Course:ETEC540/2012WT1/Orality and Literacy/Characteristics of Literacy

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Characteristics of Literacy

Opening Statements

"More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness."[1](p.77) Writing is "utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials...writing heightens consciousness"[1] (p. 81).

A New Sensory World [1](p83)

Humans move from a predominately oral culture to one that vision influences our thoughts, allows us to add detail to what we know and create an extensive vocabulary which continues to grow as we develop and technologies evolve.

What is 'Writing' or 'Script'

"A script in the sense of true writing, as understood here, does not consist of mere pictures, of representations of things, but is a representation of an utterance, of words that someone says or is imagined to say." [1](p.83) While a notch on a stick, or a scratch on a stone might signify a vague idea of something, words represent very specific and thought out ideas. Furthermore, someone who composes a text lack full phonetic qualities, where the intonation or tone of voice are left out and become monotone. [1] (p. 100). According to Plato, writing is unresponsive, passive (Ong, 78).

To use the term 'writing' to represent any form of mark with a meaning behind it (i.e. a notched stick, scratched stone, etc) "trivializes its meaning". The invention of a coded system to represent each word spoken is much more than markings.

"Writing was and is the most momentous of all human technological inventions." [1](p.84)

Authenticating Writing

At one point in time, written documents need to prove their authenticity. Texts were deemed to be less credible than witnesses. The rationale at the time was based on the premise that when questioned, witnesses could respond and defend themselves, whereas text could not Ong (2002) [1]. In order for a text to be considered authentic, a symbolic object was necessary. These objects were then attached directly to documents.


Writing is deliberate, contrived, and learned [1] (p. 81) It is not inherent in our nature to write, "it does not inevitably well up out of the unconscious"[1] (p. 81). Ong (1982)continues to say that writing is like other technologies, and more so, in that it is a way for humans to obtain a higher consciousness. "To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance" (Ong, 1982, pg. 81).

By having written records of all accounts, they are usually presumed to be accurate and have more force than words. However, in the age of feudal heirs, witnesses had more credibility than texts because they could be challenged and defended by witnesses. [1] (p. 95)

If oral speech is natural, something that “every human being in every culture who is not physiologically or psychologically impaired” is able to do, then “writing is completely artificial” [1] (p.81). Using tools, humans must learn how to convey their thoughts outside of their body in a way that their body would not naturally do so. "Writing... does not well up out of the unconscious." [[1]] (p. 81) According to, the first definition of artificial is “made by human skill; produced by humans.” Therefore, writing, which is a technology, is artificial. Artificial does not mean fake, or negative, as "artificiality is natural to human beings" [1] (p.81), and may enrich their lives.


Being reproduced, and more commonly, verbalized with high fidelity, text brings with it meaning and context that may no longer be relevant, and occasional cumbersome, especially in matters of law or "remembered truths". "In an oral economy of thought, matters from the past without any sort of present relevance commonly dropped into oblivion." [[1]] (p. 97) Thus oral histories maintain a degree of flexibility not present in literacy.

Context-Free (Isolation)

Since the written word contains no sound and can't communicate inflection, it is "isolated from the fuller context in which spoken words come into being" [1](p. 100). Not being able to hear (or see) the person who delivers the words could result in miscommunication or inferring meaning that the author did not intend. Therefore, writers must strive to make their work clear without external context.

In addition, the receiver of the written word cannot question or disagree with the author's point of view directly since the author is not physically present. [1] The reader and the author are isolated from each other. "Writing is a solipsistic operation" (p.100)

Writing is a Solipsistic Operation

Solipsism is defined to be a philosophical theory in which the mind only truly knows itself. Ong in stating that “Writing is a solipsistic operation” (2002, p. 100) [1], suggests that no other person can really understand the writing of another. Although we write with the hope to communicate uniformly with others, each reader's interpretation will vary from our intent.

