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Orality is thought and verbal expression in societies where the technologies of literacy (especially writing and print) are unfamiliar to most of the population. The study of orality is closely allied to the study of oral tradition. However, it has broader implications, implicitly touching every aspect of the economics, politics, institutional development, and human development of oral societies. The study of orality has important implications for international development, especially as it relates to the goal of eradicating poverty, as well as to the process of globalization.

Walter J. Ong, a key scholar in this field, distinguishes between two forms of orality: ‘primary orality’ and ‘residual orality’.

Impact of literacy on culture

Ong draws on pioneering work by Milman Parry and Marshall McLuhan, among the first to fully appreciate the significance of the word as a technology. McLuhan, in his work The Gutenberg Galaxy shows how each stage in the development of this technology throughout the history of communication – from the invention of speech (primary orality), to pictograms, to the phonetic alphabet, to typography, to the electronic communications of today – restructures human consciousness, profoundly changing not only the frontiers of human possibility, but even the frontiers it is possible for humans to imagine.

Primary orality

‘Primary orality’ refers to thought and its verbal expression within cultures “totally untouched by any knowledge of writing or print.”

All sound is inherently powerful. If a hunter kills a lion he can see it, touch it, feel it and smell it. But if he hears a lion he must act, fast. Speech is a form of sound that shares this common power. Like other sounds, it comes from within a living organism. A text can be ignored; it is just writing on paper. But to ignore speech can be unwise; our basic instincts compel us to pay attention.

Writing is powerful in a different way: it permits people to generate ideas, store them, and retrieve them as needed across time in a highly efficient and accurate way. The absence of this technology in oral societies limits the development of complex ideas and the institutions that depend on them. Instead, sustained thought in oral settings depends on interpersonal communication, and storing complex ideas over a long period of time requires packaging them in highly memorable ways, generally by using mnemonic tools.

In his studies of the Homeric Question, Milman Parry was able to show that the poetic metre found in the Iliad and the Odyssey had been ‘packaged’ by oral Greekmarker society to meet its information management needs. These insights first opened the door to a wider appreciation of the sophistication of oral traditions, and their various methods of managing information. Later, ancient and medieval mnemonic tools were extensively documented by Frances Yates in her book The Art of Memory.

Residual orality

Socrates: Writing is 'inhuman'.
‘Residual orality’ refers to thought and its verbal expression in cultures that have been exposed to writing and print, but have not fully ‘interiorized’ (in McLuhan’s term) the use of these technologies in their daily lives. As a culture interiorizes the technologies of literacy, the ‘oral residue’ diminishes.

But the availability of a technology of literacy to a society is not enough to ensure its widespread diffusion and use. For example Eric Havelock observed in A Preface to Plato that after the ancient Greeks invented writing they adopted a scribal culture that lasted for generations. Few people, other than the scribes, considered it necessary to learn to read or write. In other societies, such as ancient Egypt or medieval Europe, literacy has been a domain confined to political and religious elites.

Many cultures have experienced an equilibrium state in which writing and mass illiteracy have co-existed for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Oral residue rarely disappears quickly and never vanishes completely. Speech is inherently an oral event, based on human relationships, unlike texts. Oral societies can mount strong resistance to literate technologies, as vividly shown in the arguments of Socrates against writing in Plato’s Phaedrus. Writing, Socrates argues, is inhuman. It attempts to turn living thoughts dwelling in the human mind into mere objects in the physical world. By causing people to rely on what is written rather than what they are able to think, it weakens the powers of the mind and of memory. True knowledge can only emerge from a relationship between active human minds. And unlike a person, a text can’t respond to a question; it will just keep saying the same thing over and over again, no matter how often it is refuted.

The Canadian communications scholar, Harold Innis argued that a balance between the spoken word and writing contributed to the cultural and intellectual vitality of ancient Greece in Plato's time. Plato conveyed his ideas by writing down the conversations of Socrates thus "preserving the power of the spoken word on the written page." Aristotle, Innis wrote, regarded Plato's style as "halfway between poetry and prose." Plato was able to arrive at new philosophical positions "through the use of dialogues, allegories and illustrations."

