Friday, May 28, 2010

Chapter 4 of Orality and Literacy (+ some thought on 'Knowledge Language')

Quotation from

By Walter J. Ong
Routledge: London, 2002 (first published in 1982).
also available in Questia


Modern consciousness has been shaped by writing.

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. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness. (p. 77)

Oral speech was no longer the same with oral speech in primary orality

Affeced by written discourse, the oral speech in the age of writing became more or less 'context-free' or 'autonomous'.

Writing establishes what has been called ‘context-free’ language (Hirsch 1977, pp. 21-3, 26) or ‘autonomous’ discourse (Olson 1980a), discourse which cannot be directly questioned or contested as oral speech can be because written discourse has been detached from its author.
(p. 77)

Invention of the Greek alphabet as a breakthrough

There are a number of developmental stages in writing (when I use the word 'developmental' here, I neglect to give a serious thought on logogram along with most western researchers. As a Japanese who uses Chinese characters (logogram) everyday, I'm reluctant to say that alphabet is in the last stage of development after logogram).

Early types of alphabet was 'consonant alphabet'; the alphabet that only consists of consonant, for which readers have to supply vowels by themselves when they read a text. The Greek alphabet began to contain vowels, resulting in a very kind media for communication.

[I]t 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. (p. 89)

Writing as an entirely new culture

Writing created a new culture of an isolated individual developing the 'Theory of Mind' of his readers.

Yet words are alone in a text. Moreover, in composing a text, in ‘writing’ something, the one producing the written utterance is also alone. Writing is a solipsistic operation. I am writing a book which I hope will be read by hundreds of thousands of people, so I must be isolated from everyone. While writing the present book, I have left word that I am ‘out’ for hours and days?so that no one, including persons who will presumably read the book, can interrupt my solitude. (p. 100)

Extratextual context is missing not only for readers but also for the writer. Lack of verifiable context is what makes writing normally so much more agonizing an activity than oral presentation to a real audience. ‘The writer’s audience is always a fiction’ (Ong 1977, pp. 53-81). The writer must set up a role in which absent and often unknown readers can cast themselves. Even in writing to a close friend I have to fictionalize a mood for him, to which he is expected to conform. The reader must also fictionalize the writer. When my friend reads my letter, I may be in an entirely different frame of mind from when I wrote it. Indeed, I may very well be dead. For a text to convey its message, it does not matter whether the author is dead or alive. Most books extant today were written by persons now dead. Spoken utterance comes only from the living. (p. 101)

[W]ritten words sharpen analysis, for the individual words are called on to do more. To make yourself clear without gesture, without facial expression, without intonation, without a real hearer, you have to foresee circumspectly all possible meanings a statement may have for any possible reader in any possible situation, and you have to make your language work so as to come clear all by itself, with no existential context. The need for this exquisite circumspection makes writing the agonizing work it commonly is. (pp. 102-103)

Diary and novel as modern inventions

It is interesting to note that diary discourse, culture we now take for so granted, was a new invention.

Even in a personal diary addressed to myself I must fictionalize the addressee. Indeed, the diary demands, in a way, the maximum fictionalizing of the utterer and the addressee. Writing is always a kind of imitation talking, and in a diary I therefore am pretending that I am talking to myself. But I never really talk this way to myself. Nor could I without writing or indeed without print. The personal diary is a very late literary form, in effect unknown until the seventeenth century (Boerner 1969). The kind of verbalized solipsistic reveries it implies are a product of consciousness as shaped by print culture. And for which self am I writing? Myself today? As I think I will be ten years from now? As I hope I will be? For myself as I imagine myself or hope others may imagine me? Questions such as this can and do fill diary writers with anxieties and often enough lead to discontinuation of diaries. The diarist can no longer live with his or her fiction. (p. 101)

Likewise, "[t]he psychodynamics of writing matured very slowly in narrative.(p. 102)", starting from easily imaginable Plato's Socrates or Chaucer's groups of people taliking to each other, to the 19th Century style "in which both author and reader are havinig difficulty situating themselves. (p. 102)".

