Sunday, February 6, 2011

Orality + Language as Technology

The methods we use to express, convince, or persuade have evolved over time. Walter J. Ong states that language is a technology that constantly changes (Ong, 1982.) It makes sense when you look at language as just a tool for communicating. Language regardless of being written, spoken, or signed is simply a tool, a technology, used to communicate our beliefs, thoughts, and all of the information that makes us, us.
The tricky part of understanding the concept of language as a technology is something that needs concrete examples. Fortunately if we examine language and the use of certain techniques that have been used throughout history we can see that the technology of language, as Ong describes it, is not so much a constantly changing technology as it is an evolving one.
Mnemonics is something that both Homer and Fox News both employ. Homer in Book I of the Iliad describes Achilles as, “Achilles, loved in Heaven.” This type of language immediately begins to create an image in the readers mind as to how we are to perceive Achilles. Today this same methodology is being put to use but in a way that is much more controversial. The media industry, specifically cable news, over the last ten to fifteen years has become the most popular method for receiving news and information for the American public. The example given above of Homer’s writing style and use of mnemonics, repetitious phrases, and buzzwords are all hallmarks of good writing. However, many have began to question whether these are good, or even ethical methods to be used in the delivery of the news
 Fox News commentators and even anchors have been criticized for beginning their sentences with phrases like “The truth is,” “I’m telling you the truth when I say,” or “The fact of the matter is…” Like Homer’s description of Achilles this too begins to fashion an image of what the truth is in the viewers mind. This is exampled in R. Greenwald’s 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. While the video is clearly slanted in favor of a more liberal ideology it raises serious questions as to the use of specific stories, topics, and guests to help create a coherent narrative that supports a conservative agenda. Specific criticisms include the use of slogans such as “Fair and Balanced” to give the viewer an idea that they are getting all sides of a story and it is up to them to decide. Additionally, Greenwald points to the imbalance of conservative to liberal guests invited to participate on their programming. Perhaps though the greatest lesson the documentary can provide is the lesson it gives on just how integrated of a business the news media actually is. Fox News is not the exception. The methodologies revealed in the documentary should be applied to all news outlets, regardless of their format.
            This is a central theme in the 1993 documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. In it Chomsky explains through example how the media works to create coherent narrative that reflects the wishes of its owners and corporate sponsors. Ultimately, it is about money and what the government does and does not want to talk about. Using data points and actual newspaper articles Chomsky shows how nearly all but a minutia of publications, televisions channels, and nearly every form of media is nearly controlled by a handful of corporations. Ultimately even these mega-corporations are subsidiaries of a few all powerful companies. The basic premise is that when one of the corporations doesn’t like something that is being covered they will pull funding or make it so difficult that you become silent. Chomsky argues that this is a free country and you can say want you want, to an extent, but that your support will wane to a choking point if are to aggressively challenge the powers that be.
            The ideas put forth by Chomsky are interesting to compare in different formats. While Manufacturing Consent is of course a video Chomsky made his name with the printed word. There has been some debate about when Chomsky is more effective, in print or through orality, be it in a presentation or on TV. Looking at a person’s speaking skills can reveal just how powerful the spoken word can be, or perhaps not…
Take for example a Presidential address. The current President, Barack Obama, is commonly accepted as being a strong speaker that utilizes a multitude of speaking methods. One of which is oration. The President frequently uses rhythmic patterns, repetition, and amplification to deliver his message. These are all representative of thoughts to be remembered. But, just in case you forget a pundit will be on afterward to make sure you really understood what the President has already told you.
Oration, regardless of whether it comes from the President or a grandmother to her grandchildren carries something that the printed word often cannot, intonation. Earlier I mentioned Ong. He points out in his 1982 book, Orality and Literacy that, “In oral speech, a word must have one or another intonation or tone of voice-lively, excited, quiet, incensed, resigned, or whatever. It is impossible to speak a word orally without intonation (Ong, p. 99.) Intonation is something that the radio was able to use. But radio was limited strictly to the aural senses. The television has been able to use both intonations along with image. These images allow the viewer to see mannerism, body language, and on-screen graphics. Adding all of these together has greatly increased our ability to both communicate and allow the technology that is language to continue to evolve at break-neck speed. Certainly this provides major advantages over the printed word. It is easy to understand how the TV has taken over as the primary news provider.
            Our awareness of this growth of our language and various kinds of communication all lend themselves to our need and desire to be human. We must work to understand the benefits and consequences of our language as it grows and changes before both our eyes and ears.   


Achbar, M. And Wintonick, P. (Producers). (1993). Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and The Media. Retrieved from

Griffin, E. (2009). A First Look at Communication Theory (7th Edition). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Greenwald, R. (Producer/ Director). (2004). Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. Retrived from

Homer. The Iliad.

Ong. Walter J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of The Word. New York, NY: Methuen & Co. Ltd.

Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., and Tomic, A (2009). Computer Mediated Communication.  London: Sage Publications Limited.