Excerpts from:

`Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word'
by Walter J. Ong. (1982)  Copyright Methuen, London. 

 Parts of Chapter 4 `Writing restructures consciousness'
 (pp. 77-94,  113-114 in 2002 edition)


Writing is a technology

Plato was thinking of writing as an external, alien technology, as many people today think of the computer. Because we have by today so deeply interiorized writing, made it so much a part of ourselves, as Plato's age had not yet made it fully a part of itself (Havelock 1963), we find it difficult to consider writing to be a technology as we commonly assume printing and the computer to be. Yet writing (and especially alphabetic writing) is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment: styli or brushes or pens, carefully prepared surfaces such as paper, animal skins, strips of wood, as well as inks or paints, and much more. Clanchy (1979, pp. 88-115) discusses the matter circumstantially, in its western medieval context, in his chapter entitled 'The technology of writing'. Writing is in a way the most drastic of the three technologies. It initiated what print and computers only continue, the reduction of dynamic sound to quiescent space, the separation of the word from the living present, where alone spoken words can exist.

By contrast with natural, oral speech, writing is completely artificial. There is no way to write 'naturally'. Oral speech is fully natural to human beings in the sense that every human being in every culture who is not physiologically or psychologically impaired learns to talk. Talk implements conscious life but it wells up into consciousness out of unconscious depths, though of course with the conscious as well as unconscious co-operation of society. Grammar rules live in the unconscious in the sense that you can know how to use the rules and even how to set up new rules without being able to state what they are.

Writing or script differs as such from speech in that it does not inevitably well up out of the unconscious. The process of putting spoken language into writing is governed by consciously contrived, articulable rules: for example, a certain pictogram will stand for a certain specific word, or A will represent a certain phoneme, B another, and so on. (This is not to deny that the writer-reader situation created by writing deeply affects unconscious processes involved in composing in writing, once one has learned the explicit, conscious rules. More about this later.).

To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artifical creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness and never more than when they affect the word. Such transformations can be uplifting. Writing heightens consciousness. Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for full human life. To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does.

Technologies are artificial, but - paradox again - artificiality is natural to human beings. Technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it. The modern orchestra, for example, is the result of high technology. A violin is an instrument, which is to say a tool. An organ is a huge machine, with sources of power - pumps, bellows, electric generators- totally outside its operator. Beethoven's score for his Fifth Symphony consists of very careful directions to highly trained technicians, specifying exactly how to use their tools. Legato: do not take your finger off one key until you have hit the next. Staccato: hit the key and take your finger off immediately. And so on. As musicologists well know, it is pointless to object to electronic compositions such as Morton Subotnik's The Wild Bull on the grounds that the sounds come out of a mechanical contrivance. What do you think the sounds of an organ come out of? Or the sounds of a violin or even of a whistle? The fact is that by using a mechanical contrivance, a violinist or an organist can express something poignantly human that cannot be expressed without the mechanical contrivance. To achieve such expression, of course, the violinist or organist has to have interiorized the technology, made the tool or machine a second nature, a psychological part of himself or herself. This calls for years of  practice, learning how to make the tool do what it can do. Such shaping of a tool to oneself, learning a technological skill, is hardly dehumanizing. The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life. Writing is an even more deeply interiorized technology than instrumental musical performance is. But to understand what it is, which means to understand it in relation to its past, to orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced.

What is 'writing' or 'script'?

Writing, in the strict sense of the word, the technology which has shaped and powered the intellectual activity of modern man, was a very late development in human history. Homo sapiens has been on earth perhaps some 50,000 years (Leakey and Lewin 1979, pp. 141 and 168). The first script, or true writing, that we know, was developed among the Sumerians in Mesopotamia only around the year 3,500 BC (Diringer 1953; Gelb 1963).

