Orality: Definition and Examples

Walter J Ong
Walter J Ong.

 Saint Louis University

Orality is the use of speech rather than writing as a means of communication, especially in communities where the tools of literacy are unfamiliar to the majority of the population.

Modern interdisciplinary studies in the history and nature of orality were initiated by theorists in the "Toronto school," among them Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, Eric Havelock, and Walter J. Ong.  

In Orality and Literacy (Methuen, 1982), Walter J. Ong identified some of the distinctive ways in which people in a "primary oral culture" [see the definition below] think and express themselves through narrative discourse:

  1. Expression is coordinate and polysyndetic (" . . . and . . . and . . . and . . .") rather than subordinate and hypotactic.
  2. Expression is aggregative (that is, speakers rely on epithets and on parallel and antithetical phrases) rather than analytic.
  3. Expression tends to be redundant and copious.
  4. Out of necessity, thought is conceptualized and then expressed with relatively close reference to the human world; that is, with a preference for the concrete rather than the abstract.
  5. Expression is agonistically toned (that is, competitive rather than cooperative).
  6. Finally, in predominantly oral cultures, proverbs (also known as maxims) are convenient vehicles for conveying simple beliefs and cultural attitudes.


From the Latin oralis, "mouth"

Examples and Observations

  • James A. Maxey
    What is the relationship of orality to literacy? Though disputed, all sides agree that orality is the predominant mode of communication in the world and that literacy is a relatively recent technological development in human history.
  • Pieter J.J. Botha
    Orality as a condition exists by virtue of communication that is not dependent on modern media processes and techniques. It is negatively formed by the lack of technology and positively created by specific forms of education and cultural activities. . . . Orality refers to the experience of words (and speech) in the habitat of sound.

Ong on Primary Orality and Secondary Orality

  • Walter J. Ong
    I style the orality of a culture totally untouched by any knowledge or 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. Still, to varying degrees many cultures and subcultures, even in a high-technology ambiance, preserve much of the mind-set of primary orality.

Ong on Oral Cultures

  • Walter J. Ong
    Oral cultures indeed produce powerful and beautiful verbal performances of high artistic and human worth, which are no longer even possible once writing has taken possession of the psyche. Nevertheless, without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials, cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations. In this sense, orality needs to produce and is destined to produce writing. 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 (including oral speech) itself. There is hardly an oral culture or a predominantly oral culture left in the world today that is not somehow aware of the vast complex of powers forever inaccessible without literacy. This awareness is agony for persons rooted in primary orality, who want literacy passionately but who also know very well that moving into the exciting world of literacy means leaving behind much that is exciting and deeply loved in the earlier oral world. We have to die to continue living.

Orality and Writing

  • Rosalind Thomas
    Writing is not necessarily the mirror-image and destroyer of orality, but reacts or interacts with oral communication in a variety of ways. Sometimes the line between written and oral even in a single activity cannot actually be drawn very clearly, as in the characteristic Athenian contract which involved witnesses and an often rather slight written document, or the relation between the performance of a play and the written and published text.


  • Joyce Irene Middleton
    Many misreadings, misinterpretations, and misconceptions about orality theory are due, in part, to [Walter J.] Ong's rather slippery use of seemingly interchangeable terms that very diverse audiences of readers interpret in various ways. For example, orality is not the opposite of literacy, and yet many debates about orality are rooted in oppositional values . . .. In addition, orality was not 'replaced' by literacy: Orality is permanent--we have always and will continue to always use human speech arts in our various forms of communication, even as we now witness changes in our personal and professional uses of alphabetic forms of literacy in a number of ways.

Pronunciation: o-RAH-li-tee

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Nordquist, Richard. "Orality: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/orality-communication-term-1691455. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Orality: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/orality-communication-term-1691455 Nordquist, Richard. "Orality: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/orality-communication-term-1691455 (accessed May 28, 2023).