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

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Characteristics of Orality


Oral cultures rely on sound to convey thought.

Sounds, unlike words on a page, are events, actions, powered from within the speaker and consumed by the listener. As told in Orality and Literacy, “the Hebrew term dabar means ‘word’ and ‘event’”[1](32). In oral societies, spoken words are not signs or labels. Words and names convey power over things. Orality is the only sensory field that “totally resists a holding action”[1](32). The fact that “there is no way to stop sound and have sound”[1](32) better indicates the power of orality.

"Sound cannot be sounding without the use of power"[1](32).


Oral culture focuses more on the pragmatic, or convenient nature of speech, as opposed to the syntax and organization more characteristic of chirographic culture. Simple, additive grammar is feasible in oral discourse because of the aid to understanding provided by context.[1] The word "and" is used continuously in primarily oral cultures. It is used to connect one statement to the next. The main focus is to get the point across to an audience, so other words for "and" are not necessary.

Aggregative: Epithets

Oral societies are heavily reliant on memory and thus often utilize a formula to group multiple phrases, clauses and ideas using descriptions or adjectives. For example, instead of simply referring to the solider or princess, one would use descriptors (epithets) such as the ‘brave soldier’ or ‘beautiful princess’. Furthermore, since writing systems do not exist in oral societies, these expressions cannot be analyzed thereby making it imperative they, along with their contrary retain their exact descriptions and not be changed or taken apart in any way.[1]


Oral communication is not as concise as written communication because writing allows the author to review and revise what he wrote. As well, if a writer loses his train of thought, he may reread his writing to remember what he already wrote.[1] "Thought requires some sort of continuity. In oral discourse, there is nothing to backloop into outside the mind, for the oral utterance has vanished as soon as it is uttered."[1] (39)

In oral cultures, oral communication does not make it as easy for speakers to remember what they said. Speakers must attempt to be memorable and attempt to think thoughts that will be memorable in some sense. Speakers must draw ideas from the mind whilst simultaneously engaging an audience. Thus, speakers use redundancy to keep themselves focused. Also, even though a dramatic pause can be useful, having long hesitations between thoughts weakens the listeners' opinion of the speakers' ideas, so the speakers are better off filling in the gaps with redundancy than with nothing at all.[1]


"Knowledge is hard to come by and precious. Since conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned."[1] (p.41) While the stories may change slightly over time - be it for dramatic effect, or simply to appeal to a new audience - the central theme and message of the tale remain constant. These variations can be produced ad infinitum; lessons learned in generations past can simply be retooled and delivered anew to contemporary audiences.

Reverence of the Elderly

Elders are revered for the value of their wisdom and knowledge. Memories of the elderly act as the oral culture's libraries and reference books - the storekeepers of knowledge.[1]

Rote Learning in Education

Since knowledge that is not repeated is at risk, education systems in oral cultures develop with the goal of maintaining existing knowledge, i.e. learning and memorizing what is already known. Ong claims that the residual orality of a literate culture can be determined by measuring the "mnemonic load" or amount of memorization required by the educational system.[1]

Closer to the Human Lifeworld

Oral culture is closer to the human lifeworld than print culture. In fact, "oral cultures know few statistics or facts divorced from human or quasi-human activity" [1] (p. 43). Since, the learning comes from apprenticenship "from observation and practice with only minimal verbalized explanation" [1] (p. 43), it can be related to what is now called 'situated learning' where learning takes place in context. In that way, oral cultures are dedicated to the human in action.

Concrete and Unmediated

Abstraction is not a natural psychological process. It requires the use and understanding of signs, which are completely conventional. Literacy unlike orality is all about signs, it is, as Vygotsky stated a "mediated activity",[2] where the signs are the means and facilitators of that indirect form of learning. That is not the case of Orality, in oral persons objects and events are given in a contextual, unmediated and operational thinking.[1]) A tree is not an archetype but a tree, and it is not every tree, but that specific tree which is being referred to. "Oral cultures know few statistics or facts divorced from human or quasi-human activity." [1] In much the same way, oral narrative focuses on external, often physical--even violent, crises.

