Course:ETEC540/2011WT1/Orality and Literacy/Characteristics of Literacy

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Characteristics of Literacy

Writing according to Plato:

  • A thing, a manufactured product
  • inhuman
  • Existing in an unreal, unnatural world
  • pretends to "establish outside the mind what can only be in the mind". (Ong, 1982, p. 78).
  • Devoid of warmth
  • Weakens the mind
  • Destroys memory by causing one to rely on external sources
  • Is unresponsive - is passive
  • an external, alien technology (Ong, 1982, p. 80).
  • immobile
  • voiceless - "can't defend itself" (Ong, 1982, p.78)

Characteristics unique to writing

  • Writing initiated "the reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation of the word from the living present, where alone spoken words can exist" (Ong, 1982, p. 81).
  • Writing is artificial, and transforms our consciousness to a different state but "it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials." (Ong, 1982, p. 81).
  • Encourages and develops analytic thought. (Ong, 1982, p. 40)
  • Writing is associated with death. "The letter kills but the spirit gives life." It is removed from the lifeworld and is rigidly fixed. (Ong, 1982, p. 80)
  • For a text to convey its message, it does not matter whether the author is dead or alive. (Ong, 1982, p. 101)
  • Writing develops more elaborate and fixed grammar. (Ong, 1982, p. 38)
  • Writing is slower than speech (Ong, 1982, p. 40)
  • Writing transforms speech and thought because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision. (Ong, 1982, p.84)
  • Writing is a solipsistic or isolated operation. (Ong, 1982, p.100)
  • Lack of verifiable context is what makes writing normally so much more agonizing an activity than oral presentation to a real audience (Ong, 1982, p.100)
  • Writing is a visual code for the spoken word. It is always a kind of imitation talking (Ong, 1982, p.101).
  • The writing must set up a role in which absent and often unknown readers can cast themselves (Ong, 1982, p.101).
  • Writing can be edited by the author without the receiver ever knowing.
  • Writing can send a clear message even if the writing is not clear.
  • Some words are meaningless in isolation.
  • There is always an oral representation to writing.
  • Writing can be considered a technology.
  • Writing is regarded at first as an instrument of secret and magic power, one that requires a guru-like figure to mediate between the reader and text (Ong, 1982, p.92)
  • Intonation or tone is natural in oral speech, but in a text, punctuation signals tone only minimally signifying that text alone lacks full phonetic qualities (Ong, 1982, p.100)
  • Writing moves words from the sound world to a world of visual space. (Ong, 1982, p.119)

Beginnings of Literacy

  • Scripts evolved directly or indirectly from picture writing and the use of tokens. (Ong, 1982, p. 84)
  • One form of script is an ideograph where the meaning is established by code rather than direct representation. (Ong, 1982, p. 85)
  • The alphabet was invented only once, by Semitic people around 1500 BC. (Ong, 1982, p. 88).
  • Greeks developed the first alphabet that included vowels, which gave them intellectual ascendency over other ancient cultures, in part because it was easier to learn. (Ong, 1982, p. 89).

• The Greek alphabet was democratising in the sense that it was easy for everyone to learn (Ong, 1982, p. 89) • also internationalizing in that it provide a way of processing even foreign tongues (Ong, 1982, p. 89)

  • Written documents did not immediately inspire trust in disputes as witnesses were more credible because they could be challenged. (Ong, 1982, p. 95)
  • Many first written records are accounting records and lists for day-to-day activities
  • The Greek alphabet analyzed sound into pure spatial components, which allowed them to write words in foreign languages and fostered abstract, analytic thought (Ong, 1982, p.89)
  • "And what Walter Ong characterized as the literate mind is simply another name for the collective decisions shared among writers and readers about how to exploit their materials in order to communicate." (Bolter, 2001, p.17)

•Literacy began ever since early man scribbled on cave walls and other surfaces.

