Ong: Orality and Literacy, Theorems

Possession and Individualism

The written word is permanent. That much is made clear over the course of Ong’s book. It is, after all Ong’s book. A portion of the switch over from orality to literacy is necessarily tied to a switch from communal ownership of thought to the attribution of works, thoughts and beliefs to their “founders.” Ong writes: “The evolution of consciousness through human history is marked by growth in articulate attention to the interior of the individual person as distanced — though not necessarily separated — from the communal structures in which each person is necessarily enveloped” (174). The Homeric epics are attributed to Homer just as the Harry Potter novels are attributed to J.K. Rowling, and the differences between the two (aside from their “epic-ness”) couldn’t be starker).  Plato was more easily able to communicate his personal belief that writing is lesser to orality only though writing, and we are only able to know that that was his belief because it was committed in writing. The permanence of writing is linked to the immortality that it invokes on its authorship, but also in the differentiation that it allows for from other writers and people. For the first time, writing enabled complete precision in what was said/written. It allowed for total control over language used, and allowed for differentiation. Rather than speaking via proverbs and pre-determined phrases people were opened up to the possibility of using selected diction, selected syntax. Writing enabled a means of individuals communicating their own thoughts with their own sense of language. This allowed for the idea of people to see themselves as part of a greater community rather than a singular unit.


To account for individuals’ personal use of words and language, both in writing and in speaking requires a catalog of some sort of the way that certain words are used and where their meanings are derived from. Early on it had to be agreed that certain words refer to certain things. There, at one time, had to be someone somewhere–perhaps it was Adam, perhaps it wasn’t, who decided that an apple was called and apple, that man was called man, and that language was, just that, language. Over the thousands of years that language has shaped human existence it is easy to forget that it is human existence that shapes language. One needs only look at how word usage changes over time to realize this. The evolution of language, therefore, is reliant on having the capacity to track what words mean and how that meaning changes in order for the language to remain accessible, compressible, even functional. Imagine what a different world it would be if there was no way to figure out what certain words were referring to cross-culturally and cross-lingually. For example, if an apple–specifically the semi-spherical fruit that has a stem and pale flesh beneath its outer surface was instead called an “orange” life wouldn’t necessarily be any different than it is, that is, if it was universally agreed (at least in the english-speaking world), that the semi-spherical, shiny, fruit, with a stem was called an orange, life would continue as it has been. Ong writes, “text is fundamentally pretext–though this does not mean that text can be reduced to orality” (165). What does that mean? Text can not exist without the initial understanding that orality requires a shared understanding, that is, there must be a community of like-minded thinkers if the individuals therein wish to be able to understand one another. Only once there has been an agreed-upon means for discourse to take place can a method of cataloging what that “means” is in text form. Text is necessarily derived from orality, but text cannot be “reduced to orality.” (165)

One-Way Only?

It’s interesting to consider the fact that writing, birthed from orality, had no singular  impetus. It seems that a collective push from many aspects of life-be it the memory aspect, the ownership aspect, the mere lexicographical aspect, or even just the unavoidable fact that language will continue to evolve–pushed for the development of writing and literacy. I don’t believe there to be a single “answer” just as I don’t think orality came about for a singular reason. We’ve already discussed and agreed that once literacy has been implemented there is no reverting to pure orality. Why is that? Is it because writing hinders the mind or because it reshapes the way thoughts are processed? Assumedly it is because literacy and writing externalize language and resultantly conceptualizes it as a medium rather than something that is integral to daily life. In orality there is no means of talking about language itself because the orality is the medium. It is impossible to talk about what you are talking about in the moment if there is no way of specifying the words used. Once language and orality gain an identity that is when writing begins to exist. Once people gain the capacity to recognize that language itself is not “natural,” but a construct of mankind to define and comprehend the world around them they gain the capacity to write. With that realization comes the revelation that words are tools to be wielded and ultimately rhetorical in nature.

21st Century Implications

In the modern day, writing takes on increasingly varied forms. Email, social media, video conferencing, etc. all contribute to the modern notion of what it means to “write.” Writing, as a form of technology, is essentially a tool that, along with other tools that are created (i.e. new technological advances) are used to provide increasingly more mobile forms of communication and understanding. In the future I think that the way that people communicate will continue to evolve and that, while it may be vastly different from how communication is carried out today, it will still follow, to some degree, along the basses of orality and literacy. There is an undeniable paradox, as technology makes information readily accessible it also allows for greater isolation. With ease of access to a broader and broader range of services and products, information and knowledge, comes a lessened need for interpersonal interaction. Eventually I can imagine a world where people live isolated from each other, where self-driving cars will take us to stores that function independent of human workers, where language reverts and primary orality resurges. I can also imagine a world that is forever bound to the literary aspects that it developed. It’s hard to imagine a world without literacy when it seems to be integral to society today, but perhaps in the future the written word will be replaced solely with consciousness and perhaps the vulcan-like transmission of understanding.


2 thoughts on “Ong: Orality and Literacy, Theorems

  1. Your second theorem reminds me of semiology — the study of signs (a topic that Ong touches upon toward the end of the book). In particular, your comment “if an apple… was instead called an ‘orange’ life wouldn’t necessarily be any different” reminds of the semiotic notion of arbitrariness — that is, that “words” and what they signify have a arbitrary but permanent relationship. What intrigues me is your comment that “life wouldn’t necessarily be any different.” That poses a great question: do our words shape our reality? As we limit our words, do our words limit us? (Here’s a video that touches this topic: ) In my opinion, while calling an apple an orange wouldn’t change much, but when we get to abstractions and our understanding of the universe/religion/etc., that’s were we run the risk of self-imposed barriers. To quote you from your last theorem: “words are tools to be wielded and ultimately rhetorical in nature.” Words shape our understanding. And if they shape, then they limit. Instead of looking at them as a tool, I like to look at them as a mirror. We have invented the mirror and made it into being, but perhaps the reflection isn’t perfect — maybe we have (un)intentionally warped it in our design.


  2. You mentioned a curiosity about what exactly caused the push for literacy and the written word – I might wonder the same thing about the development of social media and the internet. And could we go back to only literacy? Or is it the same in that once we enter into a dependence on the interenet, we cannot go back, as once entering literacy prevents a return to strict orality?


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