oral traditions

Oral tradition

Oral tradition, oral culture and oral lore is a way for a society to transmit history, literature, law and other knowledges across generations without a writing system; one set of criteria specifies material held in common by a group of people, over several generations, and thus distinct from testimony or oral history. In a general sense, "oral tradition" refers to the transmission of cultural material through vocal utterance, and was long held to be a key descriptor of folklore (a criterion no longer rigidly held by all folklorists). As an academic discipline, it refers both to a set of objects of study and a method by which they are studied -- the method may be called variously "oral traditional theory," "the theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition" and the "Parry-Lord theory" (after two of its founders; see below) The study of oral tradition is distinct from the academic discipline of oral history, which is the recording of personal memories and histories of those who experienced historical eras or events. It is also distinct from the study of orality, which can be defined as thought and its verbal expression in societies where the technologies of literacy (especially writing and print) are unfamiliar to most of the population.

Study of oral tradition


Oral tradition as a field of study had its origins in the work of the Serb scholar Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic (1787-1864), a contemporary and friend of the Brothers Grimm. Vuk pursued similar projects of "salvage folklore" (similar to rescue archaeology) in the cognate traditions of the Southern Slavic regions which would later be gathered into Yugoslavia, and with the same admixture of romantic and nationalistic interests (he considered all those speaking Serbo-Croat as Serbs). Somewhat later, but as part of the same scholarly enterprise of nationalist studies in folklore, the turcologist Vasily Radlov (1837-1918) would study the songs of the Kara-Kirghiz in what would later become the Soviet Union; Karadzic and Radloff would provide models for the work of Parry.

Milman Parry and Albert Lord

Shortly thereafter, Milman Parry (1902-1935), pursuing a degree in Classics at Harvard, would begin to grapple with what was then called the "Homeric Question," usually framed as "who was Homer?" and "what are the Homeric poems?" The Homeric question actually consists of a series of related inquiries, and Parry's contribution, which drew upon and synthesized the insights of previous scholars including Marcel Jousse, Matija Murko and Arnold van Gennep, was to reconsider the foundational assumptions which framed the inquiries, a re-ordering that would have consequences for a great many literatures and disciplines.

Parry's work under Antoine Meillet at the Sorbonne led to his crucial insight into the "formula," which he originally defined as "a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea. In Homeric verse, for example, phrases like eos rhododaktylos ("rosy fingered dawn") or oinops pontos ("winedark sea") occupy a certain metrical pattern that fits, in modular fashion, into the six-colon Greek hexameter, and aids the aioidos or bard in extempore composition. Moreover, phrases of this type would be subject to internal substitutions and adaptations, permitting flexibility in response to narrative and grammatical needs: podas okus axilleus ("swift footed Achilles") is metrically equivalent to koruthaiolos ektor ("glancing-helmed Hektor"). Parry and Lord observed that the same phenomenon was apparent in the Old English alliterative line:

Hrothgar mathelode helm Scildinga ("Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scildings")
Beowulf mathelode bearn Ecgtheowes ("Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow")

and in the junacki deseterac (heroic decasyllable) of the demonstrably oral poetry of the Serbs:

a besjedi od Orasca Tale ("But spoke of Orashatz Tale")
a besjedi Mujagin Halile ("But spoke Mujo's Halil")

In Parry's view, formulas were not individual and idiosyncratic devices of particular artists, but the shared inheritance of a tradition of singers. They were easily remembered, making it possible for the singer to execute an improvisational composition-in-performance. A later scholar commented on the potential for Parry's concept to be seen as disparaging of Homeric genius: "The meaning of the Greek term 'rhapsodize', rhapsoidein, 'to stitch song together' could then be taken in a negative sense: Homer stitched together pre-fabricated parts.

The idea indeed met with immediate resistance, because it seemed to make the fount of Western literary eloquence the slave of a system of clichés, but it accounted for such otherwise inexplicable features of the Homeric poems as gross anachronisms (revealed by advances in historical and archaeological knowledge), the presence of incompatible dialects, and the deployment of locally unsuitable epithets ("blameless Aegisthos" for the murderer of Agamemnon, or the almost comic use of "swift-footed Achilles" for the hero in conspicuously sedentary moments).

Parry was appointed to a junior professorship at Harvard, and during this time became aware of living oral traditions in the Balkan region. In two field expeditions with his young assistant Albert Lord (1912-1991) he would record thousands of songs on aluminum disks. The collection would provide the basis for an empirical documentation of the dynamics of composition of metrical narrative in traditional oral performance. This analysis included the patterns and types of variation at lexical and other levels which would yield a structural account of a work's multiformity. This phenomenon could only be accounted for in standard literary methodology by concepts of “corruption” and “distortion” of a pristine, original “ur-text” or hypothetical “lost Q" ("Quelle", German for "source"), hypothesized via stemmatology. Thus the work of Parry and Lord reduced the prominence of the historic-geographic method in folkloristics.

