Orality and Literacy by Walter Ong


Main Points:

Among the 3,000 or so languages which currently exist only 78 have a literature (page 7, from Edmonson 1971, 323, 332)

Writing restructures Consciousness.

Oral memory revolves around the story line and characterization.

Literate cultures have stories with a linear plot, and by nature have a detachment between the writer and the reader.

Ong mentions a 'second orality' emerging in Western culture- that of TV, telephones and Internet (electronic mediums).  It "incorporates elements from both the chirographic mode and the orality mode which has been subordinant for some time."

Ong goes back to the time of Homer to rediscover primary orality.  In Homer's works, as well as in the Bible, many formulaic saying are used.  The sayings are formulaic because they aid in memorization.  This is a mnemonic device- used by oral cultures- for the purposes of retaining information.

Other mnemonic devices used by oral cultures are:

Ong concluded that writing restructures human consciousness.  Our need to memorize decreased with literature.  It no longer requires stories to be passed down from generation to generation.  Oral cultures changed the stories over time to relate to the current culture and make it easier to relate to the story, which doesn't occur with literature.

Literacy and Orality by Ruth Finnegan (my paper):

We have basic preconceptions of oral cultures- many of which are false.  Literate cultures are not better or more advanced than oral cultures.  The idea of a primitive man who is incapable of reasoning does is a false stereotype of oral culture.

Literature is possible in oral cultures- it simply has a different format.  Stories are passed from generation to generation by story telling.  There isn't a concept of a 'true' version of the story as in literate cultures.

Literacy allowed for the development of modern economic, political and social systems.  Writing allowed for written laws (politics / government / society).  Writing allowed mathematical and accounting systems to be set up (economics / trade).

Modern telecommunication goes above orality and literacy- it allows us to communicate over great distances with incredible speed.  Some of the qualities of oral communication that were lost with literacy are restored by telecommunication.