ARTICLE REVIEW – Orality, Literacy, Modern Media, by Walter Ong

To be human, is to analyze. As human beings, we have a tendency to ponder new ideas and concepts on a regular basis. Such curiosity notes back to the days of primary orality. In Walter Ong’s article, “Orality, Literacy, and Modern Media,” we learn about the difference between the oral culture and the written culture. He also teaches us about the differences and similarities between primary and secondary orality.

To begin with, a primary orality culture is one with no knowledge of writing, or even the possibility of writing. In a primary culture, the expression “to look up something” has no meaning whatsoever. Their words are sounds which they can only “call” or “recall” as they have nowhere to “look” for them. To grasp the concept of what a primary culture is, Ong reflects upon the nature of sound. Compared to other human sensations, sound has a special relation to time. “It is not simply perishable but essentially evanescent, and it is sensed as evanescent” (p.61). None of our other senses can resist such a holding action or stabilization. Understanding the psychodynamic of an oral culture was virtually non-existent in 1923.

The people of primary cultures consider words to have magical power. Since the oral culture lacked text, their sustained thoughts were tied to communication. Hence, in order to solve effectively the problem of retaining and retrieving coherent thoughts, it was compulsory to think in mnemonic patterns. The primary people believed that thoughts must come in “heavily rhythmic, balanced patterns, in repetition or antitheses, in alliterations and assonances, in epithetic and other formulary expressions:” (p.62).

Ong goes on to explain the relation of primary culture to Greek literacy as it was delivered in ‘quasi-philosophical material’ in prescribed verse forms. According to Ong, formulas aided in the implementation of rhythmic discourse and acted as mnemonic aids in their own rights, as the set expressions circulated through the mouths and ears of all individuals.

Hence, thinking is done in the same manner as organizing experience intellectually because in an oral culture, expression is intellectualized mnemonically. Ong then compares the sense of hearing to other senses such as taste, smell, sight, and touch. He provides examples to help the reader follow through. For instance, to look at the surroundings in a room, one has to rotate his or her head but the sound is coming to one’s ear from all directions. Hence, “this centering effect of sound is what high-fidelity sound reproduction exploits with intense sophistication” (p.64).

At the end, Ong compares primary culture to secondary culture. Secondary orality is brought by television, radio, telephone, and other electronic technologies. The more premeditated self-conscious orality is based on writing and print. People in secondary orality are group minded, self-conscious, and programmatically individuals. However, some elderly people today may remember or recall what primary orality was like, unlike the younger generation which only hears about it. Thus, in this modern day and age, we are provided with very minimal detail of the oral life style and thought structure from which oratory originated.

Ong has provided us with a very clear explanation of primary orality. The various examples help the reader grasp a better understanding of the issues discussed. The comparison and contrast he makes of primary and secondary culture is also interesting to examine. As Ong writes, a man’s word is his bond in a primary oral culture. For instance, the verbal act of swearing to something is indeed the same as signing a contract these days.

It is also interesting to note Ong’s comparison of all the senses to that of sound. He contrasts sound to taste, smell, touch, and sight. Ong speaks about our sense of touch by writing about how to discover whether a box is empty or full by just touching it. One would have to make a hole in the box and feel what is inside with his or her finger, which means that ‘the box is to that extent open, to that extent less interior” (p.64). On the other hand, without violating the interiority of the box, one can register hearing. He writes: “I can rap a box to find whether it is empty or full:” (p.64). This clearly shows the creative thinking process Ong goes through to make such a comparison.

To help the reader flow through his article smoothly, Ong has divided his paper in a very professional manner. He provides us with an introduction and overview at the beginning. Then, he has utilized subheadings such as: ‘Mnemonics and Formulas’, ‘The Interiority of Sound’, and ‘Secondary Orality’. At the end, Ong also provides us with a bibliography, which may be helpful for those individuals who wish to learn more about Primitive Orality or other related topics.

Overall, Ong’s article “Orality, Literacy, and Modern Media” is written with thorough research into the topic. He has provided the reader with a very clear understanding of what the primary orality culture is and how it is related to our modern media. The author has also used many examples throughout his piece to help the reader get a better picture of the ideas he is explaining. The article is also very well written and organized in such a manner that the reader will be able to make connections from one topic to another very easily. This article is recommended for anyone interested in learning about the primary oral culture, the sense of sound, or literacy in general.


Ong, Walter. Orality, Literacy, Modern Media. (pp 60-79). Reproduced in Communication in History, Technology, Culture, Society. (1999) by David Crowley & Paul Heyer. US: Addison Wesley Longman Inc.

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