Oral literature

Oral literature

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.

Pre-literate societies, by definition, have no written literature, but may possess rich and varied oral traditions—such as folk epics, folklore and folksong—that effectively constitute an 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.

Performance poetry is a genre of poetry that consciously shuns the written form.

Styles of Memorization

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 (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. The recitation thus proceeded as:
word1word2, word2word1, word1word2; word2word3, word3word2, word2word3; ...
In another form of recitation, (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, (literally "dense recitation"), according to , 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 (ca. 1500 BCE), as a single text, without any variant readings. Similar methods were used for memorizing mathematical texts, whose transmission remained exclusively oral until the end of the Vedic period (ca. 500 BCE).

See also


  • Ong, W. (1982) Orality and Literacy: the technologizing of the word. New York: Methuen Press.
  • Vansina, J. (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, J. (1961) Oral Tradition. A Study in Historical Methodology. Chicago and London: Aldine and Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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