•Literacy also was evident when early men communicated by various means; example fire signals

•Early literacy also surfaced whenever sounds were uttered by parents and children for communication and oral tradition


  • With the transition from oral to literate, the conservatism that characterizes cherished and repeated oral knowledge over time gives way to flexibility and experimentation. It would also affect human relationships and social hierarchies. Ong states: "By storing knowledge outside the mind, writing, and, even more, print downgrades the figure of the wise old man and the wise old woman, repeaters of the past, in favor of younger discoverers of something new." (p. 41)
  • There is a pattern of perceptions that new technologies weaken memory. Plato's views that writing destroys memory (Ong, 1982, p. 78) and Squarciafico's view in 1477 according to Lowry (1979) that books result in less "studious" students, that memory is destroyed, and the mind weakened (as cited in Ong, 1982, pp. 78-79).
  • The oral state of mind persisted as cultures interiorized literacy, so official documents, according to Clanchy, were often authenticated by symbolic objects that provided the possessor of the document with a point of reference (Ong, 1982, p.96)
  • "The alphabet as a simple sequence of letters is a major bridge between oral mnemonic and literate mnemonics: Generally the sequence of the letters of the alphabet is memorized orally and then used for largely visual retrieval of materials, as in indexes" (Ong, 1982, p.99) The concept of alphabetization is completely internalized in literate cultures. Literate cultures use a completely different mnemonic toolbox than primary oral cultures.


  • Writing, as an invented technology, has transformed and restructured human consciousness (Ong, 1982, p. 77).
  • Writing, while an artificial creation, provides distance which is necessary for heightening human consciousness and understanding. (Ong, 1982, p. 81).
  • The very reflectiveness of writing-enforced by the slowness of the writing process as compared to oral delivery as well as by isolation of the writer as compared to the oral performer - encourages growth of consciousness out of the unconscious. (p.147)
  • The writer cannot see his audience in the same way that an oral presenter does. The extratextual context is missing for the reader and the writer.(Ong p.100)
  • Technologies are exterior aids and also interior transformers of human consciousness. Writing is a technology. (Ong, 1982, p. 81).
  • Consciousness acquired new knowledge when a coded system of visible marks was developed. Writers could determine the exact words that the reader would generate from the text. (Ong, 1982, p. 83)
  • "The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers (Ong as cited in Ong, 1982, p.80)
  • By separating the "knower from the known" writing makes possible articulate introspection offering deep inroads into the psyche, providing access to the perspective of the self against whom the objective world operates, and this gives birth to the great introspective religious traditions (Ong, 1982,p.104)
  • "Before writing was deeply interiorized by print, people did not feel themselves situated every moment of their lives in abstract computed time of any sort." (Ong, 1982, p. 96)

Requirements for Writing

  • development of a "craft literacy" in ancient Greek culture. Writing is practiced by craftsmen (scribes) who are considered trades people such as boat builders and stonemasons. (Ong p. 92-93)
  • materials on which to write were not always available. Paper was available in China many years before Europe. (Ong p.94)

• backward scanning makes it possible in writing to eliminate inconsistencies

  • In writing, corrections can be tremendously productive. (Ong p.103)
  • In text, punctuation can signal tone...(Ong, p.100)

•Meaningful writing requires exploration of experiences

•Writing requires thorough prewriting activities

•Writing is propelled by ideas

•Writing requires a voice

•Writing requires ideas which are generated by existing ideas (Botler, 2001)


  • Because writing allows for one to think more carefully about what they want to communicate, written expression loses a lot of its redundancy (Ong, 1982, p. 40).
  • The thought process of the communicatory can change between the time the thoughts are produced in writing to when they are received (Ong, 1982, p. 101).
  • "More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness." (Ong, 2002, p. 77)
  • Writing makes possible the great introspective religious traditions. (Ong, 1982, p.104)
  • Because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well. ( Ong,1982, p.84)
  • Written words sharpen analysis (Ong, 1982, p. 102)
  • Writing is essentially a "representation of an utterance". (Ong, p. 83)
  • Writing has to be personally interiorized to affect thinking processes. (Ong, pg. 56)
  • Writing is a "secondary modeling system", depending on speech. The written word must be capable of being converted into speech to have meaning (Ong 83). This is true even of systems of writing other than phonetic systems, where the elements of writing each represent a sound.
  • Writing is an even more deeply interiorized technology than instumental music performance is. (Ong, 1982, p.83)
  • "To live and understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does."(Ong, 2002, p. 81)
  • A phonetic alphabet may foster left-hemispher brain activity thereby fostering analytic and abstract thought (ong, p. 89).
  • High literacy fosters composition of text directly, which gives thought different contours and flow than oral compositions (Ong, 1982, p.94)