Furthermore, as McLuhan emphasizes, modernization attentuates some oral capabilities. For example, in medieval Europe silent reading was virtually unknown. This tilted the readers' attention towards the poetic and other auditory aspects of the text. Educated modern adults may also occasionally long for something like "the capacious medieval memory, which, untrammelled by the associations of print, could learn a strange language with ease and by the methods of a child, and could retain in memory and reproduce lengthy epic and elaborate lyric poems."

Both McLuhan and Ong also document the re-emergence, in the electronic age, of a kind of ‘secondary orality’ that displaces written words with audio/visual technologies like radio, TV and telephones. Unlike primary oral modes of communication, these technologies depend on print for their existence. Mass internet collaborations like Wikipedia rely primarily on writing, but re-introduce relationships and responsiveness into the text.

Importance of the concept

It has been a habit of literate cultures to view oral cultures simply in terms of their lack of the technologies of writing. This habit, argues Ong, is dangerously misled. Oral cultures are living cultures in their own right. A 1971 study found that of 3,000 extant languages, only 78 had a written literature. While literacy extends human possibilities in both thought and action, all literate technologies ultimately depend on the ability of humans to learn oral languages.

Understanding between nations may depend to some degree on understanding oral culture. Ong argues that “many of the contrasts often made between ‘western’ and other views seem reducible to contrasts between deeply interiorized literacy and more or less residually oral states of consciousness.”

Illiteracy is both an important cause, and an important effect, of chronic global poverty. Improvements in livelihoods and access to services in rural communities depends on their ability to manage local organizations, or hold external ones accountable. The processes of development can also be undermined by educated agents of development whose ‘deeply interiorized literacy’ informs their decisions. In recent years this has begun to change, with methods of engagement with oral communities that have emphasized participation, voice, and other development methods like participatory rural appraisal, participatory action research and Farmer Field Schools.

Theory of the characteristics of oral culture

Drawing on hundreds of studies from anthropology, linguistics and the study of oral tradition, Ong summarizes ten key aspects of the ‘psychodynamics of orality’. While these are subject to continuing debate, his list remains an important milestone. Ong draws his examples from both primary oral societies, and societies with a very high ‘oral residue’.

1. Formulaic Styling

To retain complex ideas requires that they be packaged memorably for easy recall.

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Jousseidentifies a close linkage between rhythmand breathing patterns, gestures and the bilateral symmetry of the human body in several ancient verse traditions. This synergy between the body and the construction of oral thought further fuels memory.

2. Additive rather than subordinative

Oral cultures avoid complex ‘subordinative’ clauses. Ong cites an example from the Douay-Rheimsversion of Genesis(1609-10), noting that this basic additive pattern (in italics) has been identified in many oral contexts around the world:

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Demonstrating how oral modes of communication tend to evolve into literate ones, Ong additionally cites the New American Bible(1970), which offers a translation that is grammatically far more complex:

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3. Aggregative rather than analytic

Oral expression brings words together in pithy phrases that are the product of generations of evolution: the ‘sturdy oak tree’, the ‘beautiful princess’ or ‘clever Odysseus’. This does not apply specifically to poetryor song; rather the words are brought together out of habit during general communication. ‘Analyzing’ or breaking apart such expressions adds complexity to communications, and questions received wisdom.

Ong cites an American example, noting that in some parts of the United Statesmarker with heavy oral residue, it is still considered normal or even obligatory to use the adjective ‘glorious’ when referring to the ‘fourth of July’.

4. Redundant or ‘copious’

Speech that repeats earlier thoughts or thought-pictures, or shines a different light on them somehow, helps to keep both the speaker and the listener focused on the topic, and makes it easier for all to recall the key points later. "Oral cultures encourage fluency, fulsomeness, volubility. Rhetoricians were to call this copia".

5. Conservative or traditionalist

Because oral societies have no effective access to writing and print technologies, they must invest considerable energy in basic information management. Storage of information, being primarily dependent on individual or collective recall, must be handled with particular thrift. It is possible to approximately measure oral residue “from the amount of memorization the culture’s educational procedures require.”