Human beings had been drawing pictures for countless millennia before this. And various recording devices or aides-memoire had been used by various societies: a notched stick, rows of pebbles, other tallying devices such as the quipu of the Incas (a slick with suspended cords onto which other cords were tied), the 'winter count' calendars of the Native American Plains Indians, and so on. But a script is more than a mere memory aid. Even when it is pictographic, a script is more than pictures. Pictures represent objects. A picture of a man and a house and a tree of itself says nothing. (If a proper code or set of conventions is supplied, it might: but a code is not picturable, unless with the help of another unpicturable code. Codes ultimately have to be explained by something more than pictures; that is, either in words or in a total human context, humanly understood.) A script in the sense of true writing, as understood here, does not consist of mere pictures, of representations of things, but is a representation of an utterance, of words that someone says or is imagined to say.

It is of course possible to count as 'writing' any semiotic mark, that is, any visible or sensible mark which an individual makes and assigns a meaning to. Thus a simple scratch on a rock or a note on a stick interpretable only by the one who makes it would be 'writing'. If this is what is meant by writing, the antiquity of writing is perhaps comparable to the antiquity of speech. However, investigations of writing which take 'writing' to mean any visible or sensible mark with an assigned meaning merge writing with purely biological behavior. When does a footprint or a deposit of feces or urine (used by many species of animals for communication - Wilson l975, pp. 228-9) become 'writing'?  Using the term 'writing' in this extended sense to include any semiotic marking trivializes its meaning. The critical and unique breakthrough into new worlds of knowledge was achieved within human consciousness not when simple semiotic marking was devised but when a coded system of visible marks was invented whereby a writer could determine the exact words that the reader would generate from the text. This is what we usually mean today by writing in its sharply focused sense.

With writing or script in this full sense, encoded visible markings engage words fully so that the exquisitely intricate structures and references evolved in sound can be visibly recorded exactly in their specific complexity and, because visibly recorded, can implement production of still more exquisite structures and references, far surpassing the potentials of oral utterance. Writing, in this ordinary sense, was and is the most momentous of all human technological inventions. It is not a mere appendage to speech. Because it moves speech from the oral-aural to a new sensory world, that of vision, it transforms speech and thought as well: Notches on sticks and other aides-memoire lead up to writing, but they do not restructure the human lifeworld as true writing does.

True writing systems can and usually do develop gradually from a cruder use of mere memory aides. Intermediate stages exist. In some coded systems the writer ean predict only approximately what the reader will read off, as in the system developed by the Vai in Liberia (Scribner and Cole, 1978) or even in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The tightest control of all is achieved by the alphabet, although even this is never quite perfect in all instances. If I mark a document 'read', this might be a past participle (pronounced to rhyme with 'red') indicating that the document has been gone over, or it might be an imperative (pronounced to rhyme with 'reed') indicating that it is to be gone over. Even with the alphabet, extra-textual context is sometimes needed, but only in exceptional cases - how exceptional will depend on how well the alphabet has been tailored to a given language.

Many scripts but only one alphabet

Many scripts across the world have been developed independently of one another (Diringer 1953; Diringer 1960; Gelb 1963): Mesopotamian cuneiform 3500 BC (approximate dates here from Diringer 1962), Egyptian hieroglyphics 3000 BC (with perhaps some influence from cuneiform), Minoan or Mycenean 'Linear B' 1200 BC, Indus Valley script 3000-2400 BC, Chinese script 1500 BC, Mayan script AD 50, Aztec script AD 1400.

Scripts have complex antecedents. Most if not all scripts trace back directly or indirectly to some sort of picture writing, or, sometimes perhaps, at an even more elemental level, to the use of tokens. It has been suggested that the cuneiform script of the Sumerians, the first of all known scripts (c. 3500 BC), grew at least in part out of a system of recording economic transactions by using clay tokens encased in small, hollow but totally closed pod-like containers or bullae, with indentations on the outside representing the tokens inside (Schmandt-Besserat 1978) . Thus the symbols on the outside of the bulla - say, seven indentations - carried with them, inside the bulla, evidence of what they represented - say, seven little clay artifacts distinctively shaped, to represent cows, or ewes or other things not yet decipherable- as though words were always proffered with their concrete significations attached. The economic setting of such prechirographic use of tokens could help associate them with writing, for the first cuneiform script, from the same region as the bullae, whatever its exact antecedents, served mostly workaday economic and administrative purposes in urban societies. Urbanization provided the incentive to develop record keeping. Using writing for imaginative creations, as spoken words have been used in tales or lyric, that is, using writing to produce literature in the more specific sense of this term, comes quite late in the history of script.

