Who’s Ong?

Walter J. Ong: Orality and Literacy

I’ve already introduced you to McLuhan. Now, let’s introduce you to another figure that’s currently shaping my perspectives. Walter J. Ong.

How he influence the conversation of “Orality”? His work is foundational. While I still have to get into his more history-based works, his main focus was in a small pocket of time in human history, the transition from Orality into Literacy. Hence one of his seminal works Orality and Literacy.

But, Nick, is this a religious thing?

Ah, you noticed what he was wearing in the picture did you? I did say that, didn’t I? While he may be an American Jesuit priest, at no time while reading Orality & Literacy did I ever get the sense of religion.

So sure, his specific curiosity may have been triggered by religion. I can only speculate it’s not a large hop skip and a jump to wonder if it was sparked around the effect missionary work had on an oral society. How at the heart of his religion was, in a sense, literacy. But that’s where we mostly stop.

Compassion of orality

I say mostly because with Ong, perhaps his religion helped, but nowhere yet in my readings, have I felt any portrait of superiority between literacy and orality.

Which seems against what I’ve found from my informal conversations. From my discussions, so far, when I even suggest a post-literate oral culture is emerging, I seem to hit this wall. “Well, I know how to read!”


Where I’m going is, that as we go on this ride, I do not want to suggest any sort of inferiority or superiority between literate and oral. They are merely different. And that difference changes our minds which in turn changes our perceptions of each other and the world we live in.

I realize now, my first post, may have been suggestive of this backslide, talking of tribal darkness. I think I might have to rectify that in future posts.

Back to it

Where were we… oh yes, what does Ong have to do with Orality… everything.

He coined the term “Secondary Orality” mainly orality steeped in literacy. TV & Movies start with a script. But somewhere it gets a little twisted and muddled when written feels spoken. It’s a fancy term you can use at a cocktail party when discussing slang, emojis, tweets ( micro-blogging ), memes, and other oral-like text.

But the main pièce de résistance is his characteristics ( psychodynamics ) of an oral culture. It’s a pillar in everything. While there is debate, he devised a series of traits in oral cultures. I’m not going to list all of them all right now because well… spoilers, however, if you really want, Wikipedia has a decent list.

What I will do, is leave you with a teaser of what I want to do throughout this project. What if we re-examine society today against the characteristics of an oral culture? What do you think we would find?

Here’s the first of many:

Sounded Word As Power and Action

The very first is a topic Ong tackles is an oral cultures association of words and power. Every Tolkien-like fantasy story has an elemental knowledge of this. Know someone’s “true” name, and have power over them. Or better yet, read The Name of the Wind, a good fantasy book if I do say so myself.

In the non-fictional world, for some traditions & cultures, it’s a source of deep connection. Used sparingly. A way to declare family, special relationships, or sacred moments.

Outside of these oral traditions, there has been a resurgence of re-appropriating words. Derogatory slang is taken back as empowerment.

Currently, one of the most powerful examples of a cultural rekindling that sounded word has power, and one I believe we’re “feeling” is a re-appropriation and a declaration, that of the pronoun.

Imagine the neuropathways in the human mind learning and changing.

How amazingly beautiful!

Originally posted on Substack