Unfamiliar with Syllogisms

"Syllogisms relate to thought, but in practical matters no one operates in formally stated syllogisms" [1] (p. 51). Syllogisms were used in Luria's experiments with illiterates to test their formal logic. Through the syllogisms such as, "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?" [1] (pg. 51) it was revealed that at the base of logic is chirography. The responses of the Luria's illiterates were situational and rooted in the human lifeworld rather than the world of pure abstractions. A syllogism in its nature is self-contained and therefore its conclusions are meant to be drawn from its premises only, however this is a special ground-rule of syllogisms that academics would be associated with, not illiterates. Therefore, their answers would extend outside the parameters of the syllogism and "go beyond the statements themselves, as one does normally in real-life situations or in riddles (common in oral cultures)" [1] (p. 51) Riddles are the antithesis of syllogisms, in that they require the respondant to draw on their worldly knowledge, wit and canniness. The answer to a riddle goes beyond the words themselves, much the opposite of how a syllogism functions.

Use of Patterns and Memory Aides

Since information in an oral society is not written down, memory aides must be used to recall the information accurately. Examples of memory aides include notched sticks, mnemonics, alliteration and rhythmic patterns designed to aid recall.[1]


A 'memory aid' technique used to help in the retention of information used in many different disciplines.

  • The use of songs or melodies
  • Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge = the notes in the treble clef
  • Acronyms: Roy G Biv, the KUD model, HOMES, FOIL, etc.
  • I before E except after C...
  • In Spanish
    • In order to remember the difference between the verbs SER and ESTAR, which both translate to TO BE in English. estar CLIP, where CLIP stands for Conditions, Locations, Idiomatic expressions, the Present Progressive verb tenses - the main uses of the verb ESTAR.
    • In order to remember the difference between the verbs SABER and CONOCER, which both translate to TO KNOW in English. The saberFISH, where FISH stands for Facts, Information, Skills, and things you know by Heart.


Found in poetry, alliteration is the repetition of the first consonant letter sound (i.e. Sally saw Suzie sitting)

"Heavy" Heroes

In addition to the aggregative mnemonics for recalling a person's name in oral stories, the characters in these stories tended to be permanently set as one type, the 'heavy' hero which Ong describes as "persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and commonly public."[1] (69) While bordering on stereotypes, these characters remain in the minds of the storytellers and the audience simply because they remain the same throughout the story. Even with the life-changing events of the Iliad and the Odyssey happening to their respective heroes, Achilles continues to be warlike and swift-footed, and Odysseus clever and the great tactician. This tradition continues through the centuries in folk and fairy tales with heavy characters such as Prince Charming and the Wicked Witch of the West.


Oral communication nurtures empathy because its personal nature allows the speaker and audience to identify with each other.[1]

Agonistically Toned

Oral cultures make use of name calling, gory detail of struggles, and external conflict; whereas writing is more free to reflect upon internal crisis. Oral cultures also interpret riddles and proverbs as challenges, where words once again have power and can, in this case, lead to verbal duels.

Fulsome Expression of Praise

At the opposite end of agonistic name-calling is the fulsome expression of praise [1]. Consistent with the polarized nature of oral cultures (good – evil, hero – villain), is the seemingly excessive praise that one character might give to another. However due to the polarized nature within oral cultures, the retelling of these tales takes on a sincerity.


Speech/words live in the present and ignore the past. Words are defined by real-life, present situations. The past may shape the present meaning of a word, but the past meaning is no longer recognized. This is unlike literate cultures, which use memories/past to inform the current use of a word (e.g. a dictionary identifies the different roots of a word)


Without text, there are no clocks and no calendars, no specific divisions when one minute, or one day, ticks into the next. Orality necessitates "real time," a continuous and uninterrupted progression of experience, uncontrollable and indivisible until it carries us to "real death"[1](p. 75-76).

Experiential and Situational

Knowledge is preserved not in a separated sphere like books and libraries, it is kept and preserved and communicated through the 'elders' and knowledge holders' of the culture group. Characteristics of the individual are hard to determine by that individual. They would rather not use self-reflection/assessment. It would be better to have another speak to a person's own character (pg. 54) In the same way the knowledge required for survival, traditions and skills are taught and learned embedded in the experiences of listening, watching, practicing in the community - apprenticeship. Connection and communal identification is achieved through the interaction between speaker and listener. Ong suggests that oral culture rooted language deeply within the experience of the 'human life world' so as to help access memory about the experience itself. Human context and language choice were deeply entwined. Intelligence is measured is "situated in operational contexts" (pg. 55).