Pictures can serve simply as aides-memoire, or they can be equipped with a code enabling them to represent more or less exactly specific words in various grammatical relation to eaeh other. Chinese character writing is still today basically made up of pictures, but pictures stylized and codified in intricate ways which make it certainly the most complex writing system the world has ever known. Pictographic communication such as found among early Native American Indians and many others (Mackay 1978, p. 32) did not develop into a true script because the code remained too unfixed. Pictographic representations of several objects served as a kind of allegorical memorandum for parties who were dealing with certain restricted subjects which helped determine in advance how these particular pictures relatcd to each other. But often, even then, the meaning intended did not come entirely clear.

Out of pictographs (a picture of a tree represents the word for a tree), scripts develop other kinds of symbols.  ......

     [Discussion of ideographs,  rebus writing, Chinese,  syllabaries and hybrids.]

The most remarkable fact about the alphabet no doubt is that it was invented only once. It was worked up by a Semitic people or Semitic peoples around the year 1500 BC, in the same general geographic area where the first of all scripts appeared, the cuneiform, but two millennia later than the cuneiform. (Diringer 1962, pp.l2l-2, discusses the two variants of the original alphabet, the North Semitic and the South Semitic.) Every alphabet in the world - Hebrew, Ugaritic, Greek, Roman, Cyrillic, Arabic, Tamil, Malayalam, Korean - derives in one way or another from the original Semitic development, though, as in Ugaritic and Korean script, the physical design of the letters may not always be related to the Semitic design.

Hebrew and other Semitic languages, such as Arabic, do not to this day have letters for vowels. A Hebrew newspaper or book still today prints only consonants (and so-called semi-vowels [j] and [w], which are in effect the consonantal forms of [i] and [u] ): if we were to follow Hebrew usage in English we would write and print 'cnsnts' for 'consonants'. The letter aleph, adapted by the ancient Greeks to indicate thc vowel alpha, which became our roman 'a', is not a vowel but a consonant in Hebrew and other Semitic alphabets, representing a glottal stop (the sound between the two vowel sounds in thc English 'huh-uh', meaning 'no') . Late in the history of the Hebrew alphabet, vowel 'points', little dots and dashes below or above the letters to indicate the proper vowel, were added to many texts, often for the benefit of those who did not know the language very well, and today in Israel these 'points' are added to words for very young children learning to read - up to the third grade or so. Languages are organized in many different ways, and the Semitic languages are so constituted that they are easy to read when words are written only with consonants.

When this is all said, however, about the Semitic alphabet, it does appear that the Greeks did something of major psychological importance when they developed the first alphabet complete with vowels. Havelock (1976) believes that this crucial, more nearly total transformation of the word from sound to sight gave ancient Greek culture its intellectual ascendancy over other ancient cultures. The reader of Semitic writing had to draw on non-textual as well as textual data: he had to know the language he was reading in order to know what vowels to supply between the consonants. Semitic writing was still very much immersed in the non-textual human lifeworld. The vocalic Greek alphabet was more remote from that world (as Plato's ideas were to be). It analyzed sound more abstractly into purely spatial components. It could be used to write or read words even from languages one did not know (allowing for some inaccuracies due to phonemic differences between languages).  Little children could acquire the Greek alphabet when they were very young and their vocabulary limited. (It has just been noted that for Israeli schoolchildren to about the third grade vowel 'points' have to be added to the ordinary consonantal Hebrew script.) The Greek alphabet was democratizing in the sense that it was easy for everyone to learn. It was also internationalizing in that it provided a way of processing even foreign tongues. This Greek achievement in abstractly analyzing the elusive world of sound into visual equivalents (not perfectly, of course, but in effect fully) both presaged and implemented their further analytic exploits.