Tragically, Parry was killed in a pistol-accident. His work was posthumously published by his son Adam Parry as The Making of Homeric Verse (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971). Lord, however, had meanwhile published The Singer of Tales (1960), a work which summarized both Parry's response to the Homeric Question, and the joint work he had done with Parry in the Balkans. The Parry-Lord work exercised great influence on other scholars, notably Francis P. Magoun, whose application of their model to Anglo-Saxon traditions demonstrated the explicative and problem-solving power of the theory – a process that would be repeated by other scholars in numerous independent traditions (see below).

Walter Ong

In a separate development, the media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) would begin to focus attention on the ways that communicative media shape the nature of the content conveyed. He would serve as mentor to the Jesuit, Walter Ong (1912-2003), whose interests in cultural history, psychology and rhetoric would result in Orality and Literacy (Methuen, 1980) and the important but less-known Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality and Consciousness (Cornell, 1981) These two works articulated the contrasts between cultures defined by primary orality, writing, print, and the secondary orality of the electronic age.

I style the orality of a culture totally untouched by any knowledge of writing or print, 'primary orality'. It is 'primary' by contrast with the 'secondary orality' of present-day high technology culture, in which a new orality is sustained by telephone, radio, television and other electronic devices that depend for their existence and functioning on writing and print. Today primary culture in the strict sense hardly exists, since every culture knows of writing and has some experience of its effects. Still, to varying degrees many cultures and sub-cultures, even in a high-technology ambiance, preserve much of the mind-set of primary orality.

Ong's works also made possible an integrated theory of oral tradition which accounted for both production of content (the chief concern of Parry-Lord theory) and its reception. This approach, like McLuhan's, kept the field open not just to the study of aesthetic culture but to the way physical and behavioral artifacts of oral societies are used to store, manage and transmit knowledge, so that oral tradition provides methods for investigation of cultural differences, other than the purely verbal, between oral and literate societies.

The most-often studied section of Orality and Literacy concerns the “psychodynamics of orality” This chapter seeks to define the fundamental characteristics of 'primary' orality and summarizes a series of descriptors (including but not limited to verbal aspects of culture) which might be used to index the relative orality or literacy of a given text or society.

John Miles Foley

In advance of Ong’s synthesis, John Miles Foley, who studied with Robert Creed (who had in turn studied with Magoun), began a series of papers based on his own fieldwork on South Slavic oral genres, emphasizing the dynamics of performers and audiences. Foley effectively consolidated oral tradition as an academic field when he compiled Oral-Formulaic Theory and Research in 1985. The bibiography gives a summary of the progress scholars made in evaluating the oral tradition up to that point, and includes a list of all relevant scholarly articles relating to the theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition. He also both established both the journal Oral Tradition and founded the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition (1986) at the University of Missouri–Columbia. Foley developed Oral Theory beyond the somewhat mechanistic notions presented in earlier versions of Oral-Formulaic Theory, by extending Ong's interest in cultural features of oral societies beyond the verbal, by drawing attention to the agency of the bard and by describing how oral traditions bear meaning.

The bibliography would establish a clear underlying methodology which accounted for the findings of scholars working in the separate Linguistics fields (primarily Ancient Greek, Anglo-Saxon and Serbo-Croatian). Perhaps more importantly, it would stimulate conversation among these specialties, so that a network of independent but allied investigations and investigators could be established.

Foley’s key works include The Theory of Oral Composition (1988); Immanent Art (1991); Traditional Oral Epic: The Odyssey, Beowulf and the Serbo-Croatian Return-Song (1993); The Singer of Tales in Performance (1995); Teaching Oral Traditions (1998); How to Read an Oral Poem (2002). His Pathways Project (2006-) draws parallels between the media dynamics of oral traditions and the Internet.

Acceptance and further elaboration

The theory of oral tradition would undergo elaboration and development as it grew in acceptance. While the number of formulas documented for various traditions proliferated, the concept of the formula remained lexically-bound. However, numerous innovations appeared, such as the “formulaic system” with structural “substitution slots” for syntactic, morphological and narrative necessity (as well as for artistic invention). Sophisticated models such as Foley’s “word-type placement rules” followed. Higher levels of formulaic composition were defined over the years, such as “ring composition,” “responsion” and the “type-scene” (also called a "theme" or "typical scene). Examples include the "Beasts of Battle" and the "Cliffs of Death Some of these characteristic patterns of narrative details, (like “the arming sequence;” “the hero on the beach;” “the traveler recognizes his goal” would show evidence of global distribution.

