What do you understand by the term ‘oral literature’? Illustrate.


Question 5: What do you understand by the term ‘oral literature’? Illustrate.

Ans: ‘Oral Literature’ or commonly known as ‘Folklore’ is a ‘verbal art’, an art that is delivered orally and transmitted orally from person to person, generation to generation, region to region, etc., by word of mouth. Oral Literature denotes traditional forms of entertainment. Oral Literature may include epic poems, folk tales, folksongs, myths, legends, ballads of people and events, etc. In fact, Oral Literature exists in the ‘vocal’ (speaking) and ‘aural’ (listening) domains, in the broad world of ‘sound.’And therefore, Oral Literature is manifest in ‘performance.’

We already know that, ‘literature’ itself means something that is written down, so the term ‘Oral Literature’ seems to appear oxymoronic, a situation where two contradictory things are placed side by side. Oral Literature expresses that is spoken and not written.

Story telling has been prevalent in the society since time immemorial. The practice of storytelling has existed ever since man learnt to speak. Probably people in the olden times (maybe prehistoric days) had nothing better to do after they were done with the day’s hunting, than sit around the fire and spin tales, fictional, and of days gone by. This might sound as if the ‘oral’ story telling is a phenomenon of old times. In actuality even today in many cultures, the oral tradition plays a vital and significant role. For instance, the Caribbean culture is largely oral and this is also true of many cultures across the world.

Question 5: What do you understand by the term ‘oral literature’? Illustrate.

Folklore is another form of what we call ‘oral literature.’ It is basically the creative expression of the traditional beliefs and customs of people which is told by the old
grandfather/mother to the little children, and passed on by these children when
they grow up to their own children. The stories keep changing from generation to generation, and new elements get thrown into the story – things which are more
contemporary and related to the changes in the society/culture. The sole purpose of these oral stories could be to entertain, to inform, to instil values in people, etc.

PioZirimu, the Ugandan linguist, had coined the term orature to bestow a higher status to the verbal arts that did not come through in the term ‘Oral Literature.’ ‘Oral Literature’ was considered inferior to ‘Written Literature’ and he rejected the term. But his brief definition of orature as the use of utterance as an aesthetic means of expression remains tantalizingly out there, pointing to an oral system of aesthetics that did not need validity from the literary. The term however has spread, and one reads variously of Hawaiian Orature, Namibian Orature, Ghanaian Orature and many others. Despite the widespread usage, very few have engaged with the term to tease out the various theoretical possibilities in the term. Pitika Ntuli of South Africa is one of the few who have attempted to take the term beyond its Zirimian usage.”

Some of the features in Oral Literature are as follows:
Sound (Voice): Folksingers, minstrels, bards, traditional
folk theatre artists, community storytellers, etc., are generally considered to be
unlettered and untouched by the print medium. Voice was the only medium through which they expressed their art and through which they got their art from the mouthsof others like them.

Fluid: Folktales and songs are fluid, that is, the way they are told and sung or performed changes with each performance, though the essence or the main theme or storyline remains the same. The singer or storyteller never tells the same story twice, each performance is different. He/she may alter the narrative, add something new, embellish the story with more detail, stop the song midway and narrate an anecdote, etc.

Simplicity: It might appear that folk art is simpler than literature. The folktale, the ballad, and the oral epic are simple forms of art that have arisen from innocent impulses and therefore lack the complexity that one sees in literature. It is also argued that folk art is the product of simple minds not capable of deep thought while reflective literature, which aims to imitate reality, is the product of sophisticated, civilized minds. There is also this argument that oral art is simpler than literature only because it represents an earlier stage in the development of civilization. However, oral literature has its own importance and space. Some kinds of folklore may be simpler, but oral literature as such cannot be considered as any less or better than written literature. We can say that as societies grew increasingly sophisticated, the simple forms gave way to written genres which met the same expressive needs.

Style and Structure: Oral Literature differs greatly from Written Literature in matters of structure and style. Sometimes it would appear that in terms of structure and style, there is a great gap separating oral and written expression. It is generally accepted that Oral Literature is characterised by features like repetition, stock epithets, stock characters, a marked preference for fantasy over reality, and an emphasis on action. The use of such features varies greatly according to the tastes and talents of the tellers.

Authorship: One of the long-standing distinguishing features that appear to separate Oral Literature and Written Literatures is that of authorship. We have understood that Written Literature is the creation of a single individual and that folksongs and stories are communal compositions, arising collectively from the community. It is also assumed that folklore is faceless and static, while literary art is individualistic and creative. Though authorship of a given work in Oral Literature cannot be as easily determined as authorship in Written Literature, the concept of ownership does exist in Oral Literature. Certain folk artists are recognized as the owners of certain tales, and other folk artists will generally respect the superior ability of a folk artist to tell a certain tale. Individual narrators can be quite protective of their own works, even to the point where they will not allow rival narrators to hear them.

Audience: Finally, we come to the Audience. Among all the features, it is the Audience that marks the clearest difference between Oral Literature and Written Literature. Simply put, the oral narrative cannot exist without an audience. Literature is and can be written in isolation for an imagined audience, an audience which might never read the written work of art. For the folksinger or storyteller, the audience determines which story the narrator should tell, how long it is going to be, and whether the narrator can finish the story at all. The story or performance must please everyone, the tale should be comprehensible to all, and the story must be readily recognized and shared by everyone who hears it. S/he must gain the approval and understanding of the audience. Therefore, for the folk artiste, his/her artistry must not only consist of aesthetic training, but most importantly, must also consist of social training as well. The storytellers cannot distance themselves from the audience, the same way a writer can afford to do.


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