It appears that the structure of the Greek language, the fact that it was not based on a system like the Semitic that was hospitable to omission of vowels from writing, turned out to be a perhaps accidental but crucial intellectual advantage. Kerckhove (1981) has suggested that, more than other writing systems, the completely phonetic alphabet favors left- hemisphere activity in the brain, and thus on neurophysiological grounds fosters abstract, analytic thought.

The reason why the alphabet was invented so late and why it was invented only once can be sensed if we reflect on the nature of sound. For the alphabet operates more directly on sound as sound than the other scripts, reducing sound directly to spatial equivalents, and in smaller, more analytic, more manageable units than a syllabary: instead of one symbol for the sound ba, you have two, b plus a.

Sound, as has earlier been explained, exists only when it is going out of existence. I cannot have all of a word present at once: when I say 'existence', by the time I get to the '-tence', the 'exis-' is gone. The alphabet implies that matters are otherwise, that a word is a thing, not an event, that it is present all at once, and that it can be cut up into little pieces, which can even be written forwards and pronounced backwards: 'p-a-r-t' can be pronounced 'trap'. If you put the word 'part' on a sound tape and reverse the tape, you do not get 'trap', but a completely difrerent sound, neither 'part' nor 'trap'. A picture, say, of a bird does not reduce sound to space, for it represents an object, not a word. It will be the equivalent of any number of words, depending on the language used to interpret it: oiseau, uccello, pajaro, Vogel, sae, tori, 'bird'.

All script represents words as in some way things, quiescent objects, immobile marks for assimilation by vision. Rebuses or phonograms, which occur irregularly in some pictographic writing, represent the sound of one word by the picture of another (the 'sole' of a foot representing the 'soul' as paired with body, in the fictitious example used above). But the rebus (phonogram), though it may represent several things, is still a picture of one of the things it represents. The alphabet, though it probably derives from pictograms, has lost all connection with things as things. It represents sound itself as a thing, transforming the evanescent world of sound to the quiescent, quasi-permanent world of space.

The phonetic alphabet invented by ancient Semites and perfected by ancient Greeks, is by far the most adaptable of all writing systems in reducing sound to visible form. It is perhaps also the least aesthetic of all major writing systems: it can be beautifully designed, but never so exquisitely as Chinese characters. It is a democratizing script, easy for everybody to learn. Chinese character writing, like many other writing systems, is intrinsically elitist: to master it thoroughly requires protracted leisure. The democratizing quality of the alphabet can be seen in South Korea. In Korean books and newspapers the text is a mixture of alphabetically spelt words and hundreds of different Chinese characters. But all public signs are always written in the alphabet alone, which virtually everyone can read since it is completely mastered in the lower grades of elementary school, whereas the 1800 han, or Chinese characters, minimally needed besides the alphabet for reading most literature in Korean, are not commonly all mastered before the end of secondary school. ...

      [One long paragraph about King Sejong of Korea in 15th C and creation of the Korean alphabet.]

The onset of literacy

When a fully formed script of any sort, alphabetic or other, first makes its way from outside into a particular society, it does so necessarily at first in restricted sectors and with varying effects and implications. Writing is often regarded at first as an instrument of secret and magic power (Goody 1968b, p. 236). Traces of this early attitude toward writing can still show etymologically: the Middle English 'grammarye' or grammar, referring to book-learning, came to mean occult or magical lore, and through one Scottish dialectical form has emerged in our present English vocabulary as 'glamor' (spell-casting power). 'Glamor girls' are really grammar girls. The futhark or runic alphabet of medieval North Europe was commonly associated with magic. Scraps of writing are used as magic amulets (Goody 1968b, pp. 201-3), but they also can be valued simply because of the wonderful permanence they confer on words. The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe describes how in an Ibo village the one man who knew how to read hoarded in his house every bit of printed material that came his way - newspapers, cartons, receipts (Achebe 1961, pp. l20- 1) . It all seemed too remarkable to throw away.

