Speech: Through the Fabric of the Human Person and Language Discourse
There is no final word on anything. Every topic is related to every other topic at such a profound level that there is always more that can be said. Such were the beliefs of Renaissance scholar and Intellectual historian Walter J. Ong, S. J., who takes credit for more than four hundred publications that shed light on the transformative journey of communications technology and how the human consciousness is impacted by such advancements. In his revolutionary thesis, “Orality and Literacy”, he carries the contrast between orality and literacy through the ancient and present cultures, while laying down social, cultural, spiritual, and structuralist implications, to name a few. “Ong begins his explorations of the contrast between oral and written communication by relating the operations of the human sensorium to the philosophical categories of time and space. Speech, he argues, is related to hearing, the auditory faculty most directly connected with time.” (Biakolo 43)
The oral aspect of language has strongly caused the scholarly world, including anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and cultural historians, to probe beneath the layer of typography-driven human consciousness and form an understanding of the orality-literacy contrast through fieldwork in societies that manifested primary orality, a culture where the thought could be expressed only through the faculties of speech and hearing; the unconscious, memory, repetition and formulas defined its foundation. What draws a parallel of similarity between primary orality and secondary orality is that the former draws a contrast between orality and writing, the interpretation of which has been made easier by the present contrast between electronic media and print.
Walter J. Ong expressed exceptional arguments about primary orality being the focal point of scholarly attraction. He explained the oral phenomenon to be at the core of language. He observes that both communication and thought, relate to sound at a special, cardinal level. Ong placed oral speech systems as the bearer of human existence through language, stretching to the extent of sign languages. He presents crisp data and formulates that an extraordinarily minuscule percentage of the total languages present in human history have been transformed to writing, capable enough to have a literature, which approves the permanence of the basic orality of language. The thesis in question prioritizes the significance of the diachronic study of orality and of the numerous phases that establish themselves in its evolution because it sets up a standpoint to help us build a pyramid, at the base of which lies the primary oral culture, followed by writing, then the print culture, which adds to the grandeur of writing and finally, the electronic culture, which emerges through both writing and print. Ong postulates, “In this diachronic framework, past and present, Homer and television, can illuminate one another.” (Ong 2)
To support his reflections about the primacy of orality, Ong has also built on the thoughts of the father of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, who noted that scholars tended to award writing as the basic structure of language but in his opinion, writing comprised “usefulness, shortcomings and dangers” (Ong 5). However, he still placed writing on a pedestal where it was understood to be a complement to oral speech, not a transformer of it. He acted as the trailblazer for the study of phonemics, the way language has its roots in the realm of sound. The popular view shared by earlier linguists that oral culture merely held meaning and space, as compared to the supposedly valuable literary textuality was disapproved ardently by scholars like Andrew Lang and Saussure who stood in favour of the notion that writing was plainly orality in visible form.
Moreover, it is crucial to perceive orality as a character of the language, without which no other character can exist as this reflection sets orality apart from other technologies as well as lends orality a foundational stature. For instance, oral expression can well be practiced without writing, but it would be absurd to imagine the existence of writing without orality. If we consider the case of an oral dialect, it would cease its limits after a few thousand words and the group using it would possess no knowledge about the history of exposition of these words, but writing opens a plethora of landscapes, and not one thrives without the oral heritage still residing in it. Ong posits the world of sound as the ‘natural habitat of language’, to which all written texts are connected in some way. He also concurs with the fact that ‘reading’ directly prompts the conversion of text to sound.
Furthermore, Ong surprisingly justifies language study with the help of oral processes through his thesis of the abiding presence of primary orality in all horizons of language. Firstly, he speculated that the idea of the involvement of writing is so deeply ingrained in language studies, as though it were the only and obvious means to carry them out, as seen in the dependency on written texts for language study in the recent decades. All thought that comprises the material of language study is broken down into various components, thus accentuating its analytic side, which makes it impossible to absorb without the help of writing and reading, because the symbolically chronological, distributary and detailed evaluation of phenomena or of factual statements combine to exercise the study of this sort. Ong places the learning of great wisdom and skills like hunting in the primary oral cultures, completely unacquainted with the form of writing, adjacent to the ‘study’ mentioned in the preceding strategy. Human beings used to learn “by listening, by repeating what they hear, by mastering proverbs and ways of combining and recombining them, by assimilating other formulary materials, by participation in a kind of corporate retrospection — not by study in the strict sense”. (Ong 8) These differences in the procedures of mapping out the methodology for the study of language narrows down to conclude that by technologizing communication, orality, latent or explicit, remains the fundamental participant in all its counterparts.
Walter Ong discovered the Homeric question in his thesis through the acknowledgement of Milman Parry, an American Classicist, who played an important role in revolutionizing Homeric studies and drew conclusions about the features of primary orality, like repetition and standardization of themes, by drawing conclusions on the origins of the Iliad and the Odyssey. For Ong, he was “the prime mover in the orality-literacy universe”. (Ong, “Writing”, 24) He words Parry’s discovery in this way: “Virtually every distinctive feature of Homeric poetry is due to the economy enforced on it by oral methods of composition. These can be reconstructed by careful study of the verse itself, once one puts aside the assumptions about expression and thought processes engrained in the psyche by generations of literate culture.” (Ong 21) This finding had path-breaking consequences in cultural and psychic history. Taking forward from this discovery, Milman Parry proved that Homer followed a carefully devised pattern of formulas and meters in his poetry, which Ong bluntly calls clichés. Homer’s tendency to depend on prefabricated parts for his creations was noticed a threatening number of times. On similar lines, Finnegan (1977, p. 70) took to his surprise when he affirmed that written poetry could also carry the touch of a formulaic style, as observed at the event of Xhosa poets learning to write. Indications like these led the primary oral culture to be heavily characterized by a formulaic style. Additionally, Ong points out that formulas and fixed patterns settle immovably in the conscious and the unconscious and cannot be erased by the simple act of shifting to writing.
