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

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Quick Links: Characteristics of Orality :: Characteristics of Literacy :: Characteristics of Digital Literacy

Characteristics unique to orality

  • Oral societies are untouched by writing (Ong, 1982, p. 31)
  • No one in an oral society has "looked up" anything (Ong, 1982, p. 31)
  • No "how to" manuals (Ong, 1982, p. 43)
  • While conceptual thinking is intrinsically abstract, the concepts adopted by oral cultures tend to focus on frames of reference that are a part of everyday life. These frames of reference are influenced by situation and endeavours (Ong, 49).
  • For example, these cultures would not define an item by its geometrical shape, like a square, instead they would assign it a name like door, television, picture frame, etc (Ong, 50-51).
  • Unique names are usually reserved for items that are a part of daily life, while other items tend to be grouped together, like 'that small “furry creature”' or 'it is just a “rock”' (Ong, 52).
  • [C]ountries with two or more different spoken languages are likely to have major problems in establishing and maintaining national unity, as today in Canada and Belgium or in many developing countries." (Ong,1982, p. 74)
  • "Absolute accuracy" or verbatim recitation does not often exist in a purely oral world. The same story may be told a million ways but ultimately it is recognizable as the same story.
  • In oral cultures, the word has its existence only in sound, with no reference to or even possibility of a text. This provides a centering effect where where humans become the "umbilicus mundi" or the centre of the world and cosmos (Ong, 1982,p.72)
  • When a speaker addresses an audience, the audience and the speaker become united. When an audience is given a handout to read for themselves, the individual members enter their own reading world. The unity with the speaker and the other members of the audience is only re-established, when the speaker addresses the audience again (Ong, 1982, p. 73)
  • Word meanings come continuously out of the present, though past meanings of course have shaped the present meaning in many and varied ways no longer recognized". (Ong, 1982, p.47)
  • "Oral memorization is subject to variation from direct social pressures " (Ong, 1982, p.66)

•Oral cultures maximize the power of the brain/memory •Oral cultures print is written on memory of the inhabitants. •Sounds in oral society have no representations


  • Can be debated because it takes place live in front of an audience, as opposed to writing. (Ong, 1982, p. 77)
  • Oral language is not solitary but communal.
  • Conversation would be " a series of verbal and somatic maneuvers, a polite duel, a contest of wits, an operation of oral agonistic." (Ong, 1982, p.68)
  • Always answer a question by asking another. Never let down your oral guard. (Ong, 1982, p.68)
  • Orality situates knowledge in struggle. (Ong, 1982, p.44)
  • Proverbs and riddles not only store knowledge, but engage others in intellectual combat.(Ong, 1982, p.44)
  • Dialogue can be interiorized through analytic precision when it is written. Plato's dialogues are precise because of writing: his dialogues today are printed in written text (Ong, 1982, p. 103).


  • Oral speech is lived in the present whereas past events are often forgotten. (Ong, 1982, p. 46)
  • For centuries, public speaking (rhetoric), was the paradigm of all discourse, including that of writing. (Ong, 1982, p. 9).
  • Speech can be "cumbersome and tiresome" because it is full of unnecessary words and repetition. (Ong, 1982, p. 37)
  • Oral speech encourages "fluency, fulsomeness, volubility." (Ong, 1982, p. 40) It is based on patterns, rhythms and repetition. (p. 34)
  • The need to repeat the events from the past so that they are not forgotten "inhibits intellectual experimentation." (Ong, 1982, p. 41)
  • Speech is empathetic and tailored to the audience (p. 45)
  • Originality means fitting the traditional materials into each situation or audience (Ong, 1982, p. 60). That is why myths have many minor variants. (Ong, 1982, p. 42)
  • Speech is integral with consciousness. (p. 9)
  • Speech is often repetitive to give the speaker a chance to think of the next thought and in case the listener couldn't hear or tuned out. (Ong, 1982, p. 40)
  • Redundancy is encouraged in speech. "Oral cultures encourage fluency, fulsomeness, volubility" (Ong, 1872, p. 40).
  • It was commonplace that stories in primary oral societies were characterized by formulaic speech. There are variations in these formulae but Ong posits that all formulaic speech in oral cultures "more or less exactly repeated set phrases or set expressions (such as proverbs) in verse or prose, which, as will be seen, do have function in oral culture more crucial and pervasive than any they may have in a writing or print or electronic culture." (pp 25-26)
  • Language is Formulaic "You know what you can recall." (Ong,1982, p. 33)
  • Sight isolates, sound incorporates. (Ong, 1982, p. 72)
  • Everyone in the community learns to talk unless they have a disability. (Ong, 1982, p. 81).
  • Oral speech has less elaborate grammar (Ong, 1982, p. 38)
  • Making corrections while speaking makes the speaker less credible (Ong, p. 103).
  • Oral speech carries a load of epithets and other formulary speaking baggage (Ong, 1982, p. 38)
  • Oral speech is ten times faster than writing (Ong, 1982, p. 40)
  • "Thought is nested in speech, not in text" since text is only a visible coded symbol to the world of sound meant to invoke to consciousness real words (Ong, 1982, p.74)
  • Oral thought and speech is characterized by redundancy, which is much more natural to the mind, since writing is a strain on the psyche which prevents expression from falling into its natural patterns(Ong, 1982,p.40)