Writing Can Be Corrected

"Corrections in oral performance tend to be counterproductive, to render the speaking unconvincing ...In writing, corrections can be tremendously productive, for how can the reader know they have ever been made?" [1](p.103)

Elaboration of Fixed Grammar in Writing

"Writing discourse develops more elaborate and fixed grammar than oral discourse does because to provide meaning it is more dependent simply upon linguistic structure, since it lacks the normal full existential contexts which surround oral dicourse and help determine meaning in oral discourse somewhat independently of grammar." [1] (p. 38)

Enables New Speculation

Writing frees the mind of conservative tasks, “memory work” [1] (p. 41), thus freeing it up to innovate. Young innovators are more highly valued in literate societies than the revered wise old man/woman of oral cultures.[1]

Effect on the Thinking Process

In order to affect the thinking process, "writing has to be interiorized". Those "persons who have interiorized writing not only write but also speak literately, which is to say that they organize, to varying degree, even their oral expression in thought patterns and verbal patterns that they would not know of unless they could write. Because it does not follow these patterns, literates have considered oral organization of thought naive". [1] (p. 56)

Introspective Religions

Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - what Ong in Chapter 4 calls "the great introspective religious traditions" [1] - all have sacred texts. Writing makes possible this introspectiveness. Religions without sacred texts, such as the religion of the ancient Greeks, survive as merely stories. [1]

Interiorized Writing

Over time, writing has become deeply internalized to the point where it has become very much a part of people. However, that was not always the case, as at one time Plato and others understood writing to be something that exists externally from an individual. While this view does not reflect societies today, it is relative to how people now see the computer.[1] (p. 80)

Extratextual Context

In writing, extratextual context is often missing for both readers and writers.[1]

When words are written down, readers are usually absent and do not experience the context that led to the creation of the written text. The reader can also experience difficulty determining the author’s intended tone. It is even possible that the writer is dead, yet, via writing is still communicating with readers.[1]
While a writes, his audience is frequently absent, so the writer does not even know who will be reading the text. In fact, Ong notes that the “audience is always a fiction” because the writer can only imagine who is reading, and, therefore, must style the writing for that fictional audience and then expect that the real audience will conform to the fictional one.[1]


Just as oral languages consists of dialects, there are a variety of grapholects associated with written languages. Canadian or British English and American English can be considered to be two grapholects, using the example of colour/color. The grapholect is powerful in that it, "bears the marks of the millions of minds which have used it to share their consciousness with one another" (Ong, 1982, p. 106).

Development of Dialects

Unlike oral cultures, literate societies have paved the way for the development of different dialects within the same language, especially when there is a massive investment in writing. Often, like in Germany or England, one regional dialect ends up becoming more chirographically developed than others as a result of economic, political, religious or other reasons thereby making it the national language. However, while that particular dialect becomes more dominant, the other regional dialects do not cease to exist.[1] (p. 105)

Writing Unites Cultures

As Ong suggests on page 87, writing can transcend borders and unite cultures in a communal understand.

Plato, Writing & Computers

"Once the world was technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available." [1](p.79) Word-of-mouth seldom works anymore. Even those rallying against the perceived "evils of the internet" are often forced to use it to spread their message.

A Manufactured Product

"Writing, Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedrus, is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can only be in the mind" [1](p.78). Computers are in the same league as they too, manufacture thought processes.

Sharpens Analysis

Since the author does not have the benefit of body language, pitch, pacing or inflection to deliver words, he/she must predict all the ways in which a reader may interpret a particular passage. [1] This situation creates the need for the author to select words that are clear and capable of standing on their own without interpretation. Consequently, literacy deals in such items as geometrical figures, abstract categorization, formally logical reasoning processes, definitions and comprehensive descriptions, or articulated self-analysis. [1] Ong (1988) also references Kerckhove (1981), who claims that writing increases left-brain activity, which is tied to analytical thought [1].


Because writing is out of context and community, meaning is dependent on linguistic structures such as grammars and fluid narrative with “analytic, reasoned subordination” [1](p. 37).

Text: Powerful, even Magical!

In some civilizations, where the majority of people were illiterate, text was associated with power, magic, religion, the occult and danger. Restricting literacy to groups like the clergy and certain craftsmen contributed to the mysteriousness of text[1](p.92). When these restrictions were reduced and literacy increased people began to question what they had been told - the introduction of personal reading of text gave the power of the text to more people and contributed to many revolutions in Europe.

