Skip to main content

Evolving Communication: A Better Understanding of Oral Culture and Literate Culture

Denise is a communication student, a poet and a book lover. She enjoys watching documentaries and film.


Communication has been constantly changing through time. At the same time, it has grown to become more complex.

Before technology was developed, oral culture has long been there as a primary way of communication between ancient people and tribes. Exchanging of ideas and spreading of information back then was entirely done orally and the only way to preserve these knowledge and information they have acquired is through memorization. Oral culture has been followed by the development of chirographic (i.e. writing) culture which marked the constant evolution of preserving knowledge and information. However, the main reason why I am writing this is not simply to look back at the history of communication but to make a better understanding of the oral culture and the literate culture which has long been discussed among various books and papers.

Primary Oral Culture & Literary Cultures: The Differences

Primary oral culture as proposed by Walter J. Ong (2002) is an "oral culture untouched by writing." In present, there only a very small number of people across the globe who entirely communicate orally as technology continually evolves which through time, reach broader population to influence to. Informing and teaching for this culture as mentioned is entirely oral. All the knowledge and information being taught in this culture are all memorized, meaning to say that in order for someone to share the information he or she had acquired to other people, he or she has to fully understand and store it in his or her memory.

On contrary, it is easier for literary culture to store information and knowledge. Unlike primary oral culture which you have to "recall" some information in your memory, in literary culture all you have to do is to look up for the information you are looking for (Orality and Literacy - In What Ways Are Oral and Literate Cultures Similar?) because the availability of information is ensured through writing (or printing).

Apart from this very common difference between primary oral culture and literate culture, we will take a look of these two from another perspective. It is said that literary culture can elaborate more analytic categories of a certain idea or knowledge compared to oral cultures. Without this characteristic, "oral cultures must conceptualize and verbalize all their knowledge with more or less close reference to the human lifeworld, assimilating the alien, objective world to the more immediate, familiar interaction of human beings" (Ong on the differences between Orality and Literacy). This implies that an oral culture can also elaborate analytical ideas by means of associating it to the world around us which in turn will be easier to comprehend and to recall at the same time.

Primary Oral Culture & Literary Cultures: The Relationship

Despite being different in some aspects, primary oral culture and literate culture are interconnected with each other. In the process of considering the dialogic relationship between these variant cultures of communication, we will uncover that orality informs literacy and vice versa (Critical Perspectives in Communication, p. 1).

According to Arozamena (2010), oral traditions has remained, influencing written production and at the same time, those same oral traditions are influenced by the written word. She has proposed that orality and literacy cannot be understood as mutually exclusive. In addition to that, Finnegan (as cited from Arozamena, 2010) has expressed that these two (orality and literacy) are not two separate and independent things.

Scroll to Continue

"On the contrary, they take diverse forms in differing cultures
and periods, and are used differently in different social contexts and,
insofar as they can be distinguished at all as separate modes rather than a continuum, they mutually interact and affect each other, and the relations between them are problematic rather than self-evident" (as cited from Arozamena, 2010).

W. Ong on the Intersubjectivity of Communication

Ong (2002) discusses that "human communication is never one-way." Even when we are talking to ourselves, we always imagine that two people are conversing ---- the questioning you and the you who responds to that. In our previous discussions, I have learned that communication is the exchange of information from a person to another. There is the receiver who encodes the message and through a medium, the message will be sent to the receiver who decodes the message and in turn sends a feedback, the cycle goes on.

In addition, responses that we give or others give to us depends on how we perceive each being. Our response to an adult is different to a response we give to a child. For Ong, this is not to speak that we are sure how the other person will respond to what we say but it is for us to be able to say the possibly range of responses, though it's vague. Ong has suggested that we have to be somehow inside the mind of the other in advance in order to enter with our message, and he or she must be inside our mind. To formulate anything we must have another person or other persons already ‘in mind'. This is said to be the paradox of human communication. In this sense, "communication is intersubjective" (Ong, 2002). However, media model in this sense is not.

Chirographic Conditioning shown in 'Media' model of Communication

According to Ong, willingness to live with the 'media' model of communication shows chirographic conditioning.

First, chirographic cultures regard speech as more specifically informational than do oral cultures, where speech is more performance-oriented, more a way of doing somethingto someone. Second, the written text appears prima facie to be a one-way informational street, for no real recipient (reader, hearer) is present when the texts come into being. But in speaking as in writing, some recipient must be present, or there can be no text produced: so, isolated from real persons, the writer conjures up a fictional person or persons. ‘The writer’s audience is always a fiction’ (Ong 1977, pp. 54–81). For a writer any real recipient is normally absent (if a recipient is accidentally present, the inscribing of the message itself proceeds as though the person were somehow absent—otherwise, why write?).

It was said that this fictionalizing of audience makes writing difficult. However, as Ong also explained, it is not impossible only if we are familiar with the literary work we are working on. This way, we can easily predict and determine how or what to say so the audience could easily comprehend or in greater sense, can relate to.


  • Arozamena, V. (2010). The interaction between orality and literacy in the basque country. University of Minnesota
  • Biakolo, E. (1999). On the theoretical foundations of orality and literacy. Research in African Literatures, 30 (2), 42-65. Retrieved from
  • Ong, W. (2002). Orality and Literacy. USA: Toylor & Francis Group
  • Ong on the Differences between Orality and Literacy (
  • Orality and Literacy - In What Ways Are Oral and Literate Cultures Similar? (

© 2019 Dens Yang

Related Articles