What are oral traditions

Oral transmission

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Oral transmission or Orality describes the narrative transmission and creation of historical, social and religious information - especially in the form of stories, legends, myths and traditions. It plays a major role in all cultural circles, especially in those who have little or no knowledge of a written tradition (written form or literacy). The lack of literacy anchored in a culture is called illiteracy. Oral traditions can be a cultural asset.

Remembering in the state of total lack of writing

Literature and orality

As already mentioned, the poem form was helpful for a lasting tradition, because rhyme and meter prevent individual words from being easily forgotten and changed. However, poems in particular are consciously adapted to current needs.

It is considered certain that large parts of the Old Testament were passed down orally before they were written down. The New Testament Gospels were also transmitted orally for several decades before their form was put down in writing by some contemporary witnesses. "Irad became the father of Mahujael, Mahujael became the father of Methusael, Methusael became the father of Lamech." This biblical passage is obviously a written record, but it seems to have an oral origin. This type of oral structure shows that the formulaic nature of the narratives was important in order to be able to reproduce them. If a text were written in this way, it would appear very strange.

Also the heroic epics and in general the poems from early cultures (best known examples: Mahabharata, Iliad and Odyssey, cf. Homeric question) find their beginnings in an oral tradition, and up until the 20th century the tradition of the Guslares in the Balkans was often based only on the oral transmission of the epics.

The two most important collections of orally transmitted texts were created during the German Romantic era: The Grimm Brothers' fairy tales(Children's and Household Tales) and The boy's magic horn by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. With both works, however, it should be noted that the editors edited their sources according to their needs. In 1976 Peter Rühmkorf gave his collection About the national wealth in which he combined orally transmitted aphorisms, poems and counting rhymes. Rühmkorf emphasized the coarse, brutal and sexual side of this tradition.

A significant tradition of storytelling has established itself in the Arab world. The Syrian writer Rafik Schami describes this art in his books as it was handed down in the coffee houses of Damascus. In his stories about storytelling, Schami describes the interactions between the narrator and the listener, which mutually intensify in the art of storytelling.

Science and orality

Significant studies on the oral tradition come from, among others. by Milman Parry, Eric A. Havelock and Walter Jackson Ong, and Jack Goody and Ian Watt. An example of oral tradition that is more precisely documented is the oral poetry of the Atoin Meto.

In historical studies, oral tradition can be the most important source for times and cultures in which there is no written tradition or it was lost (e.g. due to the effects of war). Then the historian has to try to find the “real core” in sagas and legends. Many scientists have contributed in this way, some in the form of methodical text criticism written To bring tradition closer to its original version.

Oral history

Oral history describes a special method of historical studies in which the results of the official historiography are supplemented by interviewing contemporary witnesses. Oral history is therefore not part of the oral tradition, because past events are not passed down, but are described as the witnesses' own experience. The method has always been important for folklore and is increasingly relevant today for local and social history. The term came up in the 1930s and has also been used in German-speaking countries since the 1960s.

Oral poetry

"Oral formulaic poetry" describes a relatively young research direction in literary studies and deals with all forms of oral storytelling, orally traditional literature. Particular attention is paid to colloquial language and so-called folk goods. Compare epic formula, Homeric question, fairy tale, variability (folk poetry), folk ballad and folk book.

See also


  • Jack Goody, Ian Watt: The consequences of literacy. In: Jack Goody (Ed.): Literacy in Traditional Societies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1975, ISBN 0-521-29005-8, pp. 27-68.
  • Hartmut Günther, Otto Ludwig (Ed.): Writing and writing. An interdisciplinary handbook of international research. = Writing and its use (= Handbooks for linguistics and communication studies. = Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Science. Vol. 10, half-vol. 1-2). de Gruyter, Berlin 1994-1996, ISBN 3-11-011129-2 (vol. 1), ISBN 3-11-014744-0 (vol. 2).
  • Edward R. Haymes: The oral epic. An introduction to "oral poetry research" (= Metzler Collection 151, Dept. E: Poetics.) Metzler, Stuttgart 1977, ISBN 3-476-10151-7.
  • Ueli Haefeli-Waser: Oral history. In: Historical encyclopedia of Switzerland.
  • David R. Olson, Nancy Torrance (Eds.): Literacy and Orality. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 1991, ISBN 0-521-39217-9.
  • Walter J. Ong: Orality and literacy. The technologization of the word. Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen 1987, ISBN 3-531-11768-8.
  • Plato: Phaedrus (= Diederich's pocket editions. Vol. 19, ZDB-ID 255192-5). 3rd edition revised by the translator. Translated into German by Rudolf Kassner. Diederichs, Düsseldorf et al. 1959.
  • Jan Vansina: Oral tradition. A Study in Historical Methodology. Routledge & Paul, London 1961.
  • Oral tradition.ISSN1542-4308. Open Access Journal of the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, Columbia MO (full texts).
  • Rafik Schami: The woman who sold her husband at the flea market: Or how I became a narrator. Hanser, 2011.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ↑ Jack Goody, Watt Ian: The consequences of literacy. In: Jack Goody (Ed.): Literacy in Traditional Societies. 1975, p. 33.
  2. ↑ Jens Brockmeier: Remembering and Forgetting: Narrative as Cultural Memory. In: Culture & Psychology, 1, 2002, 15–43.
  3. ↑ cf. Arnd Krüger, Astrid Sanders: Jewish Sports in the Netherlands and the Problems of Selective Memory. In: Journal of Sport History, 2, 1999, 271-286. http://library.la84.org/SportsLibrary/JSH/JSH1999/JSH2602/jsh2602d.pdf