Writing Systems

Created by Semitic peoples, the alphabet visually codifies sound. It grew out of urbanization and the need for record keeping, mainly those of economic transactions[1]. The Semitic alphabet contains only consonants and a few semivowels, but not vowels. Later, the Greeks included vowels into the version of the alphabet that was passed down to English and Latin-based languages.[1]
The alphabet also connects oral and literary mnemonics by causing people to orally memorise the sequence of letters in the alphabet and then visually allowing people to sort and retrieve materials, such as in indexes.[1]
Possibly the most remarkable fact about its existance is that it was invented just once and for good. At this moment, practically every alphabet comes from the same source.[1]
The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and the Mayan writing have something in common; Their minimum graphic unit is the syllable. This means of course a larger quantity of signs, as every consonant has multiple possible combinations. The Japanese Katakana for example, benefits itself from a phonetically well distributed combination of consonants and vowels. [1]
The formal aspect of this particular system is directly linked to the language, not every language can be set in a syllabary format.

Pictographic Representations

A symbol of a tree representing a tree is an example of a pictograph. "Pictures can serve simply as aides-memoire, or they can be equipped with a code enabling them to represent more or less exactly specific words in various grammatical relation to each other" [1] (p.84). Ong gives the example of Chinese character writing as an example of pictographic script that has been stylized and codified in a highly intricate way. It is considered one of the world's most complex writing systems. Native American pictographic communication, however, did not develop into a true script because it did not have a fixed code. The intended meaning of these pictures was unclear even they were considered in the context of serving as an allegorical memorandum for parties who were dealing with restricted subjects.


Developed out of pictographs, symbols that come to represent concepts or ideas are called ideographs. "The meaning is a concept not directly represented by the picture but established by code: for example, in the Chinese pictograph a stylized picture of two trees does not represent the words 'two trees' but the word 'woods'" [1] (p.84).

Rebus Writing

Rebuses or phonograms are a type of pictographic writing that represents syllabic sounds. Fischer (2004) suggests that in the world of academia, many consider “the rebus principle as the ‘key’ to the transition from pictography to complete writing” (p. 31).[2] A form of pictographic writing like rebus can be valuable for understanding writing when speech is misunderstood (Ong, p87).

Hybrid Writing

Many of the writing systems across cultures are a mix of diverse methods that creates the written word. Even the alphabet can be considered hybrid with it varying forms of representation. For example, the word one is also know as the roman numeral I. [1] (pg88).

Writing is a Technology

The words written on paper, on a daily basis are considered to be a technology, "calling for the use of tools and other equipment: styli or brushes or pens, [and] carefully prepared surfaces as paper" [1](p.80-81). "Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word."[1](p.81) We have become [perhaps] too dependent on technologies, and none more so than the written word. It has changed the way we think, act, create, learn, love, hate, and remember. Writing has changed humans. "This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does." [1](p.81)

"Writing is an even more deeply interiorized technology than instrumental musical performance is. But to understand what it is, which means to understand it in relation to its past,to orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced." [1] (p.82)

To put internal thoughts into external symbols, there must be some translation processes that occur. For groups of people to understand the writing of others, similar or different translations processes,procedures, or rules must be followed.

The 'Art' of Rhetoric and Learned Latin

Creating an art of rhetoric was made possible through writing, which became academic rhetoric. This stemmed away from the oral tradition, but held on to the key elements of argument and persuasion.

Learned Latin was developed through writing. It was not the mother-tongue of any of its users. It was used for creating a common language for studying. It created distance from one's 'life-world' which helped to establish medieval scholarly pursuits and modern science(Ong, 1982).

Writing as a Democratizing System

In his analysis of the development of writing through various cultures, Ong examines closely the effect that a common-phonetic alphabet, such as Greek (89) or Korean (91), had on the psychology of the people who could easily master the acquisition of this language tool, without needing complete knowledge of the language itself. Unlike less accessible syllabaries and logographs found in Semitic and Chinese languages, where full literacy may take dozens of year to obtain, the vocalic alphabets allow for more people to start reading at a young age.[1] Derrick de Kerckhove (1981), in examining Greek tragedies, notes the activity increased in the left hemisphere of the brain with such an alphabet, and thus a more analytic mind capable of abstract thought[3] that is more open and empathetic toward democratic principals. In addition to the consideration of writing as a democratizing system, writing can also be considered as having an 'internationalizing' impact as foreign tongues could and can be processed (Ong, p.89).


