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Oral literature

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"Oral literature" corresponds in the sphere of the spoken (oral) word to literature as literature operates in the domain of the written word. It thus forms a generally more fundamental component of culture, but operates in many ways as one might expect literature to do. The Ugandan scholar Pio Zirimu introduced the term orature in an attempt to avoid an oxymoron, but oral literature remains more common both in academic and popular writing.(Citation needed)

Pre-literate societies, by definition, have no written literature, but may possess rich and varied oral traditions—such as folk epics, folklore, proverbs and folksong—that effectively constitute an oral literature. Even when these are collected an published by scholars such as folklorists and paremiographers, the result is still often referred to as "oral literature".

Literate societies may continue an oral tradition - particularly within the family (for example bedtime stories) or informal social structures. The telling of urban legends may be considered an example of oral literature, as can jokes and also oral poetry including slam poetry which has been a televised feature on Russell Simmons' Def Poetry; performance poetry is a genre of poetry that consciously shuns the written form.[1]

History of the oral literature conceptEdit

Lore is seen in societies with vigorous oral conveyance practices to be a general term inclusive of both oral literature and any written literature, including sophisticated writings, as well, potentially, as visual and performance arts which may interact with these forms, extend their expression, or offer additional expressive media. Thus even where no phrase in local language which exactly translates 'oral literature' is used, what constitutes 'oral literature' as understood today is already understood to be part or all of the lore media with which a society conducts profound and common cultural affairs among its members, orally. In this sense, oral lore is an ancient practice and concept natural to the earliest storied communications and transmissions of bodies of knowledge and culture in verbal form near the dawn of language-based human societies, and 'oral literature' thus understood was putatively recognized in times prior to recordings of history in non-oral media including painting and writing.

Oral literature as a concept, after CE 19th century antecedents, was more widely circulated by Hector Munro Chadwick and Nora Kershaw Chadwick in their comparative work on the 'growth of literature' (1932–40). In 1960, Albert B. Lord published The Singer of Tales (1960) which influentially exmamined fluidity in both ancient and later texts and 'oral-formulaic' principles being used during composition-in-performance, particularly by contemporary Eastern European bards relating long traditional narratives.

From the 1970s, the term 'Oral literature' appears in the work of both literary scholars and anthropologists: Finnegan (1970, 1977), Görög-Karady (1982), Bauman (1986) and in the articles of the journal Cahiers de Littérature Orale[2].

Styles of memorizationEdit

In ancient India, memorization of the sacred Vedas included up to eleven forms of recitation of the same text. The texts were subsequently "proof-read" by comparing the different recited versions. Forms of recitation included the Template:Transl (literally "mesh recitation") in which every two adjacent words in the text were first recited in their original order, then repeated in the reverse order, and finally repeated again in the original order.[3] The recitation thus proceeded as:

word1word2, word2word1, word1word2; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3; ...

In another form of recitation, Template:Transl[3] (literally "flag recitation") a sequence of N words were recited (and memorized) by pairing the first two and last two words and then proceeding as:

word1word2, word(N-1)wordN; word2word3, word(N-3)word(N-2); ...; word(N-1)wordN, word1word2;

The most complex form of recitation, Template:Transl (literally "dense recitation"), according to (Filliozat 2004, p. 139), took the form:

word1word2, word2word1, word1word2word3, word3word2word1, word1word2word3; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3word4, word4word3word2, word2word3word4; ...

That these methods have been effective, is testified to by the preservation of the most ancient Indian religious text, the [[Rigveda|Template:Transl]] (ca. 1500 BCE), as a single text, without any variant readings.[3] Similar methods were used for memorizing mathematical texts, whose transmission remained exclusively oral until the end of the Vedic period (ca. 500 BCE).

However, claims that oral literature is frequently memorized and passed down without any variation are not plausible. For example, the great oral Sundiata, the great oral epic from Mali is known to exist in three versions, including both prose and verse (Tsaaior 2010: 321).

Deaf cultureEdit

Although Deaf people communicate manually rather than orally, their culture and traditions are considered in the same category as oral literature. Stories, jokes and poetry are passed on from person to person with no written medium.

See alsoEdit


  • Ong, Walter. (1982) Orality and Literacy: the technologizing of the word. New York: Methuen Press.
  • Tsaaior, James Tar. 2010. Webbed words, masked meanings: Proverbiality and narrative/discursive strategies in D.T. Niane's Sundiata: and epic of old Mali. Proverbium 27: 319-338.
  • Vansina, Jan. (1978) 'Oral Tradition, Oral History: Achievements and Perspectives', in B.Bernardi, C.Poni and A.Triulzi (Eds.) Fonti Orali, Oral Sources, Sources Orales. Milan: Franco Angeli, pp. 59-74.
  • Vansina, Jan. (1961) Oral Tradition. A Study in Historical Methodology. Chicago and London: Aldine and Routledge & Kegan Paul.

External linksEdit


  1. name="Three-minute poetry? It’s all the rage"| url= | accessdate=March 07, 2011 | date=December 16, 2009 | publisher=The Times, UK
  2. Barnard, Alan, and Spencer, Jonathan, Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology (Taylor & Francis, 2002)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 (Filliozat 2004, p. 139)


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