At the same time, the fairly rigid division between oral and literate was replaced by recognition of transitional and compartmentalized texts and societies, including models of diglossia (Brian Stock Franz Bäuml, and Eric Havelock). Perhaps most importantly, the terms and concepts of “orality” and “literacy” came to be replaced with the more useful and apt “traditionality” and “textuality.” Very large units would be defined (The Indo-European Return Song) and areas outside of military epic would come under investigation: women’s song, riddles.” and other genres.

The methodology of oral tradition now conditions an large variety of studies, not only in folklore, literature and literacy, but in philosophy, communication theory, Semiotics, and including a very broad and continually expanding variety of languages and ethnic groups, , and perhaps most conspicuously in biblical studies , in which Werner Kelber has been especially prominent. ; the annual bibliography is indexed by 100 areas, most of which are ethnolinguistic divisions.

Present developments explore the implications of the theory for rhetoric and composition, interpersonal communication, cross-cultural communication, postcolonial studies, rural community development, popular culture and film studies, and many other areas. The most significant areas of theoretical development at present may be the construction of systematic hermeneutics and aesthetics specific to oral traditions.

Criticism and debates

The theory of oral tradition encountered early resistance from scholars who perceived it as potentially supporting either one side or another in the controversy between what were known as “unitarians” and “analysts” – that is, scholars who believed Homer to have been a single, historical figure, and those who saw him as a conceptual “author function,” a convenient name to assign to what was essentially a repertoire of traditional narrrative. A much more general dismissal of the theory and its implications simply described it as "unprovable Some scholars, mainly outside the field of oral tradition, represent (either dismissively or with approval) this body of theoretical work as reducing the great epics to children’s party games like “telephone” or “Chinese whispers”. While games provide amusement by showing how messages distort content via uncontextualized transmission, Parry’s supporters argue that the theory of oral tradition reveals how oral methods optimized the signal-to-noise ratio and thus improved the quality, stability and integrity of content transmission.

There were disputes concerning particular findings of the theory. For example, those trying to support or refute Crowne's hypothesis found the "Hero on the Beach" formula in numerous Old English poems. It was also discovered in other works of Germanic origin, Middle English poetry, and even an Icelandic prose saga. J.A. Dane, in an article characterized as "polemics without rigor claimed that the appearance of the theme in Ancient Greek poetry, a tradition without known connection to the Germanic, invalidated the notion of "an autonomous theme in the baggage of an oral poet."

Within Homeric studies specifically, Lord's The Singer of Tales, which focused on problems and questions that arise in conjunction with applying oral-formulaic theory to problematic texts such as the Iliad, Odyssey, and even Beowulf, influenced nearly all of the articles written on Homer and oral-formulaic composition thereafter. However, in response to Lord, Geoffrey Kirk published "The Songs of Homer," questioning Lord's extension of the oral-formulaic nature of Serbian and Croatian literature (the area from which the theory was first developed) to Homeric epic. Kirk argues that Homeric poems differ from those traditions in their "metrical strictness," "formular system[s]", and creativity. In other words, Kirk argued that Homeric poems were recited under a system that gave the reciter much more freedom to choose words and passages to get to the same end than the Serbo-Croatian poet, who was merely "reproductive". Shortly thereafter, Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato revolutionized how scholars looked at Homeric epic by arguing not only that it was the product of an oral tradition, but also that the oral-formulas contained therein served as a way for ancient Greeks to preserve cultural knowledge across many different generations. Adam Parry, in his 1966 work "Have we Homer's Iliad?", theorized the existence of the most fully developed oral poet to his time, a person who could (at his discretion) creatively and intellectually create nuanced characters in the context of the accepted, traditional story. In fact, he discounted the Serbo-Croatian tradition to an "unfortunate" extent, choosing to elevate the Greek model of oral-tradition above all others. Lord reacted to Kirk's and Parry's essays with "Homer as Oral Poet," published in 1968, which reaffirmed Lord's belief in the relevance of Yugoslav poetry and its similarities to Homer and downplayed the intellectual and literary role of the reciters of Homeric epic.

Many of the criticisms of the theory have been absorbed into the evolving field as useful refinements and modifications. For example, in what Foley called a "pivotal" contribution, Larry Benson introduced the concept of "written-formulaic" to describe the status of some Anglo-Saxon poetry which, while demonstrably written, contains evidence of oral influences, including heavy reliance on formulas and themes A number of individual scholars in many areas continue to have misgivings about the applicability of the theory or the aptness of the South Slavic comparison, and particularly what they regard as its implications for the creativity which may legitimately be attributed to the individual artist. However, at present, there seems to be little systematic or theoretically coordinated challenge to the fundamental tenets of the theory; as Foley put it, ""there have been numerous suggestions for revisions or modifications of the theory, but the majority of controversies have generated further understanding.

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