The above-mentioned revelations and features constructed the framework for the application of the study of primary orality to transform other disciplines and their discourse. Taking from the scholarly mentions of Ong, anthropologists delved deeper into the subject matter of orality. One such anthropologist, Jack Goody has crowned the phrase ‘shifts from orality to various stages of literacy’ as according to him, it can be used to explain the metamorphosis of the mystical to the scientific, from the professed ‘pre-logical to the more ‘rational’ stream of thought and from the ‘savage’ mind as coined by Lévi-Strauss to the collected, organized thought.
Walter J. Ong is commendable in his breaking down of the most complex aspects of communications technology in the simplest of manners. Communications technology, he opines, vitalizes the reconstruction of the sensorium, as it highlights some senses and neglects others. He uses the term “world as event” to expound the reflections of someone who is only familiar with primary oral folklore and utilizes the faculty of sound to express and grasp the exchange of ideas. What stands out from Ong’s discussion of the psychodynamics of orality is his idea of communication as an ‘event’, as placed in the setting of primary oral-aural culture. The dialectical knowledge is nested in and shared as formulas and stories. The evolutionist demonstrates writing as a linear for understanding orality. Although Ong calls attention to the fact that the visuality in interpretation, as reinforced by writing and print, can restrict the natural gift of dialogue of all human consciousness, he did invest his belief in the evolutionary possibilities of the form.
It is evident in his book that Ong remained hopeful about technology. He was always of the view that orality brought out the human person, because of its core features. In the dramatic transition of the word through alternatives like manuscript, print and electronic media, he discovered a sizable scope of the “interiorization” of this human person. Contrary to what he was claimed to be, a technophobe or a primitivist, he actually encouraged the idea that technology can be an instrument of growth for human civilization. Elucidating on the same, the rift brought about by the print culture enabled the cerebral processes to function in the direction of analytical approaches, introspection and discovery of the self. An integral sphere of individual self and growth is made of this distance and alienation.
All through the text, there are clear hints of Ong acknowledging the limitless premises of artificial intelligence and automation with the help of computer applications, but he continues to press on the eminence of personhood and how it is irreplaceable even through machinery. Computer applications are encoded with a language that lacks context, an unconscious and therefore, their remarkable memory and functionalities cannot overshadow the interiority that resides in the living memory of humans, fueled by the human unconscious. “He maintains that computers cannot be programmed to deal with the essentials of human communications since words achieve their meaning through context, and meaning is grounded not only in words but also in silence, neither of which can be captured in binary code.” (Zlatic 165) He declares that computers acquire their capability to process and transfer information through a mechanical process aided by wavelengths, which is at par with the concept of facilitating communication of one interior to another. Ong asserts that owing to no fixed texts, the oral culture has a distinctively unique way to organize and impart information.
In consolidation of the final analysis, it will be wise to consider how the OED defines orality — “the quality of being oral or orally communicated; preference for or tendency to use spoken forms of language.” Walter J. Ong, in his comprehensive thesis, thoroughly encompasses the features of the spoken language, including engagement of the profoundness of personhood, consideration of the reality the user speaks about, and refined complicity of the listener, in order to drive home the point that speech is inextricable and it has enticed the fascination of humankind as a whole. It has also evoked a serious, endless conversation among scholars through their works. Before writing came into being, the native oral form of language had spread its rich heritage and an exceedingly human phenomenon across the world, along with its competencies, attractions and perils. Not much changed about this passion even after the emergence of writing. In all cultures, well-known or hidden, the faculty of speech is widely taught and learnt. Speech develops its existence out of the unconscious. Consequently, it supports the dialogue of each form of language and each successive stage of media shift, be it oral-aural, or script, which breaks through the moveable alphabet or finally, the electronic, hence, forming a full circle, extending across centuries.
- Ong, Walter J. Orality and literacy. Routledge, 2013.
- Biakolo, E. A. “On the Theoretical Foundations of Orality and Literacy.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 30 no. 2, 1999, p. 42–65. Project MUSE.
- Zlatic, Thomas D. “TALKING LITERATURE AND RELIGION: WALTER ONG.” Religion & Literature, vol. 44, no. 2, University of Notre Dame, 2012, pp. 159–69.
- McDowell, Paula. “ONG AND THE CONCEPT OF ORALITY.” Religion & Literature, vol. 44, no. 2, University of Notre Dame, 2012, pp. 169–78.
- Farrell, Thomas J. “DEVELOPING LITERACY: WALTER J. ONG AND BASIC WRITING.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 2, no. 1, Temporary Publisher, 1978, pp. 30–51.
- Ong, Walter J. “Literacy and Orality in Our Times.” Profession, Modern Language Association, 1979, pp. 1–7.