Through time, and even today, some forms of text may be known, used, and controlled by select groups of people. In the past, it may have been guru-like people or religious leaders. [1] (p. 92) Today, it may be the Internet, certain languages / codes to create text on it, etc.


As literacy permeates to all levels of society, it serves as a leveler. When everyone, not only clergy or scribes, has access to the power of reading and writing, everyone can be a wise man or woman.[1]

Literature about Ordinary People

In oral cultures, characters in stories are bold, memorable figures. The stories survive over generations because of the memorable impact of the heros' personalities and exploits. Authors in literate societies can turn to ordinary human characters and situations, such as we find in the modern novel.[1]

Writing and Memory

Ong argues that memory is different in a literate and non-literate society. He suggests that literate individuals can recall that which has “been assembled and made available to them in writing” [1](p.33).

Lists & Scientific Models

Writing grew out of a need to itemize and organize, particularly with respect to economies or account keeping. "Indeed, writing was in a sense invented largely to make something like lists" (p.97) Writing allowed the creation of repositories of information that could be passed to scientists in different countries to be shared and analyzed..."exactly worded descriptions of carefully observed complex objects and processes." supported the growth of scientific inquiry and models. [1] Texts help literate individuals organize elaborate systems of cause and effect in an analytic kind of linear sequence. Although writing has developed only relatively recently in the history of mankind, the need to itemize and organize through external memory systems has shaped and powered our intellectual activity. [1]

Preliterate Recording Devices

Aides-mémorie have been used by various societies for countless millennia. Ong[1] posits that preliterate recording systems such as tallying through notches, pebbles, or sticks are inferior precursors to script in that they represent things rather than words. Ong argues that such preliterate recording devices can not be equated with writing any more than footprints or deposits of excretion could be. In this way, Ong compares the communications of preliterate man to those of animals. [1](p.83)

Dominance of the Visual and Spatial Sense

“The alphabet…has lost all connections to things. It represents sound itself as a thing, transforming the evanescent world of sound to the quiescent, quasi-permanent world of space.” (Ong, p. 90) Writing "can implement production of still more exquisite structures and references far surpassing the potentials of oral utterance." (Ong, p. 84) The spatial organization of information becomes key: all the text structures – headings references, indexes, lists, maps, charts, diagrams.


By fixing of utterance and living speech in the `dead text` print "was a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society." Production of portable books encouraged individual and silent reading. Text as 'object' encouraged the development of the interior consciousness, self-conscious, against the other, and a sense of "private ownership of words", the individual author not the community. Furthermore, Ong (1988) points out is it not just reading that increase privacy. Writing is a "solipsistic operation" (100); we seek solitude in order to write. [1]

Writer and Audience

It is a more difficult task to write than present orally because, "the writer's audience is always a fiction". (Ong, p 100) Unlike a presentation in front of a "real" audience, the writer is writing for individuals they know, but are not present or they are writing for unknown readers. Therefore,they need to fictionalize the reader, the mood, the time it will be read and the role of the audience. [1]

A Shift in Senses

Writing from the perspective of the author shifts what is accomplished by the tongue and mouth in an oral form to the fingers and hand in written form. From the perspective of the reader/listener, there is a shift from the ear which can hear in all directions to the eye which is focused in only one direction. This shifts words from being a passing "event" in sound to a review-able and fixed item in space [1](Ong, p. 81, 84 &89).

Allows "Space" for thinking

The act of writing and reading present the author and reader time to analyze and interpret. This gives the author control over ensuring that the ideas and arguments presented reflect most clearly what is thought. It gives the reader control over ensuring a "correct" interpretation within context [1](Ong, pp. 94, 100-104)


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 1.30 1.31 1.32 1.33 1.34 1.35 1.36 1.37 1.38 1.39 1.40 1.41 1.42 1.43 1.44 1.45 1.46 1.47 1.48 1.49 1.50 1.51 1.52 1.53 1.54 1.55 1.56 1.57 1.58 1.59 1.60 Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy, London: Methuen.
  2. Fischer, S. R. (2004). History of Writing. London: Reaktion Books.
  3. Kerckhove, D. (1981). 'A theory of Greek tragedy', Sub-Stance. Madison: Sub-Stance, Inc. Cited in Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy, London: Methuen. p. 89.