The following is a response to “The Orality of Language” by Walter J. Ong
I have a fetish for the English language. I must specify “English,” because it is the only language I can read, write and speak completely fluently. I can read and write both Arabic and Spanish, and communicate basically in both—but my level of expression and my complex understanding of these languages do not measure up to my English capability.
I say my English because that’s how I perceive the English language—it is mine.
I find it so ironic that I am a first-generation American, the daughter of parents whose first languages were Arabic and Spanish, and yet, I love English. I love how the words sound, I love discourse, and mostly, I love writing.
My father is Lebanese and my mother is Mexican and Spanish. Growing up, my father spoke to my siblings and me in Arabic, and my mother spoke to us in Spanish. Yet, they spoke to each other in English—so we spoke to each other in English. As children, our minds are a sponge—we absorb everything up around us. Even though we understand Arabic and Spanish, we spoke English, because that was the language used primarily for actual communication. Although we are all pretty receptive to Arabic and Spanish, we never learned how to fully express ourselves in these other languages. Even though we could understand what my father was instructing us to do, or what my mother was asking us, they never forced us to respond in their respective languages. Up until this day, we are not fluent Arabic and Spanish speakers because you must practice speaking in order to fully grasp a language.
Orality is vital to language fluency. You cannot write beautifully in a language if you cannot speak a language fluently. Of course, there are exceptions in terms of disabilities that may inhibit one from communicating their thoughts—but, orality is key.
Walter J. Ong’s “The Orality of Language” (1988) emphasizes this distinction between orality, language and literacy.
I went to a private school up until the fourth grade where Arabic was apart of the curriculum. Because Arabic is phonetic, I was able to learn how to read and write the language quickly. In fact, I have fantastic Arabic handwriting. I can read complex Quranic versus, however slowly, and copy any Arabic script you give me. But I still can’t speak it perfectly because I was never submerged in a community of Arabic speakers.
In school, or any academic environment for that matter, they attempt to teach you a new language by first instructing you how to read and write the alphabet. They take a strict literary approach— yet, language is an oral phenomenon—so why did academics move away from this? (Ong) They do this to have something concrete to grade you with, but it’s ineffective, and ultimately, it didn’t help me learn how to speak Arabic. I even took Arabic again in college, but they used the same literary approach. And so, despite how well I read and write Arabic, I ultimately felt like a mute when I traveled to Lebanon two summers ago. Because I was never taught how to communicate in the colloquial dialect. Because the language curriculum is geared towards literacy.
But, writing is a compliment to verbal speech, not a transformer of verbalization (Ong).
I have the same issue with Spanish. I understand the language fluently, but it wasn’t until I studied abroad in Spain for a semester, surrounded by Spanish-speakers, that I started speaking Spanish. Language is developed and enhanced through submersion in a specific language community. Language develops through speech, and your ability to speak is what defines your fluency.
Yet, speech can be enhanced. The art of communication is multi-faceted. Ong relates how vital non-verbal communication is to mutual understanding. Body language, facial expression and hand gestures all help human beings communicate more effectively. They supplement words. This is why my siblings and I were so receptive to our parent’s instructions in Spanish and Arabic—their body language and facial expressions helped communicate their thoughts to us. We knew if they were angry or pleased with us by how they spoke to us. Their manner supplemented the words, just as writing, “the commitment of the word to space, enlarges the potentiality of language almost beyond measure, [and] restructures thought…” (Ong, 8).
Writing can never exist without orality (Ong). It would be impossible for me to write anything similar to this blog in Arabic or Spanish. I cannot write this freely in any language besides English, because English is the only language I’ve grasped orally. Writing can never dispense with orality.
As I write this blog, I realize that my fascination with language is warranted. I was exposed to three different languages in my infancy. This exposure has enriched my experiences and my knowledge of the world. This blend of Arabic and Hispanic culture has made me more thoughtful—and writing allows me to reflect on my unique cultural hybrid.
Writing allows me to have conversations with myself.
Have you ever said a word over and over again in your head? Thinking about the word often makes it sound strange. The word English seems so foreign to me right now. E-N-G-L-I-S-H. Although technically, I haven’t even said anything out loud, I’ve merely written this down. But when I write, there is a voice in my head speaking to me and narrating my writing. We talk to ourselves as we write. The words in our head are transferred onto the paper. It’s artistic. The Ancient Greeks recognized the beauty and complexity of orality and language and they referred to it as Rhetoric—literally “speech art.”
I want to study Rhetoric for the rest of my life. It is where I take refuge, both emotionally and intellectually.
Rhetoric was and had to be a product of writing (Ong). The beauty of language was thus recognized when orality was transcribed. Writing enhances orality—it makes these spoken words into a scientific “art” (Ong). Even when we study orally composed speeches, we don’t study them as speeches, but as written texts. We have to transcribe the speech in order to deconstruct the language. I took an entire class on that last semester called “Discourse Analysis.” We analyzed words and language—but we had to first transcribe the language before we could analyze it. Even though “words are grounded in oral speech, writing tyrannically locks them into a visual field forever” (Ong, 10).
Rhetoric has my heart; it is so important. Literature, literally defined “writings,” is the basis of history, philosophy, and even science. The written word allows us to read, learn and develop as a society. Without writing, human consciousness cannot reach its fuller potentials, and cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations (Ong).
Orality can produce, and is destined to produce writing.
As a child, I embraced the English language because I grew up in the United States—around other American children speaking English. It may have been a subconscious choice at the time, but I ultimately didn’t force myself to try and speak Arabic and Spanish because I didn’t view these languages as highly as English. They didn’t seem important because they weren’t spoken around me. My father spoke Arabic to his “older” friends and my mother spoke Spanish over the phone to her family, but we barely saw either Arabic or Spanish language-speaking community. My dad’s entire family still resides in Lebanon, and we barely saw my mom’s family growing up (there’s lots of drama there). So as a child, I simply never grew fluent.
My lack of fluency in Arabic and Spanish is a sensitive subject in my household, especially now that I am leaving to teach English after graduation. It’s like I disregard the relevance of Arabic and Spanish—but I didn’t, and I don’t. My lack of fluency in Arabic and Spanish is my biggest regret in life. I make every effort to speak Arabic and Spanish now, and I am getting better every day, because I now take the oral approach as opposed to the literary approach.
I am determined to be fluent in all three languages—both in orality and literacy. I know that I will never be able to write in Arabic and Spanish the way I do in English—and I’ve accepted that. I had to relinquish my relationship with Arabic and Spanish to develop fully as an English writer. We have to die to continue living (Ong). But, as I’ve grown older, my fascination for language has grown. I love language. I immerse myself in its rhythmic aroma. I drink in the delicious flavors of its implications. And, I learn so much through the context surrounding its origin. I love analysis—even the word is delectable.
I have a fetish for
the English language.
Ong, Walter J. “The orality of language.” Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge, 1988. 5-15.