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secondary orality


secondary orality

Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 2nd ed., by Walter J. Ong (Routledge, 1990)


Electronic discourse, or oral communication that is made possible by modern technologies.

In contrast to primary orality (or speech), secondary orality exists, by its nature, within the context of literacy.

The concept of secondary orality was introduced by American rhetorician and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (The Presence of the Word, 1967; Orality and Literacy, 1982). See Examples and Observations, below.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "The past century has seen the world enter into a new stage beyond orality and script and print, a stage characterized by the use of electronics for verbal communication. . . .

    "[U]nlike early tribal orality, the present new orality is possible only through heavy reliance on visual constructs, out of which is generated the sound world of a technological milieu. Electronic computers will never eliminate writing or print--they will simply change the kinds of things we put into these earlier media. Beneath the oral-aural mentality today, a visualist, objective, neutral-structure remains, no longer in complete control, but there."
    (Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History, 1967. Global Publications, 2000)

  • Ursula K. Le Guin on Secondary Orality
    "I read this speech into a recorder and it is taped; you buy it and listen to it. You hear the sound of my voice, but we have no actual relationship, any more than we would if you were reading the piece in print. Secondary orality."
    (Ursula K. Le Guin, "Telling Is Listening." The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Shambhala Publications, 2004)

  • Walter J. Ong on Secondary Orality vs. Primary Orality
    "[W]ith telephone, radio, television and various kinds of sound tape, electronic technology has brought us into the age of 'secondary orality.' This new orality has striking resemblances to the old in its participatory mystique, its fostering of a communal sense, its concentration on the present moment, and even its use of formulas . . .. But it is essentially a more deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print, which are essential for the manufacture and operation of the equipment and for its use as well.

    "Secondary orality is both remarkably like and remarkably unlike primary orality. Like primary orality, secondary orality has generated a strong group sense, for listening to spoken words forms hearers into a group, a true audience, just as reading written or printed texts turns individuals in on themselves. But secondary orality generates a sense for groups immeasurably larger than those of primary oral culture--[Marshall] McLuhan's 'global village.' Moreover, before writing, oral folk were group-minded because no feasible alternative had presented itself. In our age of secondary orality, we are group-minded self-consciously and programmatically. . . . In a like vein, where primary orality promotes spontaneity because the analytic reflectiveness implemented by writing is unavailable, secondary orality promotes spontaneity because through analytic reflection we have decided that spontaneity is a good thing. We plan our happenings carefully to be sure that they are thoroughly spontaneous."
    (Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Methuen, 1982)

  • Secondary Orality and the Web
    "The growth of social networks--and the Internet as a whole--stems largely from an outpouring of expression that often feels more like 'talking' than writing: blog posts, comments, homemade videos and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Facebook status updates (usually proving Gertrude Stein’s maxim that 'literature is not remarks').

    "'If you examine the Web through the lens of orality, you can’t help but see it everywhere,' says Irwin Chen, a design instructor at Parsons who is developing a new course to explore the emergence of oral culture online. 'Orality is participatory, interactive, communal and focused on the present. The Web is all of these things.'

    "An early student of electronic orality was the Rev. Walter J. Ong, a professor at St. Louis University and student of Marshall McLuhan who coined the term 'secondary orality' in 1982 to describe the tendency of electronic media to echo the cadences of earlier oral cultures. The work of Father Ong, who died in 2003, seems especially prescient in light of the social-networking phenomenon. 'Oral communication,' as he put it, 'unites people in groups.'

    "In other words, oral culture means more than just talking. There are subtler--and perhaps more important--social dynamics at work."
    (Alex Wright, "Friending, Ancient or Otherwise." The New York Times, December 2, 2007)

  • Secondary Orality and Literacy
    "With the exception of media enthusiasts and some professional linguists, I suspect that much of the world's formally educated population fears that secondary orality is threatening print culture, leading inexorably to a decline in literacy. While there are numerous valid reasons that educators and the general public should be concerned about literacy rates and failures to educate subsequent generations, assumptions about the relative value of spoken and written discourse that underlie these concerns hinder appreciation of various phenomena that are products precisely of new shifts between the two. If humans could suspend a long-standing habit of thinking about orality and literacy as dichotomous, we might be able to apprehend emerging forms of communication, with the gains and the losses that their deployment entails."
    (Irene Kacandes, Talk Fiction: Literature and the Talk Explosion. University of Nebraska Press, 2001)

  • Secondary Orality and the Teaching of Writing
    "Writing, encoding, is required to understand adequately how texts operate in secondary orality. Students need to know how to write manipulative discourses as well as straightforward discourses. They need to know how to write what Jasper Neel, in Plato, Derrida, and Writing, calls' anti-writing,' writing in which a student hides out, not making any kind of connection. . . .

    "[W]riting textbooks must account for delivery as it exists in secondary orality. They must stop their erasure of electronic discourse from the domain of school rhetoric. If they did, the tedium that comprises so much writing instruction would convert to thrilling intellectual energy."
    (Kathleen E. Welch, "Reconfiguring Writing and Delivery in Secondary Orality." Rhetorical Memory and Delivery: Classical Concepts for Contemporary Composition and Communication, ed. by John Frederick Reynolds. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993)
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