Monday, June 15, 2009

Walter J Ong

`Orality and Literacy:

The Technologizing of the Word'

Writing is a technology

Plato (thought) 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.

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'.

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.

by Walter J. Ong. (1982) Copyright Methuen, London.

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

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