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Walter Ong, orality and literacy

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  1. Oral and literate cultures: The evolution of the narrative
  2. The technology of writing
  3. The impacts of print-culture
  4. Conclusion

Walter Wong's Orality and Literacy provides the reader, who by definition is a member of the literate world, with insights into the rich oral cultures that spawned the chirographic (writing) and the typographic (print) cultures that followed. In a world steeped in literacy for many centuries, interiorizing such insights is not an easy task. This may explain why many scholars, and some still today, work in a field of study known as ?Oral literature?: a ?monstrous concept? and a ?preposterous term? in Ong's opinion. Such an apparent oxymoron helps to point out how difficult it is for literates to grasp purely oral thought processes. Most human development according to Ong have been affected at great depth by the shift from orality to literacy.

[...] The opposition between orality and literacy is never as obvious as in the Christian religion, where the Son of God is also known as the Word of God but where the Word of God is also the Bible, the most published book in the history of mankind. Another key point in Ong's work is that ?more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. With writing, ideas or discourse can no longer be directly questioned or contested. Thus all books take on some of the properties previously reserved to prophets or oracles. [...]


[...] To help recall such long lists of names orality had to rely on mnemonic devices and formulas such as Homer's hexameterized phrases. In Homeric poems, each character had epithets that both described their traits and helped the author fit them neatly into the meter. This explains why Odysseus is described 72 times as clever. This also explains why in oral tradition, the oak will always be described as sturdy and the princess as beautiful or sad. Because oral culture relies on the constant repetition of devices such as aphorisms, sayings and word associations, for it to be transmitted through generations, oral cultures tended to be very conservative and more comfortable with the statu quo. [...]

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