Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word: Notes, Quotes and Summary

Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word: Notes and Quotes
 Walter J. Ong 

So Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word is a classic! Its written with the intrigue of an adventure story with the detail, patience and rigour of an academic and the top of their game. It is truly a wealth of anecdotes, studies and ideas. Parts might have dated but as a set of questions, ideas and provocations it is as contemporary in its focus now, as much as ever.

I make fairly detailed notes when I read something useful and after the positive feedback I got from my summary and notes of James Gleick The Information I thought I’d post some similar rough summaries.

As with my other notes and quotes, the following isn’t intended to replace or replicate everything in the books. Get a hold of Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word its really worth it! Hopefully once you’ve read it this might be useful for navigation and quotation.


Oral thinking is fundamentally different from literate thinking. The distinctive features of Homeric verse is almost entirely down to oral method. Oral knowledge needs to be repeated to be remembered. Plato is anti-writing but actually his whole arguments rely on writing, not only in their construction but the internalization of the alphabet leading to the notion of ‘the ideal realm’. Communication is essential for oral communication to keep ideas remembered. Oral culture must think memorable thoughts, the patterns of mnemonics determine what can be thought and remembered. Writing frees us up from these structures and lets us think different thoughts. Oral communication is more: conservative, embedded in the human lifeworld, agonistic and situational rather than abstract. Modern Slavic oral traditions still continue and if an orator learns literacy their powers of oral storytelling deteriorate. Summaries Plato’s arguments against writing: outside the mind (real knowledge can only be inside), will deteriorate memory, a text is unresponsive (cannot get more from it) and cannot defend itself. Although Plato’s arguments only develop out of his knowledge of literacy (and so does the philosophical tradition). Philosophy is artificial a technology. But artificiality is natural to humans. Print encourages us to think of knowledge as contained within things (and alters our understanding of things like memory palaces as containers of knowledge etc.). All communication is intersubjective as I’ve already worked out to a small extent how the other might respond. I am in their mind, they are in mine.

Primary orality [is] that of persons totally unfamiliar with writing.

language is so overwhelmingly  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 to a degree sufficient to have produced literature, and most have never been written at all. Of the some 3000 languages spoken that exist today only some 78 have a literature (Edmonson 1971 pp. 323, 332)

[computer languages are not languages] “they do not grow out of the unconscious but directly out of consciousness. Computer language rules (‘grammar’) are stated first and thereafter used. The ‘rules’ of grammar in natural human languages are used first and can be abstracted from usage and stated explicitly in words only with difficulty and never completely.

[Oral literature is a bad term, it is retroactive,]
 “like thinking of horses and automobiles without wheels … in the send, horses are only [defined by] what they are not”

[Milman Parry 1928:] “Parry’s discovery might be put this way: virtually every distinctive feature of Homeric poetry is due to the economy enforced on it by oral methods of composition.”

“in an oral culture, knowledge, once acquired, had to be constantly repeated or it would be lost: fixed, formulaic thought patterns were essential for wisdom and effective administration”

[Plato was anti writing but his dialogue forms, although presented as oral, actually relied on writing to organise his thinking]


the beginnings of Greek philosophy were tied in with the restricting of thought brought about by writing. Plato’s exclusion of poets from his Republic was in fact Plato’s rejection of the pristine aggregative, oral-style thinking perpetuated in Homer in favour of the keen analysis or dissection of the world and of thought itself made possible by the interiorization of the alphabet in the Greek psyche.

“In oral culture, restriction of words to sound determines not only modes of expression but also thought processes.

