note: 'discussion' tab above is for posting responses, questions, connections or insights about these passages.

One of the mysteries we have not yet solved (and may never solve), is how our human ancestors developed language, and how we learn it so easily as children. The currently dominant view by Noam Chomsky is called "universal grammar." Chomsky sees language as "pre-programmed" in the human brain. Though this theory is beginning to be contested, one point of agreement between scholars of language is that our shift from a primarily oral / aural culture to a writing and text-based culture was a HUGE shift in human consciousness and culture. Ong & McLuhan reflect on this moment here.


“…I style the orality of a culture totally untouched by any knowledge of writing or print, ‘primary orality’. It is ‘primary’ by contrast with the 'secondary orality' of present-day high-technology culture in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television, and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print. Today primary oral culture in the strict sense hardly exists, since every culture knows of writing and has some experience of its effects.” (11)

“Though it releases unheard-of potentials of the word, a textual, visual representation of a word is not a real word, but a ‘secondary modeling system’.

Thought is nested in speech, not in textsall of which have their meanings through reference of the visible symbol to the world of sound. What the reader is seeing on the page are not real words but coded symbols whereby a properly informed human being can evoke in his or her consciousness real words, in actual or imagined sound." (74)

"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...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 into little pieces, which can even be written forwards and pronounced backwards: 'p-a-r-t' can be pronounced 'trap'....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." (90-91)

Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy

“It helps to appreciate the nature of the spoken word to contrast it with the written form. Although phonetic writing separates and extends the visual power of words, it is comparatively crude and slow. There are not many ways of writing “tonight,” but Stravinsky use to ask his young actors to pronounce and stress it fifty differe nt ways while the audience wrote down the different shades of feeling and meaning expressed….

The written word spells out in sequence what is quick and implicit in the spoken word. Again, in speech we tend to react to each situation that occurs, reacting in tone and gesture even to our own act of speaking. But writing tends to be a kind of separate specialist action in which there is little opportunity to call for reaction."

...The power of the voice to shape air and space into verbal patterns may well have been preceded by less specialized expressions of cries, grunts, and commands, of song and dance." (113-114)

"The phonetic alphabet is a unique technology. There have been many kinds of writing, pictographic and syllabic, but there is only one phonetic alphabet in which semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds.....the ideogram is an inclusive gestalt, not an analytic dissociation of senses and functions like phonetic writing." (119-120)

"Certainly the lineal structuring of rational life by phonetic literacy has involved us in an interlocking set of consistencies that are striking....Perhaps there are better approaches along quite different lines; for example, conscious is regarded as the mark of a rational being, yet there is nothing lineal or sequential about the total field of awareness that exists in any moment of conscousness." (121)

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media


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