This creates incentives to avoid exploring new ideas and particularly to avoid the burden of having to store them. It does not prevent oral societies from demonstrating dynamism and change, but there is a premium on ensuring that changes cleave to traditional formulas, and “are presented as fitting the traditions of the ancestors.”

6. Close to the human lifeworld

Oral cultures take a practical approach to information storage. To qualify for storage, information must usually concern matters of immediate practical concern or familiarity to most members of the society.

Long after the invention of writing, and often long after the invention of print, basic information on how to perform a society’s most important trades was left unwritten, passed from one generation to the next as it always had been: through apprenticeship, observation and practice.

By contrast, only literary cultures have launched phenomenological analyses, abstract classifications, ordered lists and tables, etc.. Nothing analogous exists in oral societies.

7. Agonistically toned

Beowulf fights the dragon: the oral world is agonistic
‘Agonistic’ means ‘combative’, but Ong actually advances a deeper thesis with this point. Writing and to an even greater extent print, he argues, disengage humans from direct, interpersonal struggle.

Products of “the highly polarized, agonistic, oral world of good and evil, virtue and vice, villains and heroes” the great works of oral literaturefrom Homerto Beowulf, from the Mwindo epicto the Old Testament, are extremely violent by modern standards. They are also punctuated by frequent and intense intellectual combat and tongue-lashings on the one hand, and effusive praise (perhaps reaching its height among Africanpraise singers) on the other.

8. Empathetic and participatory

In an oral culture the most reliable and trusted technique for learning is to share a “close, empathetic, communal association” with others who know.

Ong cites a study of community decision-making from 12th Century Englandmarker.Writing already had a long history in England, and it would have been possible to use texts to establish for example, the age of majority of the heir to an estate. But people were skeptical about texts, noting not only the cost of generating and managing them, but the problems involved in preventing tampering or frauds.

As a result, they retained the traditional solution: gathering together “mature wise seniors of many years, having good testimony”, and publicly discussing the age of the heir with them, until agreement was reached. This hallmark principle of orality, that truth emerges best from communal process, resonates today in the jurysystem.

9. Homeostatic

Oral societies conserve their limited capacity to store information, and retain the relevance of their information to the interest of their present members, by shedding memories that have lost their past significance.

While many examples exist, the classic example was reported by Goodyand Watt (1968). Written records prepared by the British in Ghanamarker in the early 1900s show that Ndewura Jakpa, the seventeenth century founder of the state of Gonja, had seven sons, each of whom ruled a territorial division within the state.Six decades later two of the divisions had disappeared for various reasons. The myths of the Gonja had been revised to recount that Jakpa had five sons, and that five divisions were created. Since they had no practical, present purpose, the other two sons and divisions had evaporated.

10. Situational rather than abstract

In oral cultures, concepts are used in a way that minimizes abstraction, focusing to the greatest extent possible on objects and situations directly known by the speaker. A study by A.R.Luria, a psychologist who did extensive fieldwork comparing oral and literate subjects in remote areas of Uzbekistanmarker and Kirghiziamarker in 1931-2 documented the highly situational nature of oral thinking.

  • Oral subjects always used real objects they were familiar with to refer to geometric shapes; for example a plate or the moon might be used to refer to a circle.
  • Asked to select three similar words from the following list “hammer, saw, log, hatchet”, oral subjects would reject the literate solution (removing the log to produce a list of 3 tools), pointing out that without the log there wasn’t much use for the tools.
  • Oral subjects took a practical, not an abstract, approach to syllogisms. Luria asked them this question. In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zembla is in the far north and there is always snow there. What colour are the bears? Typical response: “I don’t know. I’ve seen a black bear. I’ve never seen any others. … Every locality has its own animals.”
  • Oral subjects proved unwilling to analyze themselves. When asked “what sort of person are you?” one responded: “What can I say about my own heart? How can I talk about my character? Ask others; they can tell you about me. I myself can’t say anything.”

See also


Further reading

To solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought, you have to do your thinking in mnemonic patterns, shaped for ready oral recurrence. Your thoughts must come into being in heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetitions or antithesis, in alliterations or assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions… Serious thought is intertwined with memory systems.
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said …
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Then God said …

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