Presence of the Word – Word as Sound

October 24th, 2010

[C]ultures which do not reduce words to space but know them only as oral-aural phenomena, in actuality or in the imagination, naturally regard words as more powerful than do literate cultures” (112).

Ong, Walter J. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History. The Terry Lectures. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967.

That words are powerful is a common idea, meaning that words can hurt, words bring knowledge, words bring action, etc. However, for early man and oral cultures, words actually bring physical power.

It is a commonplace that early man, strongly if by no means exclusively oral-aural, experiences words–which for him typically are spoken words–as powerful, effective, of a piece with other actuality far more than later visualist man is likely to do. A word is a real happening, indeed a happening par excellence. (111).

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