What is oral literature?
Literature seems to be something we read, so the term "oral literature" seems to be a contradiction in terms. The term "oral tradition" seems too formal for stories that are told and retold in families, in villages before or after dinner, and in plays put on by people who are not professional actors/actresses.
What kind of stories are told in oral traditions?
Our lives are surrounded by stories. Fairy tales (like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty) have an element of magic. Humans and non-humans, like fairies and monsters, share the world. Legends are stories that may have been told about a real person or happening, but grow and change as they are retold, like Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, Wild Bill Hickock, Daniel Boone or even Bruce Lee, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles.
Myths are stories about gods and goddesses who are super-human and who are worshiped by humans because they have power over the universe and over individual people. Every culture has myths. In many societies -- African, North and South American, Japanese, European, and Egyptian for example -- many of these myths are told orally and never committed to paper.
Folktales are stories about humans and animals who act like humans. There may be a wicked witch or talking animals or other unreal character such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Hansel and Gretel. These stories usually have some lesson that the teller wants the listener to learn. There are many kinds of folktales. Fables are tales with a moral lesson that have animals as the main characters. The most famous fables are those told in Africa, the Panchatantra stories of India, or those told in Ancient Greece by Aesop.
Epics are long stories with many stories and episodes inside them. The Iliad and ne Odyssey are epics, as are King Arthur, The Knights of the Round Table, and The Ramayana of India. They span many years and even generations. Everything seems larger than life. They usually involve monsters and demons and long journeys. Usually there is a major problem to be solved or overcome.
A more common kind of storytelling takes place in families and among friends. Family stories are events or people which stand out because they are so unusual and interesting or funny. They give us a sense of family unity. As we tell the stories we have a sense of our family's importance and we are sharing something of ourselves, too.
Songs are stories set to rhythm and melody, poems of a special kind. While ballads, like Barbara Allen and The Ballad of Billie Jo are traditional, Rap, Country and Western, and Reggae are also examples of songs. We usually do not consider songs in the same league with myths and fairytales, but they sometimes serve the same purpose -- to communicate an important happening and how it affected people.
What are some purposes of oral stories?
All of these kinds of stories can do one or more of the following: explain why things are the way they are, educate young people in the ways their family and culture see the world, and entertain and amuse. They give us a feeling of belonging when you know the same stories you feel like a community, a group.
But storytellers have deeper motives as well. They can protest a situation in which they feel they are victims. The Uncle Remus stories of the American South tell the ways Brer Rabbit (the slave) outwits Brer Bear (the master). Fools often turn out to be wiser than the educated; the poor know more than the rich. The tables are turned in a way that is not as dangerous to the protesters because it is not direct. Rap music and Country and Western music both tell how a group of people are fighting "mainstream" America.
What are some of the advantages of oral storytelling?
When asked if they would rather be in a culture that used books or one that just told stories, most teenagers would opt for books. We tend to think that things that are written down are somehow more true than things we are told. Often when someone tries to tell directions, the listener will say, "Just let me read it for myself" But there are many advantages to using stories to pass down information.
If your friend were robbed on the way to school, would you rather read about it in a letter, hear about it on the phone, or have your friend discuss it over lunch? When we are face-to-face we can use gestures, facial expressions and changes in our voice to make our meaning clear. Our listeners can ask questions and we can have a chance to clear up any misunderstandings. The story seems more real. We can emphasize the events that have meaning or importance for us and shorten the parts that don't. We can choose how to tell the story to different people. We don't tell the same version of a story to our mothers as we do to our best friend or our teacher.
Stories spread like wild-fire. They can let us react almost instantly to events that make headlines. Writing takes time. A book takes six months to print, even a letter to the editor takes time to write, deliver, be accepted and appear in the newspaper. All cultures in the world were mainly oral cultures until the explosion of printing technology in the mid-19th century. The development of printing also meant someone owned the presses.
Lastly, oral stories can be set to music.
What are the advantages of written stories?
When you write something down, you have time to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it. You can edit your work to make it clearer. Written work lasts -- it is a permanent record of what someone has found out, thinks or feels. Writers can reach a bigger audience -- even after they are dead. Texts can be translated more easily because the translator can use a dictionary and re-work difficult sentences. The writer does not have to be present when the story is heard. And the reader can enjoy a book privately reading in their own room while eating a favorite snack food.
Some other advantages are less important. A writer can gain distance Time can go by between writing drafts. Eventually some writings will be recognized as particularly well done and be considered "classics" in their area.
What are the disadvantages of oral storytelling?
When there is no written text to refer to which has authority there is no way to know which version is right. The Bible, the Koran and the Talmud all offer texts which can be interpreted differently by different people. But when disagreements arise, each person can refer back to the book to support an opinion.
When everything has to be memorized, some things can be forgotten. The best example of this is forgetting the punch line of a joke, or leaving out the very information that makes it funny.
Oral storytelling always has to have an audience. You can never do it just for yourself. Even when you practice telling the story in the shower it is really practicing for an imaginary audience -- a kind of performance. Stories in a culture that rely on oral storytelling can never be private. How would you keep a journal, for example, in such a culture?
What are the disadvantages of written texts?
When you write a letter, an essay or a story, you have to imagine who your audience really is. You cannot look at their expression to know if you are boring them or interesting or amusing them. They cannot ask you questions when they don't understand or urge you to keep telling them more. It is also harder to show emotion in writing.
Once a work is published or a letter sent there is no way to change it or reverse it. You have to live with what you have written. Finally, what was said above about time delays in written work needs to be repeated -- writing and publishing take time and there is always a lag between the event and the written reaction.
Finally, written texts have been used by a few - those who could read and write and color? print - to control the many. These few could convince the many that their authority, derived from written texts, was legitimate. Often these written texts were religious or legal texts.
How do oral stories change?
Oral stories can and do change over time and from place to place. As they are passed from person to person they are re-interpreted by each teller. These are not deliberate mistakes, but choices to suit the teller's interests and creative and artistic sense. The oral storyteller might make up additional scenes or descriptions that "make the story better." The storyteller might change the story to match the current situation in a village or a family. If there has just been a flood, the story might change form an earthquake to a flood. Characters might be described so that they are recognizable as someone in the audience.
Storytellers also hear stories. When they come upon something that seems more interesting or new or fits their audience, they can simply add it to the original story and merge the two stories into a new story that has the best parts of both.
What are the characteristics of most oral stories?
Oral stories use repetition. This makes the rhythm and meter stronger. It emphasizes parts of the story that are important. The audience can remember the chorus and join in with the story teller. Sounds, words, phrases, choruses and refrains all are repeated. Sometimes melody is added.
Another device used often is onomatopoeia -- making sounds that imitate sounds in nature, such as zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz for a bumble bee or a snore.
Above all, oral stories are told in the language of the people in the audience. The exception is when the storyteller is reading from a text or imitating someone to create an effect.
The Ramayana is an Indian epic, with magic, mythological figures and legendary heroes. In India,
the oral and written stories exist side by side. Almost all Indians know the basic story of the
Ramayana. It was probably originally passed down by word of mouth. Over the years it was
written down in three major texts, one in 200 B.C.E., and two in the 16th century. While people
know the different versions, when they tell the story or put it on as a play, they make up the
words, add their own episodes and do it the way they think is most interesting and entertaining.
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