  • Words in oral cultures are sounds, occurences, events. They do not have visual presence. (Ong, 1982, p. 31)
  • "Oral folk have no sense of a name as a tag, for they have no idea of a name as something that can be seen. Written or printed representations of words can be labels; real, spoken words cannot be" (Ong, 1982, p.33)
  • Words on literate cultures are conceived as signs due to our tendency "to reduce all sensation and indeed all human experience visual analogues" (Ong, 1982, p. 75).
  • Words, and specifically names, are perceived to have great power and give humans power over what they name. (p. 33)
  • Words have great power "because sound is all-encompassing and dynamic" (Ong, 1982, p. 32).
  • Words take on meaning from current circumstance, action and habitat. (Ong, 1982, p. 46)
  • Meaning of words are controlled by "direct semantic ratification", by the real-life siuations in which the word is used here and now (Ong, 1982, p.46)
  • Meanings of words come from the present. Where as text cultures tend to hold on to historical ifluences on meanings of words. (Ong, 1982, p. 47)
  • "A simply oral dialect will commonly have resources of only a few thousand words, and its users will have virtually no knowledge of the real semantic history of any of these words." (Ong, 1982, p. 8).
  • Homer refers to words with the standard epithet 'winged words' suggesting a freeing from the objective world through the evanescence, power and freedom of flying(Ong, 1982, p.76)
  • Orally transmitted rhymes and games have words which have lost their meaning and are nonsense syllables. (Ong, 1982, p. 47)


  • Oral memory is closely tied to gestures. Ong notes: "The oral word, as we have noted, never exists in a simply verbal context, as a written word does. Spoken words are always modifications of a total, existential situation, which always engages the body." (Ong, 1982, p. 67).
  • Epithets, memorable characters and number groupings are used to aid recall during speech (Ong, 1982, p. 39 & 69).
  • Oral discourse requires redundancy and repetition to keep the speaker and listeners "on track". (Ong, 1982, p.39 & 40)
  • The use of metric and formulaic structures to aid memorization (Ong, p58).
  • Additions to lists or formulae followed recognizable patterns that were pragmatic and convenient to the speaker. (p. 37) Lists of items are incorporated into stories and not memorized as "bullet points." (Ong, p.97)
  • The only thing that is known is that which is remembered. "You know what you can recall." (p. 33)
  • "...memory played quite a different role in oral culture from what it played in literate culture." (Ong, 19; via Robert Wood)
  • Proverbs come from oral thought patterned for retention and ready recall (Ong, 1982, p. 34)
  • To aid in recall, thinking has to be done in mnemonic patterns. Thoughts are heavily rhythmic, repetitive and patterned. (Ong, 1982, p. 34)
  • In memorizing a written text, postponing its recitation generally weakens recall. An oral poet...needs time to let the story sink into his own store of themes and formulas. (Ong, 1982, p. 60)
  • Becoming literate disables the oral poet, since it introduces into the mind the "concept of a text as controlling the narrative" thus taking away the ability to adapt formulas to the needs of the audience thereby interrupting story formula construction and disrupting memory(Ong, p.59)
  • "Mnemonic needs determine even syntax" (Havelock as cited in Ong, 1982, p.34)
  • Conceptualized knowledge must be repeated or it vanishes (Ong, 1982, p. 41)
  • The residual orality of a culture can be determined by the amount of memorization required in educational system. (Ong, 1982, p.41)


