“Orality…is inseparable from the body in movement.”
– Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “orality” as “the quality of being oral or orally communicated” or as a “preference for or tendency to use spoken forms of language.” [1] The first definition affirms the term’s status as a medium: orality is a means through which we exchange information. The second definition, however, points to a problem in the way the term “orality” is used, both in media studies and in the everyday world: as existing in competition with other media forms. The framing of orality as a “preference” or “tendency” encourages its place within the paragone of the printed and spoken word, and suggests a single-sensory conception of media – that orality exists in a dialectical relationship with literacy, and that communication is a competition between eye and ear.

This comparative mode has been advocated most prominently by the Toronto School of Communication, which includes Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong. For the Toronto School, writing – alphabetic writing in particular – is the key to evolutionary progress: that is, that literacy is “absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language itself,” [2] while orality is the marker of “tribal man.” [3] While McLuhan is certainly right to declare that a contrast with the “the written form” helps to “appreciate the nature of the spoken word,” [4] the characterization of literacy and orality as existing in an unequal dichotomy creates what Foley calls the “Great Divide” between the two genres, [5] and encourages the notion of orality as a primitive or undeveloped medium.

Despite the undeniable accomplishments of the Toronto School in media theory, recent scholars have questioned the usefulness of the literacy/orality dialectic. In the first instance, this questioning has manifested itself on the level of terminology: Bruce Rosenberg, for example, has argued that the false parallelism implied in Ong’s literacy/orality equation negates the potential for a sincere equivalency between the terms, and instead proposes the “literature/ oralature” pairing. Rosenberg’s neologism, however, does not come without problems of its own: not only does it preserve the dialectical relation of Ong’s more standard formulation, but it also employs a suffix that privileges the oral as an aesthetic – rather than a purely communicative – mode.

The issue of terminology is complicated further by Ong’s differentiation between primary and secondary orality, which he introduced in his 1971 essay entitled “The Literate Orality of Popular Culture.” Primary orality, for Ong, exists only among “persons totally unfamiliar with writing,” [6] while secondary orality occurs in cultures where technological development creates “a new orality…sustained by telephone, radio, television, and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print.” [7] While Ong’s distinction provides a useful framework for characterizing different kinds of oral cultures, his model denies the potential for an equivalency between the printed and spoken word. For Ong, orality exists either in isolation from literacy, or as subservient to it: in the schema of primary and secondary orality, mutual interdependency between the two media is not a recognized possibility.

Thus, as J. Edward Chamberlin suggests, the Toronto School “has a lot to answer for in the characterization of oral cultures as more or less backward.” [8] As a professor at the University of Toronto himself, Chamberlin is quick to acknowledge the “admirable contributions” of his faculty forebears, but is equally adamant in his disregard for the binary model:

Speech and writing are so entangled with each other in our various forms and performance of language that we are like Penelope, weaving them together during the day and unweaving them at night. Our current theories and models illustrate none of this, with the result that studying oral and written traditions using existing paradigms is an exercise in pushing a string or herding cats. [9]

Chamberlin’s comparison of modern Western academia to the world of Homer’s Penelope drives home his point that there is just as much similarity as there is difference between pre- and post- literate conceptions of orality. While Ong’s assertion that “primary orality, literacy, and secondary orality are interacting vigorously with one another in confusing complex patterns” [10] seems not so far from Chamberlin’s vision, his characterization of orality as “redundant” and “situational” reveals his ultimate reversion to a binary perspective.

Part of the impetus to rethink the literacy/orality model is that the technological advances of recent years – particularly in the realm of cyberspace – have created a world where the distinction between the two media becomes blurred. If orality, as Ong suggests, is “evanescent,” [11] how do we categorize audio-recordings or sound-files that we exchange, disperse, and most importantly, re-play? If the text, contrastingly, is thought of as durable or permanent, then what do we make of the instant message that gets instantaneously deleted? The hierarchical notion of “secondary orality,” here, seems unable to keep up with the ongoing cyber-revolution that was, in Ong’s era, in its earliest phase; in a world of e-mail communication, music downloading, and MOO chat rooms, the question is not of whether, but rather of how the oral and textual are integrated. Just as Ong’s rigid categorizations do not adequately reflect the multi-sensory character of the cyber-world, McLuhan’s notion of the “reversal” [12] that comes with new technology returns to a dualism that is too limited in scope: the computer does not initiate the dominance of one media form over another, but rather encourages their fusion within the pluralistic realm of the “global village.”