The new writing culture, not our natural development and agonizingly difficult to learn, may have divided people into, roughly speaking, two types: those who speak with 'elaborated linguistic code' and those with 'restricted code' (Bernstein) . (I might say, though, given our natural history 'restricted code' is not really 'restricted' but 'natural'. We may refer to the two concepts as 'natural linguistic code' and 'elaborated linguisted code' (or 'extended linguisted code').

Learned Latin

Ong argues that the Greek rhetoric and the Learned Latin were the inteactions of orality and literacy that formed the basis of Western culture. (p. 107).

Latin, first a vernacular language, developed into various vernacular languages in spoken mode, but retained its original form in writing.

Learned Latin was a direct result of writing. Between about AD 550 and 700 the Latin spoken as a vernacular in various parts of Europe had evolved into various early forms of Italian, Spanish, Catalan, French, and the other Romance languages. By AD 700, speakers of these offshoots of Latin could no longer understand the old written Latin, intelligible perhaps to some of their greatgrandparents. Their spoken language had moved too far away from its origins. But schooling, and with it most official discourse of Church or state, continued in Latin. There was really no alternative. (p. 101)

However, Learned Latin did not lose orality.

Learned Latin related to orality and literacy, however, in paradoxical ways. On the one hand, as just noted, it was a chirographically controlled language. Of the millions who spoke it for the next 1400 years, every one was able also to write it. There were no purely oral users. But chirographic control of Learned Latin did not preclude its alliance with orality. Paradoxically, the textuality that kept Latin rooted in classical antiquity thereby kept it rooted also in orality, for the classical ideal of education had been to produce not the effective writer but the rhetor,the orator, the public speaker. The grammar of Learned Latin came from this old oral world. So did its basic vocabulary, although, like all languages actually in use, it incorporated thousands of new words over the centuries. (pp. 111-112)

I'm tempted to call Learned Latin 'non-biological language' for nobody spoke it as their first language. It is detached from humans' lifeworld. However, this detachment may have propted a new mode of knowledge: modern science.

Devoid of baby-talk, insulated from the earliest life of childhood where language has its deepest psychic roots, a first language to none of its users, pronounced across Europe in often mutually unintelligible ways but always written the same way, Learned Latin was a striking exemplification of the power of writing for isolating discourse and of the unparalleled productivity of such isolation. Writing, as has earlier been seen, serves to separate and distance the knower and the known and thus to establish objectivity. It has been suggested (Ong 1977, pp. 24-9) that Learned Latin effects even greater objectivity by establishing knowledge in a medium insulated from the emotion-charged depths of one’s mother tongue, thus reducing interference from the human lifeworld and making possible the exquisitely abstract world of medieval scholasticism and of the new mathematical modern science which followed on the scholastic experience. Without Learned Latin, it appears that modern science would have got under way with greater difficulty, if it had got under way at all. Modern science grew in Latin soil, for philosophers and scientists through the time of Sir Isaac Newton commonly both wrote and did their abstract thinking in Latin. (p. 112)

English as a Knowledge Language

Contemporary English is definitely a 'biological' language for native speakers. However, for someone like me who acquried (or is acquiring) it in a foreign land, it may be more like a Learned Language, particularly because my use of English is mostly academic. In fact, I don't usually use English to express or share emotions. My motivation of using and learning English is 'instrumental', not 'integrative', to use an old terminology in English Language Teaching.

However, English as Learned Language (or 'Knowledge Language' as I prefer to callit) is not like Learned Latin because of the internet. Spoken mode is shared thanks to YouTube, Ustream, Podcasting and various other means on the internet. Spoken mode of 'Knowledge English' may not diverge, as has been the case with wide spreading languages up to now, but converge becuause of the first truely global media: the internet.


Boerner, Peter (1969)
Tagebuch (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler).
Ong, W. (1977)
Interfaces of the Word (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press).


Go to Questia Online Library

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