“Aides-memorie such as notched sticks or a series of carefully arranged objects will not themselves retrieve a complicated series of assertions. How, in fact, could a lengthy analytic solution ever be assembled in the first place. An interlocutor is virtually essential: it is hard to talk to yourself for hours on end. Sustained thought in an oral culture is tied to communication

“But even with a listener to stimulate and ground your thought, the bits and pieces of your thought cannot be preserved in jotted notes. How could you ever call back to mind what you had so laboriously worked out? The only answer is: Think memorable thoughts. In a primary oral culture, to solve effectively the problem of retaining ands retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thought must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions, or antithese, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic or other formulary expressions, in standard thematic settings (the assembly, the meal, the duel, the ‘hero’s helper’, and so on), in proverbs which are constantly heard by everyone and so that they come to mind readily and which themselves are patterned for retention and ready recall, or in other mnemonic form. Serious thought is intertwined with memory systems. Mnemonic needs determine even syntax (Havelock 1963 pp. 87-96, 131-2, 294-6)


“Formulas help implement rhythmic discourse and also acts as mnemonic aids in their own right, as set expressions circulating thought the mouths and ears of all. ‘Red in the morning, the sailors warning; red in the night, the sailors delight’ [… etc.] Fixed, often rhythmically balanced, expressions of this sort and of other sorts can be found occasionally in print, indeed can be ‘looked up’ in books of sayings, but in oral cultures they are not occasional. They are incessant. They form the substance of thought itself. Thought in any extended form is impossible without them, for it consists in them”

“In an oral culture, to think through something in a non-formulaic, non-pattered, non-mnemonic terms, even if it were possible, would be a waste of time, for such thought, once worked through, could never be recovered with any effectiveness, as it could be with the aid of writing.”


“Heavy patterning and communal fixed formulas in oral cultures serve some of the purposes in writing in chirographic cultures, but in doing so they of course determine the kind of thinking that can be done, the way experience is intellectually organized’
[R: What I think Ong is saying is that writing enables us to move away from this kind of determinism in our expression. The final section of the book he draws out arguments that he recontextualises as about orality vs. literacy a kind of before and after. He does register concerns that writing and print alter our capacity for expression but in an entirely different way (a less dramatic one I think?)]

41 [Conservative or traditionalist]
“Since in a primary oral culture conceptualised knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages. This need establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation.”
“By storing knowledge outside the mind, writing and, even more, print downgrade the figures of the wise old man and the wise old woman, repeaters of the past, in favour of younger discoverers of something new. Writing is of course conservative in its own ways. Shortly after it appeared in, it served to freeze legal codes in early Sumeria (Oppenheim 1964 p. 232.) But by taking conservative functions on itself, the text frees the mind of conservative tasks, that is, of its memory work, and thus enables the mind to turns itself to new speculation (Havelock 1963 p. 254-305)”
“Indeed, the residual orality of a given chirographic culture can be calculated to a degree from the mnemonic load it leaves on the mind, that is, from the amount of memorization the culture’s educational procedures require (Goody 1968a p. 13-14)

[Oral as close to the human lifeworld]
“an oral culture has no vehicle so neutral as a list”
[something like the catalogue of ships is not abstract, it] is not a neutral list but an account describing personal relations (Goody and Watt p. 32) Oral cultures know few statistics or facts divorced from human or quasi-human activity.

43 [oral is agonistically toned]
[writing] “separates the knower from the known. By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle. Proverbs and riddles are not used simply to store knowledge but to engage others in verbal and intellectual combat”
[It is common to find these word battles or flyting in oral cultures.]
“Growing up in a still dominantly oral culture, certain young black males in the United States, the Caribbean and elsewhere, engage in what is known variously as the ‘dozens’ or ‘joining’ or ‘sounding’ or by other names, ion which one opponent tries to outdo the other in vilifying the other’s mother. The dozens is not a real fight but an art form, as are the other stylized verbal tongue lashings in other cultures.”
[R: in a sense modern (recorded) rap kind of represent this technological separation. There is no one to ‘dis’ so the target becomes vague or it turns inwards to ‘bigging yourself up’.
So too with stand-up comedy its like a verbal battle of one-upman-ship but alone?]

