Walter J. Ong [pages 1-3]

"'Rhetoric' is the anglicized Greek word for public speaking, and this refers primarily to oral verbalization, not to writing. It comes from the Greek term rhema, a word or saying, which in turn derives from the Proto-Indo- european wer, the source of the Latin verbum and of our 'word.' All human culture was of course initially rhetorical in the sense that before the introduction of writing all culture was oral. This means not merely that all verbal communication -- there are obviously other kinds of communication -- was oral, effectively limited to sound, but also that the economy of thought was oral. For human thought structures are tied in with verbalization and must fit available media of communication: there is no way for persons with no experience of writing to put their mind through the continuous linear sequence of thoughts such as goes, for example, into an encyclopedia article. Lengthy verbal performances in oral cultures are never analytic, but formulaic. Until writing, most of the kinds of thoughts we are used to thinking today simply could not be thought. Orality is a pervasive affair.

"Western culture, after the invention of writing and before the industrial revolution, made a science or 'art' of its orality. . . . From antiquity through the Renaissance and to the beginnings of romanticism, under all teaching about the art of verbal expression there lies the more or less dominant supposition that the paradigm of all expression is the oration."

Some Implications

1. According to Ong, traditional training in rhetoric, which emphasizes combativeness and advocacy, had benefits for literature, since it tended to create the excitement of clashing ideas, but it also set limits to what literature could do. For example, "students were almost never taught objective description or reportorial narration: the object of education was to get them to take a stand, as an orator might, and defend it, or to attack the stand of another" ("Oral Residue in Tudor Prose Style," 28).

2. Ong further emphasizes that rhetorical training also creates a kind of style characterized by formulae and their accumulation (Oral Residue in Tudor Prose Style," 34-35).

3. The formulaic aspects of rhetoric led to the deveopment of complex classifications of the tropes and other devices.

Victorian Web Genre and Style Literary Technique

Last modified 1988