Orality is the basis for writing and literature.

– Walter Ong

Ferdinand de Saussure, focused on the origination of oral speech, verbal communication, as well as the persistent way to think of writing as the basic form of language. He thought of writing as a kind of complement to oral speech, not as a transformer of verbalization (Saussure 1959, pp.23-24).






There are so many words and sound in the world that only around 3,909  of 7,097 living languages have been translated into writing to a sufficient amount of literature. Most languages have never been written at all, cultures like these are what Ong calls ‘primary’ orality. They have no experience with ‘secondary’ orality, which is technology that depends on writing and print.


Orality requires the technology of language, a structured approach to vocalizing abstract thought. 

Voice is a technology that humans used before writing. We learned how to share ideas and communicate by using language, a social technology for cooperation.

“Wherever human beings exist they have a language, and in every instance a language that exist basically as spoken and heard, in the world of sound.” – Siertsema. Ong backs this up by saying that written texts all have to be related, to the world of sound, the natural habitat of language to yield their meanings. reading a text means converting it to sound, aloud or in the imagination.


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The ability to write is the biggest advance in technology known to humankind. One aspect of writing Ong discusses is disembodiment, the ability of the voice to travel separately from the body of the speaker.

Oral communication unites people in groups, while writing and reading are activities that are independent.

Writing is the most drastic technology out of printing and the computer. It started what they could only continue. It made it possible for sound to be separate from a living person by taking a sound and putting it on a paper where it can be written space.

Orality needs to produce writing, and without writing, “the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form”. – Ong Chpt 4. Ong goes on to saying that the human mind would not be able to deliver its best results without producing creations with writing. Before writing, there were pictures and sketches, but each of the markings needed to be assigned a meaning.

Even though this technology is an extension of our stories, and our oral literacy, writing establishes a ‘context-free’ language. Written words cannot be directly asked what they mean or hold a conversation because they are detached from the author. Unlike Orality, writing is residue, when a story is being written down, it will not only exist when humans tell it.

Phaedrus, written by Plato, is an example of why we developed writing. even though Plato says writing destroys the memory because we become reliant on external resources to remember, he wrote a story how Socrates runs into Pheadrus who had just heard a speech on love from Lysias. Socrates wants to hear the words that Lysias spoke, but Pheadrus is not doing it justice. Plato’s Socrates also argues against writing because it cannot be delivered the same as writing, you cannot hear the passion and context of a real person.

“When an of ten-told oral story is not actually being told, all that exists of it is the potential in certain human beings to tell it” – Ong

“Writing changes us by restructuring our consciousness.”- Ong

Humans lived in acoustic space, with no boundaries before writing. writing is artificial, it cannot be natural. We learn how to write based off of copying other letters, just like we learn to talk by mimicking and copying mouth movements of someone. Talking and grammar live in our unconscious, we know how to use it without realizing we are. Putting spoken language into writing comes from our conscious rules, we have to think about how to spell. Technologies like this are transformations of consciousness, and enhances our life.


“Though words are grounded in oral speech, writing tyrannically locks them into a visual field forever.” – Ong


Is writing and orality disappearing because of technology?


It is argued that traditional ways of private thoughts are being threatened by technology, now people can post what they are thinking online for everyone to see. Technology has taken writing to a new level by allowing words to be spread like wild fire. “Too many people know too much about each other,” McLuhan goes on to say that we are living our life from womb to tomb online. From our moms posting baby pictures to our loved ones posting memories of you after you pass.

Secondary orality “new orality”, writing, print and the computer are ways of our world developing, and the way we learn. Kids don’t just pick up pens and start writing sentences, or getting on the computer and type before they learn to talk. Orality, writing and technology is all a development of how we learn and how we are evolving. New orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television and other electronic devises that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print.



Humans lived in acoustic space, with no boundaries before writing.  When writing led to advanced technology like printing, it provided mass production. People could now read a portable book,  this added to our isolation from others. McLuhan describes our world now being a global village, we have a new world of all-at-once-ness. Print technology created public, electronic technology crated the mass, meaning that everyone has different point of views, now with new technology, it demands that we think alike by reiterating beliefs

McLuhan explains that everything is changing, everything is evolving. “our age of anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools- with yesterday’s concepts.” page 6.


I would like to end with a handwritten note from a loved one who passed away. I am one of those people who keep letters, cards, notes or anything that has handwriting of someone I love. I used technology to save it on my phone so I can read it whenever I want. I listen to their voice as I read the letter and like to think that they are still looking over me.




“Human beings communicate in countless ways, making use of all their senses, touch, taste, smell, and especially sight as well as hearing.” – Ong

“In all the wonderful worlds that writing opens, the spoken word still resides and lives.” Orality and literacy- Walter Ong


How many languages in the world are unwritten? (n.d.). In Ethnologfue. Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://www.ethnologue.com/enterprise-faq/how-many-languages-world-are-unwritten-0

McLuhan, M. (1967). The medium is the massage. N.p.: Jerome Agel. https://designopendata.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/themediumisthemassage_marshallmcluhan_quentinfiore.pdf

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy. New York, NY: Methuen & Co. Ltd. http://dss-edit.com/prof-anon/sound/library/Ong_orality_and_literacy.pdf

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