Knowledge and traditions can be passed down by gathering together to share information with others. Information must be passed from one person to another to spread knowledge when there is no written word. Through participation, orality is therefore demonstrative; and the student/teacher relationship is based around observation, listening and practice with only minimal verbalization[1](p. 43). Socrates defended that writing weakens the powers of mind and of memory, where true knowledge can only come true through participatory means, where where is an active of human minds, sharing ideas and reaching conclusions. [3]


"Oral memory has a high somatic component" [1](p.67). It engages the body in order to promote communication and interaction. The idea that orality is somatic in nature suggests that communication is a multisensory process. Orality is just as much non-verbal as it is verbal. For example, students use body actions to remember a song or concept which aids tremendously in recall and even, life long learning. "Bodily activity beyond mere vocalization is not adventitious or contrived in oral communications, but is natural and even inevitable" [1](p.67).


Audiences to an oral presentation all hear the same sounds/words at the same time from the same source[1](p. 73). If the audience were all to be reading the same script; they could all be at different words and possibly read some words incorrectly, thus creating disunity. This could explain why many religions based on oral traditions have such a unifying effect on their adherents [1](p. 74).

Flexible Memory

Memorization in oral cultures lacks a verifiable (textual) standard to determine whether the delivery of memorized portions is verbatim[1](p. 57). Rather, memorization is based on standard formulae that are flexible from one delivery to another as well as one audience to another[1](pp. 57-67).

Formulaic Elements

A strategy used in oral memorization is to create formulaic elements. These elements can reside within stories and characters. Sometimes these elements are created with the intention to enable a pattern. This can sometimes lead to offshoots, in which the storyteller is able to draw upon and adapt variations based on an original.

Evolving Meanings

Oral societies slough off memories which no longer have present relevance, and when words are no longer relevant to the present, their meanings are altered or discarded[1](p.46-47).


Orality requires an audience and the audience dictates the content. Orators varied their presentation according to who was in their audience. "Oral communication unites people into groups [1](p. 68). Orality invites "communal identification with the known," and "communal reaction." [1](p.45). Spoke word naturally causes humans to group together. "When a speaker is addressing an audience, the members of the audience normally become a unity..." [1](p.73).


Sounds register, or are changed by, the interior makeup of whatever it is that produces them. Sound also has incorporation of its parts as ideal (harmony) rather than the isolation of parts (how light helps to identify separate objects in a picture or room, for example). [1](p.70-73)

Verbomotor Lifestyle

Verbomotor cultures as expanded on by Ong [1] refers to cultures where there is a significant dependence on the use of effective words while interacting. Bartering at the market is an example which Ong uses to illustrate this term. Within these cultures, oral dueling is a regular part of life.


Oral cultures "[slough] off memories which no longer have present relevance." [1] p.46

As English speakers in China, 99% of my colleagues are illiterate. Each year about 40 new people arrive to our circle (around 130 total). There are two distinct groups, villagers and city-folk. Most old timers (1+ years in China) live in the city while the fresh recruits live in the village. Restaurants and other points of interest in the village go by different names for each group. The names reflect the personal experiences of the first people to find the place. "Tudoni" and "Donkey Dumplings" are the same restaurant. In my year, we first ate tudoni at this restaurant and as we told more people about this delicious mashed potato, gravy and cilantro dish, their experience mirrored ours and the name stuck. 2 years later, the name changed as our presence in the village faded and the new people were more excited by eating donkey. An English menu also replaced the need to remember any Chinese.


Originality does not stem from the addition of new material but from the oral interpretation of the individual. It is modified based on the situation and/or the audience. [1](p.59)


  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 Ong, W. (1982.) Orality and Literacy, London: Methuen.
  2. Vygotsky, L.S. (1978): Mind in Society. Harvard University Press Cambridge.
  3. Plato, Phaedrus, trans. by B. Jowett. From The Project Gutenberg EBook of Phaedrus.