  • Writing allows for knowledge to be shared across time and space (Ong, 1982, p.112).
  • "Writing separates the knower from the known and thus sets up the conditions for "objectivity", in the sense of personal disengagement or distancing"(Ong, 1982, p.45)
  • By separating the knower from the known, writing supports increasingly articulate introspection, "opening up the psyche like never before." (Ong, 1982, p.104).
  • "The critical and unique breakthrough into new worlds of knowledge was achieved within human consciousness not when simple semiotic marking was devised but when a coded system of visible marks was invented whereby a writer could determine the exact words that the reader would generate from the text. This is what we usually mean today by writing in its sharply focused sense” (Ong, 1982, p. 83).
  • Corrections in writing aren't remembered, or even known by the reader, as they would be in a speech. (Ong, 1982, p. 103)
  • Literate societies organize knowledge in space-defined sequences, enabling the development of charts which range thought simultaneously into horizontal and vertical patterns that is far removed from orally presented sequences and is the result of the deep interiorization of print (Ong, 1982, pp.98-99)

Writing is geared toward spreading knowledge through different forms; whether it may be songs, poems, essays etc.

Writing can be altered to cater to the knowledge base of the target audience.

Writing provide persons with new knowledge and also activates what is already known


  • Language needs to be expressed clearly since the receiver does not get to benefit from cues like gestures, facial expressions, intonation etc. This sharpens analytic thought because it asks words to "do more". (Ong, 1982, p. 102).
  • Language follows strict grammar rules that differ according to each culture (Ong, 1982, p. 32).
  • "Writing develops codes in a language from oral codes in the same language" (Ong, 1982, p. 104)
  • Orally managed language and thought is not noted for analytic precision. (Ong, 1982, p. 104)
  • In literate societies, rhetoric has been transformed from an oral art form to a written form that dropped memory and delivery from the tradtitional list of skills and changed the basis of education. (Ong, 1982, p. 114)
  • In literate societies, languages have a much larger vocabulary. (Ong, 1982, p. 106)
  • Literacy also enhances orality. Analytic oral disputations in medieval universities (continuing even to present day in dissertation defences) are the result of minds developed in literate cultures. (Ong, 1982, p. 104)
  • Writing establishes context free language or 'autonomous' discourse (Ong, 1982, p. 76)
  • Language is structure, and it is impossible to use a language without a grammar (Ong, 1982, p.106).

• Language is nested in sounds (Ong, 1982)

• language is always evolving

• Language is what keeps community together

• Language is equally responsible for clarity and confusion in the communication process


  • Writing enabled development of literature.
  • Writing is the "...seedbed of irony and the longer the writing tradition endures, the heavier the ironic growth becomes" as seen in the position of the reader to the writer in Finnegans Wake (Ong, 1982,p.102)

• In 19th Century, women writers, while influenced by works emanating from the Latin-based, academ, rhetorical tradition, expressed themselves in a different, far less oratorical voice, which had a great deal to do with the rise of the novel (Ong, 1982, p. 110)


  • The writers audience is always a fiction. (Ong, 1977, p. 53-81)
  • Writing is a solipsistic operation. ( Ong, 1982, p.100)
  • In high technology cultures today, everyone lives each day in a frame of abstract computed time enforced by millions of printed calendars, clocks, and watches. In twelfth-century England there were no clocks or watches or wall or desk calendars. (Ong, 1982, p. 97)
  • Literacy is usually restricted to special groups - for example, the clergy (Ong, 1982, p. 92). Writing is artificial and must be studied (unlike speech which is learned naturally). Therefore, literacy can be viewed as elitist and gender-biased.
  • no way to erase a spoken word: corrections do not remove an infelicity or an error, they merely supplement it with denial and patchwork. (Ong, 1982, p. 104)
  • Lack of verifiable context is what makes writing normally much more agonizing an activity than oral presentation to a real audience. (Ong, p.100)
  • The notion of originality has changed - now it means creating new materials, not reproducing traditional materials in unique situations. (Ong, p. 60)

• Literacy enhances social awareness

•Social media have forced users to be creative with text representation to get a message across using as few characters as possible.

• Literacy is not confined to one's ability to read and write as was once perceived.