The History and Future of the Book


Some Psychodynamics of Orality

—from Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Methuen & Co., 1982)

Following are some of the characteristics of orality according to Ong. Based largely on Greek epic, they are not a perfect set of universal features of oral narrative (for example, they do not reflect the characteristics of Native North American orality). Ong does, however, allow us some insights into the features of epic oral narrative as we encounter it in Beowulf.


"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" (24).

Chapter 3: Some psychodynamics of orality

  1. expression is additive rather than subordinative
    • Ong gives an example from Genesis I:1-5 of the Douyay Bible (1610), produced in an a culture "with a still massive oral residue."He explains that it keeps close to the additive Hebrew orginal, using nine introductory ands:
      In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God moved over the waters. And God said: Be light made. And light was made. And God saw the light that it was good; and he divided the light from the darkness. And he called the light Day, and the darkness Night; and there was evening and morning one day. (37)

  2. it is aggregative rather than analytic
    • Aggregative expression uses clusters of words as mnemonic devices. Ong says that in formal discourses oral societies prefer "loads of epithets": not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak but the sturdy oak. Literate societies, he claims, reject these as "cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of their aggregative weight" (38).
  3. it tends to be redundant or "copious"
    • Ong says that, while writing establishes "a 'line' of continuity outside of the mind," redundancy or repetition of the "just-said" in oral discourse prevents both the listener and the speaker from losing track of the words, which disappear as soon as they are spoken. "Early written texts, through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, are often bloated with 'amplification,' annoyingly redundant by modern standards," writes Ong (41).
  4. there is a tendency for it to be conservative or traditionalist
    • In an oral culture, knowledge that isn't repeated will vanish. Ong writes, "oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages. This need establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation" (41).
  5. thought is conceptualized and then expressed with more or less close reference to the human lifeworld
    • "An oral culture has no vehicle so neutral as a list," writes Ong (42). He suggests that in an oral society abstract itemized lists, such as names of leaders and other abstract descriptions such as geneology, political information, or navigation procedures, are embedded in a narrative that places them in the context of human action.
  6. expression is agonistically toned (combative)
    • Ong says that "Writing fosters abstractions that disengage knowledge from the arena where human beings struggle with one another" (43-4). Oral expression, he says, is characterized by verbal contests and portrayals of gross physical violence. He suggests "violence in oral art forms is...connected with the structure of orality itself. When all verbal communication must be by direct word of mouth, involved in the give-and-take dynamics of sound, interpersonal relations are kept high—both attractions and, even more, antagonisms" (45). He says that the portrayal of gross physical violence gradually wanes or becomes peripheral in later literary narrative (in "the serious novel") because the focus of action is pulled away from exterior crises and toward interior crises.
  7. it is empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
    • Ong writes that for oral cultures, knowing or learning means achieving a close, empathetic, and communal identification with the known; writing, on the other hand, "separates the knower from the known and thus sets up conditions for 'objectivity,' in the sense of personal disengagement or distancing" (46).
  8. it is homeostatic
    • Ong says oral societies, in contrast to literate societies, keep themselves in equilibrium by "sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance": the example he gives is of dictionaries, which literate cultures use to preserve layers of meaning. In oral cultures, narratives will change and adjust according to present cultural values and needs: "The integrity of the past [is] subordinate to the integrity of the present" (48).
  9. it is situational rather than abstract
    • Ong says oral cultures tend to use concepts in "situational, operational frames of reference that are minimally abstract in the sense that they remain close to the living human lifeworld" (49). For example, he describes a study where oral subjects identified geometrical figures as objects rather than abstract shapes: what a literate culture calls a "circle" would be called a plate, sieve, bucket, watch, or moon.