  • Learning and knowing in oral cultures means achieving close, emphathetic, collective identification with the known (Havelock 1963 in Ong, 1982, p. 45).
  • Learning to read and write disables the oral poet (Ong, 1982, p.59).
  • Oral cultures transmit learning and knowledge through apprenticeship or discipleship, with no 'how to' manual to guide the process. (Ong, 1982, p.9) Oral cultures do not study. Learning is achieved through description embedded in action. (Ong, 1982, p.43)
  • Speakers avoid corrections because it makes them look like they don't know what they're talking about. (Ong, 1982, p. 103.
  • Historical references are dropped or amended when they are deemed no longer relevant. Once something is dropped from an oral history it is lost to the next generation.
  • Ways of learning include apprenticeship, discipleship, listening, repeating what they hear, by combining and recombining proverbs, assimilating materials. Learning is not through study. (Ong, 1982, p. 9)
  • Knowledge is a phenomenon that unifies, strives for harmony and is built upon a healthy psyche created by the resonances of voice built upon the interior structures of produced by harmonizing sound within(Ong, 1982, pp.71-72)
  • Oral societies must invest a great deal of energy and time into saying over and over again what has been learned over time, which in turn inhibits intellectual experimentation. The result is great respect of wise old men and women who are the keepers of cultural memes (Ong, 1982, p.41)


  • Thought is situational and operational, not abstract (Ong, 1982, p. 49 & 54).
  • Formal logic is the invention of the Greek culture after it had interiorized the technology of alphabet writing....made a permanent part of its noetic resources the kind of thinking that alphabetic writing made possible.....[Luria's] illiterate subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive procedures at practical matters no one operates in formally stated syllogisms(Ong, 1982, p. 52)
  • An oral culture simply does not deal in such items as geometrical figures, abstract categorization, formally logical reasoning processes, definitions, or even comprehensive descriptions, or articulated self-analysis, all of which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought. (Ong, 1982, p. 54-55)
  • Restriction of words to sound determines modes of expression and thought processes (Ong, 1982, p. 33).
  • Happens in mnemonic patterns (p.34)
  • Formulas are not occasional but incessant in oral culture. (p.35) [Imagine always thinking in rhymes!!]
  • Words are the manifestation or translation of thought.
  • Sustained thought in an oral culture is tied to communication. (p.34)
  • Emphasis is placed on the present. Events from the past that have no evident significance are no longer remembered and, therefore, essentially never existed. (Ong, 1982, p. 46)
  • Oral cultures think of themselves as the center of the universe or 'umbilicus mundi'. (p. 72)
  • More sophisticated orally patterned thought is more likely to be marked by set expressions in oral cultures (Ong, 1982, p. 34)
  • It only takes a moderate degree of literacy to make a tremendous difference in thought processes. (Ong, 1982, p. 50. From Carothers, 1959)
  • "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." (Ong, 1982, p. 23)
  • thought is "additive rather than subordinative" (Ong, 1982, p. 37). An example cited by Ong is the stringing together of nine introductory 'ands' in the opening verse of Genesis (Douay, 1610).
  • Oral thought and expression is "aggregative rather than analytic." (Ong, 1982, p. 38) Ong describes how a lot of clichés are used by necessity in orally based thought and expression which caries a load of formulary baggage.
  • Oral memory works effectively with heroic figures and the bizarre, since the deeds of heroes are memorable, public and monumental (Ong, 1982, p.69)
  • Oral societies conceptualize and verbalize all knowledge with close reference to lifeworld. (Ong, 1982, p. 42)
  • Know few statistics or facts, thus divorced from human or quasi-human activity (Ong, 1982, p. 43)


  • Oral communication unites people in groups. (Ong, 1982, P 68) Verbal performances are artistic and have human value. (Ong, 1982, p. 14)
  • Primary oral cultures needed the presence of descriptive heroes and villians to mobilize memory through stories about them. (Ong, 1982, p. 69).
  • Colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics. (Ong, 1982, p. 70)
  • The need to repeat conceptualized knowledge to retain it establishes a conservative or traditionalist mindset that inhibits intellectual experimentation (Ong, 1982, p. 41).
  • Oral cultures tend to place more value on older members of society as storehouses of knowledge that can be passed down to younger generations.(Ong, 1982, p. 41)
  • Crazy or insane behaviours were attributed to drastic external confusion rather than internal factors. (Ong, 1982, p. 68)
  • The geneologies of winners tend to survive, those of losers tend to vanish. (Ong, 1982, p. 67)
  • Never let down your oral guard -in oral cultures a question was frequently parried instead of being answered. (p.68)
  • Verbomotor cultures: cultures in which, by contrast with high technology cultures, courses of action and attitudes toward issues depend significantly more on effective use of words, and thus on human interaction, and significantly less on nonverbal, often largely visual input from the ‘objective’ world of things (Ong, 1982, p.67).
  • Oral narratives have a deep connection with the lived experience and therefre resonate with the audience.
  • High regard for story tellers who conserve knowledge. (Ong, 1982, p. 42)
  • Oral societies are characterized as being homeostatic. “Oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.” (Ong, 1982, p. 46).
  • Oral lifestyle is related to more communal and externalized ways of living.


Carothers, J.C. (1959). Culture, psychiatry, and the written word. Psychiatry, 22, 307-320.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.