Excerpts from ‘Orality and Literacy’

Posted in Uncategorized by Lina A.Hadi on July 20, 2011

Visual presentation of verbalized material in space has its own particular economy, its own laws of motion and structure. Texts in Various scripts around the world are read variously from right to left, or left to right, or top to bottom, or all these ways at once as in boustrophedon writing, but never anywhere, as far as is know, from bottom to top. Texts assimilate utterance to the human body. They introduce a feeling for ‘heading’ in accumulations of knowledge: ‘chapter’ derives from the Latin caput, meaning head ( as of the human body). Pages have not only ‘heads’ but also ‘feet’, for footnotes. References are given to what is ‘above’ or ‘below’ in a text when what is meant is several pages back or further on. The significance of the vertical and the horizontal in texts deserves further study. Kerkhove (1981) suggests that growth in left-hemisphere dominance governed the drift in early Greek writing from right-to-left movement, to boustrophedon movement (‘ox-plowing’ pattern, one line going right, then a turn around the corner into the next line going left, the letters inverted according to the direction of the line ), to stoichedon style  (vertical lines), and finally  to definitive left-to-right movement on a horizontal line. All this is quite a different order from anything in the oral sensibility, which has no way of operating with ‘heading’ or verbal linearity. Across the world the alphabet, the ruthless efficient  reducer of of sound to space, is pressed into direct service for setting up the new space-defined sequences: items are marked a. b. c, and so on to indicate their sequences, and even poems in the early days of literacy are composed with the first letter of the first word of successive lines following the order of the alphavet. The alphabet as a simple sequence of letters is a major bridge between oral mnemonic and literate mnemonics: generally the sequence of the letters of the alphabet is memorized oraly and then used for largely visual retrieval of materials, as in indexes. (Ong, 2002, 99)

Ong, W (2002) Orality and Literacy.  New York: Routledge


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