case, as someone completely immersed in a chirographic society, it is really hard to comprehend a primary oral society, let alone analyze it.  Our whole world view is filtered through the lens of written language.

Ong himself declares, “[f]reeing ourselves of chirographic and typographic bias in our understanding of language is probably more difficult than any of us can imagine.”  Yet is it impossible?  In writing the book, Ong seems to have believed that he has been able to bridge the gap and attained some degree of understanding of a primary oral state.  But we are never able to free ourselves from a chirographic/typographic bias, so we will never know for sure.

6. Agonistically toned – “orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle”

Ong writes, “Growing up in a still dominantly oral culture, certain black males in the US, the Caribbean and elsewhere, engage in what is known variously as the ‘dozens’ or ‘joning’ or ‘sounding’ or by other names, in which one opponent tries to outdo the other in vilifying the other’s mother.”

This is echoed in the way as hip hop MC’s “do battle.”  This also reminds me of the ball culture depicted in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, where “combattants” from rival “houses” engage in verbal duels known as “reading.”

7. Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced

Writing in 1982, Ong could not have predicted the phenomenon of internet chatting, which makes written communication a widespread “live” interactive phenomenon, rather than a distanced, one-way communication.

8. Homeostatic – “oral societies live very much in the present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance”

While this is true, politicians and people working in PR know the limits of collective memory.  The scandal of yesteryear is quickly forgotten in the media deluge of the modern news cycle.  There are limits to individual and collective memory due to the vast amounts of information floating around.  Of course, written language allows us to keep a record of the past, but up until very recently, this has been a tedious process that has required access to historical records and the ability to conduct research.  In the post-Google age, the internet now becomes an easily searchable collection of knowledge that can be quickly retrieved.  It becomes harder to bury the past in the stacks of imposing archives.

9.  Situational rather than abstract – people in oral cultures tend to think more about the situation – the here and now – rather than the abstract hypothetical

Part of the power (and the limitation) of oral language is its dependence on place and time.  Once a word is verbally uttered, it is gone.  It has an ephemeral quality that the written word does not.  Oral language is always tied in with physical action, whereas written language can be preserved and transmitted with ease.

In Ong’s words, “Sound exists only when it is going out of existence…Sight isolates, sound incorporates.  Whereas sight situates the observer outside what he views, at a distance, sound pours into the hearer…The spoken word forms human beings into close-knit groups.”

If this is true, then reading something off of a printed page (or computer screen) is not the same as hearing the same words live in a room.  There is a socially cohesive quality to the spoken language, as well as a mystical quality, as Ong points out in the theological example of God ‘speaking’ to human beings in Christianity.

In chapters 1-3, Ong primarily addresses orality, but in chapter 4, Ong addresses the characteristics of writing.  He claims that “[m]ore than any single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.”  Writing, like computers, is a form of technology and completely artificial. But Ong does not condemn this artificiality, but instead praises it.  He states that “[t]echnologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness…writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.”

In this way, one could infer that humans and technology are mutually transformative.  Humans alter the environment to create technology.  They create paper and inks to write language, thus transforming raw materials into something new.  But this technology of writing likewise changes people’s ability to think and reason.

When Ong starts talking about Asian language scripts, he starts to drop the ball a bit.  He predicts that Chinese characters will eventually disappear as pinyin (Chinese romanization) and the Mandarin ‘dialect’ is spread throughout the People’s Republic of China.  While pinyin romanization is now firmly established as a pedagogical tool in teaching Chinese to beginning readers in China and foreigners learning Chinese as a second language, the characters (hanzi) are not going anywhere anytime soon.  While the character set has been simplified in Mainland China, the traditional character set is still in use in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and much of the Chinese diaspora.  Also, his claim that the Chinese ‘dialects’ (which are actually mutually unintelligible languages sharing a common root, much like French, Spanish and Italian all derive from Latin) are “basically of the same structure” is also false.  There is structural similarity, but modern written Chinese (which replaced classical Chinese – wenyenwen, an archaic written language with a similar function to Learned Latin in the European Middle Ages) in the early 20th century is based on spoken Mandarin.  Even if native speakers of Cantonese or Taiwanese are proficient in written Chinese, there is a big gap between the written language they use and their actual spoken language.

He also makes a factual error about Japanese script.  Japanese is not written with “a syllabary and Chinese characters,” but TWO syllabaries and Chinese characters (kanji).  The two syllabaries – hiragana and katakana – both express the same sounds, so are technically interchangeable, but have distinct roles in the written language based on stylistic usage.  Also the Chinese characters often have 2 or more ‘readings’ or pronunciations based on the context.  They are not pronounced only, as Ong describes, “in its own non-Chinese way.”  Some kanji readings are based on and attempt to imitate Chinese loanwords to Japanese, although the pronunciations have changed over time and been adapted to the Japanese phonetic system.  Other readings are purely Japanese, and the characters have only been borrowed semantically, with no regard to the Chinese pronunciations.  This would be akin to us writing French words in English, but pronouncing them in English, i.e. if I wrote “oiseau” but pronounced it “bird.”  Although this analogy is a bit awkward because French and English both use more-or-less phonetic alphabets, whereas the Chinese ideographs are not phonetic.  Finally, Ong’s description of Korean being a hybrid of Chinese characters and the Korean alphabet is no longer true, as the Korean alphabet is now almost always used exclusively in writing in all but the most academic contexts in Korea.