[The art of rhetoric and the dialogues of Socrates and Plato are based on this agonistic form of orality but can only be composed using writing]

[Orality is situational rather than abstract]
“Oral cultures tend to use concepts in situational, operational frames of reference that are minimally abstract and in a sense that they remain close to the living human lifeworld.”
“They never dealt with abstract circles or squares but rather with concrete objects”
[Modern anthropology tested oral people and found they had very different ways of categorising”

“They were convinced that thinking other than operational thinking, that is categorical thinking, was not important uninteresting, trivialising”

“Most of these living South Slavic narrative poets [they are in former Yugoslavia, Bosnia, etc. Bordering with Greece] – and indeed all the better ones – are illiterate. Learning to read and write disables the oral poet, Lord found: it introduces into his mind the concept of a text as controlling the narrative and thereby interferes with the oral composing process, which have nothing to do with texts but are ‘the remembrance of songs sung’ (Peabody 1975, p.216)

[Reciting using tools]

“The aborigines of Australia and other area often make string figures together with their songs. Other peoples manipulate beads on strings. Most descriptions of bards include stringed instruments or drums”
[R: in this instance the drums are not a separate technology from the recitation methods – extended mind thesis]

[Oral cultures are verbomotor i.e. to into account lots of non-verbal actions in communication and are less object orientated]
[example of in Cork asking a man a question and getting a question back]
“He treated the enquiry not as a request for information but as something the enquirer was doing to him […] Always answer a question by asking another. Never let down your oral guard”

[Plato’s arguments against writing in Phaedrus and Seventh Letter]

1. “Writing, Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedrus, is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can be only in the mind. It is a thing, a manufactured product.”

2. “writing destroys memory” and “weakens the mind”

3. “a written text is basically unresponsive” “If you ask a person to explain his or her statement, you can get an explanation; if you ask a text, you get back nothing except the same, often stupid, words that called for your question in the first place. In the modern critique of the computer, the same object is put, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

4. “the written word cannot defend itself as the natural spoken word can”

“Havelock has beautifully shown (163) [that] Plato’s entire epistemology was unwittingly a programmed rejection of the old oral, mobile, personally interactive lifeworld of oral culture”
“Platonic ideas are voiceless, immobile, devoid of all warmth, not interacted but isolated, not part of the human lifeworld at all but utterly above and beyond it.”
[Plato had internalized his tools unconsciously]

“To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realisation of fuller, interior, human potentials.”

“Technologies are artificial, but – paradox again – artificiality is natural to human beings.”


“Nothing of Plato’s analytic targeting on an abstract concept of justice is to be found in any known purely oral cultures.

[Indexes only came with printing as hand written manuscripts did not have the precision]


“Print encouraged human beings to think of their own interior conscious and unconscious resources as more and more thing-like, impersonal and religiously neutral. Print encouraged the mind to sense that its possessions were held in some sort of inert mental space.”

[Oral tales cannot be linear]
“The singer is not conveying ‘information’ in our ordinary sense of ‘a pipe-line transfer’ of data from singer to listener. Basically, the singer is remembering in a curiously public way – remembering not a memorized text, for there is no such thing, nor any verbatim succession of words, but the themes and formulas that he has heard other singers sing. He remembers these always differently, as rhapsodized or stitched together in his own way on this particular occasion for this particular audience.”

“Plato felt this antipathy because he lived at a time when the alphabet had first become sufficiently interiorized to affect Greek thought, including his own, the time when patiently analytic, lengthy sequential thought processes were first coming into existence because of the ways in which literacy enabled the mind to process data.”


“In sum, if philosophy is reflective about its own nature, what is it to make of the fact that philosophical thinking cannot be carried on by the unaided human mind but only by the human mind that has familiarized itself and deeply interiorized the technology of writing? What does this precisely intellectual need for technology have to say about the relationship of consciousness to the external universe?

[When I speak to someone I shape what I say around them.]
“This is not to say that I am sure of how the other will respond to what I say. But I have to be able to conjecture a possible range of responses at least in some vague way. I have to be somehow inside the mind of the other in advance in order to enter with my message, and he or she must be inside my mind. To formulate anything I must have another person or other persons already ‘in mind’. This is the paradox of human communication. Communication is intersubjective.”

Richard Graham

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