Thus, we are like Penelope, not only in our weaving, but also in our immersion in a multi-media world. As Jay David Bolter observes, the ever-shifting nature of modern hyper-text is not unlike that of the fluid mutability of the Homeric oral performance. [13] R.A. Lanham, similarly, points to “the computer’s oscillation between reader and writer,” which “reintroduces the oscillation between literate and oral coordinates that stands at the center of classical Western literature.” [14] While the Toronto School (as well as post-structuralist theorists like Derrida and Levinas) did much, during the 20th century, to assert the primacy of the written word, the advent of contemporary internet culture has encouraged the recognition that oral and textual need not be viewed from a hierarchical perspective.

If speech, in McLuhan’s terms, is an “extension” of man, [15] then orality, according to Henri Meschonnic, provides a more direct access to the speaking subject:

Orality is the manifestation of a gestural mode, of a corporeality and a subjectivity within language. With the means of the spoken within the spoken. With the means of the written within the written. [16]

Following Meschonnic, orality is not the external and impersonal sound produced by the voice, but rather a means through which an interior drive toward communication is accessed: as Donald Wesling and Teudeusz Slawek add, “orality is not what is spoken, but what allows one to speak.” [17] While Meschonnic’s anthropological definition adds additional complexity to the already difficult issue of terminology, his effort to separate speech from orality (and exteriority from interiority) provides a more attractive alternative to the McLuhan binary: that orality is not the opposition of writing, but rather a catalyst of communication more generally, which is part of both writing and speech.

With the Meschonnic distinction in mind, it is useful to recall that particularly in its aesthetic function, orality is often considered a means of accessing collective memory or innate human truth. Whether orality manifests itself through an epic, a folktale, a lyric, a lament, a dirge, or a charm, the medium is innately connected with cultural knowledge. The griot, or African praise-poet, is at once poet, prophet and historian – seer of past, present, and future, and keeper of truth. The North American slam poet, similarly, gives voice to the collective hardships of American life, while the Caribbean dub poet reflects on questions of political and social justice. While Western egocentrism encourages the notion of orality as a secondary (and inferior) aesthetic medium, it is important to recall that in many cultures, orality is the dominant art form. Edouard Glissant, for example, has observed that in Haiti, orality is such an integral part of artistic culture that the word “literature” has been replaced by “oraliture,” which connotes both the written and verbal arts. [18]

This is not to suggest, of course, that we relegate orality to a culturally-specific or regionalized realm. It is worth remembering that to this day, the majority of the world’s inhabitants use orality as their primary communicative medium, and the “global village” of modern media is in fact not as “global” as the lens of Occidentalism might lead us to believe. The study of orality, then, must recognize all of the medium’s diverse functions; while the Western conception is primarily aesthetic, it is important to recall that the medium also serves the practical purpose of knowledge-exchange and transmission within a community. Regardless of what role it plays, one cannot dispute the centrality of orality as a means of human communication, and for all objections to his theory, one must acknowledge the truth in Ong’s assertion that orality holds a place “close to the human life world.” [19]

Courtney MacNeil
Winter 2007

1. “orality, n. 1.1,” The Oxford English Dictionary.

2. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy, 15.

3. “Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan,” 26.

4. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 79.

5. John Miles Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem, 26.

6. Ong, Orality and Literacy, 6.

7. Ibid., 11.

8. J. Edward Chamberlin, “A New History of Reading: Hunting, Tracking, and Reading,” 151.

9. Ibid.

10. Ong, “Literacy and Orality in Our Times,” 3.

11. Ong, Orality and Literacy, 36.

12. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 262.

13. Jay David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing, 191.

14. Lanham, Literacy and the Survival of Humanism, 106.

15. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 79.

16. Qtd. in Donald Wesling and Tadeusz Slawek, Literary Voice: The Calling of Jonah, 159.

17. Ibid.

18. Michele Praeger, “Edouard Glissant: Toward a Literature of Orality,” 45.

19. Ong, Orality and Literacy, 42.


Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext and the History of Writing. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. “A New History of Reading: Hunting, Tracking, and Reading.” For the Geography of a Soul: Emerging Perspectives on Kamau Brathwaite. Ed. Timothy J. Reiss, 145-164. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2001.

Foley, John Miles. How to Read an Oral Poem. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Lanham, R. A. Literacy and the Survival of Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.

“Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan.” Playboy, March 1969. Online. http://home.ix.netcom.com/ ~mmfamily/McLuhan%20 Playboy.html/.

Praeger, Michele. “Edouard Glissant: Toward a Literature of Orality.” Callaloo 15.1 (1992): 41-48.

Ong, Walter J. “Literacy and Orality in Our Times.” ADE Bulletin 58 (1979): 1-7.

– . Orality and Literacy. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1982.

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 15 Feb. 2007.

Wesling, Donald and Tadeusz Slawek. Literary Voice: The Calling of Jonah. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.