Some societies of limited literacy have regarded writing as dangerous to the unwary reader, demanding a guru-like figure to mediate between reader and text (Goody and Watt 1968, p. 13). Literacy can be restricted to special groups such as the clergy (Tambiah 1968, pp. 113-4). Texts can be felt to have intrinsic religious value: illiterates profit from rubbing the book on their foreheads, or from whirling prayer-wheels bearing texts they cannot read (Goody l968, pp. 15-16). Tibetan monks used to sit on the banks of streams 'printing pages of charms and formulas on the surface of the water with woodcut blocks' (Goody 1968a, p. 16, quoting R. B. Eckvall). The still flourishing 'cargo cults' of some South Pacific islands are well known: illiterates or semi-literates think that the commercial papers - orders, bills of lading, receipts, and the like - that they know figure in shipping operations are magical instruments to make ships and cargo come in from across the sea, and they elaborate various rituals manipulating written texts in the hope that cargo will turn up for their own possession and use (Meggitt 1968, pp. 300-9). In ancient Greek culture Havelock discovers a general pattern of restricted literacy applicable to many other cultures: shortly after the introduction of writing a 'craft literacy' develops (Havelock 1963; cf. Havelock and Herschell 1978). At this stage writing is a trade practiced by craftsmen, whom others hire to write a letter or document as they might hire a stone-mason to build a house, or a shipwright to build a boat. Such was the state of affairs in West African kingdoms, such as Mali, from the Middle Ages into the twentieth century (Wilks 1968; Goody Ig68b). At such a craft-literacy stage, there is no need for an individual to know reading and writing any more than any other trade. Only around Plato's time in ancient Greece, more than three centuries after the introduction of the Greek alphabet, was this stage transcended when writing was finally diffused through the Greek population and interiorized enough to affect thought proccsses generally (Havelock 1963).

     [Skip about 10 pages]

Tenaciousness of orality

As the paradoxical relationships of orality and literacy in rhetoric and Learned Latin suggest, the transition from orality to literacy was slow (Ong 1967b, pp. 53-87; 1971, pp. 23-48). The Middle Ages used texts far more than ancient Greece and Rome, teachers lectured on texts in the universities, and yet never tested knowledge or intellectual prowess by writing, but always by oral dispute - a practice continued in diminishing ways into the nineteenth century and today still surviving vestigially in the defense of the doctoral dissertation in the fewer and fewer places where this is practiced. Though Renaissance humanism invented modern textual scholarship and presided over the development of letterpress printing, it also harkened back to antiquity and thereby gave new life to orality. English style in the Tudor period (Ong 1971, pp.23-47) and even much later carried heavy oral residue in its use of epithets, balance, antithesis, formulary structures, and commonplace materials. And so with western European literacy styles generally.

In western classical antiquity, it was taken for granted that a written text of any worth was meant to be and deserved to be read aloud, and the practice of reading texts aloud continued, quite commonly with many variations, through the nineteenth century (Balogh 1926). This practice strongly influenced literary style from antiquity until rather recent times (Balogh 1926; Crosby 1936; Nelson 1976-7; Ahern 1982). Still yearning for the old orality, the nineteenth century developed 'elocution' contests, which tried to repristinate printed texts, using careful artistry to memorize the texts verbatim and recite them so that they would sound like extempore oral productions (Howell 1971, pp. 144-256). Dickens read selections from his novels on the orator's platform. The famous McGuffey's Readers, published in the United States in some 120 million copies between 1836 and 1920, were designed as remedial readers to improve not the reading for comprehension which we idealize today, but oral, declamatory reading. The McGuffey's specialized in passages from sound-conscious literature concerned with great heroes ( heavy oral characters). They provided endless oral pronunciation and breathing drills (Lynn 1973, pp. 16,20).


End of Chapter