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kuwisdelu
03-29-2014, 09:00 AM
Something I've been thinking about lately is the legitimacy of oral history.

Western thought tends to give more credence to written history versus oral history. And in general, to written languages versus purely spoken languages.

But I tend to feel this is a biased view of the world. Especially as a member of a people who have tended to be disregarded by history due to our illiteracy (I am Native American), I feel I must defend oral history. Why should written history be valued over oral history?

I believe they both have their advantages and disadvantages.

I think one area where this is evident is the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.

I propose that oral history favors wisdom, while written history favors knowledge.

In a culture of oral history that is passed down by elders and experts, wisdom and knowledge tend to be conveyed at the same time. While in a culture of written history, a novice may partake of multitudes of knowledge from written works, without drinking in wisdom, which can be more difficult to convey through the written word than through personal teachings.

An interesting area that I think demonstrates this is the martial arts. In this case, although the culture possesses the capacity for written history, we have areas of expertise that are exclusively conveyed via oral history. I believe this to be a case of a society Ś in a particular paradigm Ś choosing to use the advantages of oral history (which favors wisdom) over that of written history (which favors knowledge).

What are others' thoughts regarding written language versus spoken language? And cultures which use or favor one over the other?

Lillith1991
03-29-2014, 03:45 PM
Are we including mythology in this discussion as well? Myths seem to be overlook when it comes to history particularly in cultures that value the written word over oral history. Which in turn means myths and other things that don't make up "true" history by western standards are dying out as the elders who are the main source of this information die out.

I don't think imparting wisdom by oral tradition in for example the form of old negro spirituals that lot's of older black people were taught as kids is invalid. Likewise I feel myths,fables, and legends from other cultures have great valueand wisdom. All those things are a form of history to me.

Because someone decides to write a book on the history of such a plant by such peoples doesn't mean said history didn't exist before it was written down. It did, even if "just" in the oral sense which is why it was worth writting about in the first place.

RichardGarfinkle
03-29-2014, 03:56 PM
I am inclined to agree with the basic premise, although the example of Martial Arts shows that calling it oral history may be a misnomer. There are many skills that are best passed on by an apprenticeship system of hands on lessons.

Nearly all arts are best taught this way.

The point about passed on wisdom is a good one, but it's also possible for an oral history to acquire systemic errors that can be passed on because of tradition.

There is also a gain and loss in oral versus written history. The wisdom in oral history will tend to adapt the teachings of the past to the needs of people as they are in the present day, which is a good thing. But written primary source history gives us insights into thought as it actually was in the past.

I think both are vital.

Ken
03-29-2014, 04:27 PM
Fahrenheit 451

regdog
03-29-2014, 09:39 PM
Oral history is very legitimate. In some ancient cultures it was considered an insult for something to be written down. if it was important it was told and remembered.


If I can steal a quote from Braveheart "History is written by those who've hanged heroes."

ColoradoGuy
03-30-2014, 02:02 AM
Careful, folks.

If you are an anthropologist or ethnographer oral history is key to what you are studying.

If you are an historian trying to figure out what actually happened in the past oral history is often wrong, and wrong in pernicious and dangerous ways. We can see this happening in front of our eyes today. Look at the wrong information we see about the Civil War, its causes and aftermath. In this particular case the "wisdom" of the Civil War experience is toxic to our current society. Yet some insist we should honor the misguided notions as valid in some way because misguided people believe it to be so.

regdog
03-30-2014, 02:30 AM
The problem is incorrect history is written as well.

Lillith1991
03-30-2014, 03:14 AM
The problem is incorrect history is written as well.

That. I'm seconding this post.

ColoradoGuy
03-30-2014, 10:15 PM
The problem is incorrect history is written as well.

Yep. That's what makes doing history interesting and fun.

kuwisdelu
04-01-2014, 01:49 AM
If you are an historian trying to figure out what actually happened in the past oral history is often wrong, and wrong in pernicious and dangerous ways. We can see this happening in front of our eyes today. Look at the wrong information we see about the Civil War, its causes and aftermath. In this particular case the "wisdom" of the Civil War experience is toxic to our current society. Yet some insist we should honor the misguided notions as valid in some way because misguided people believe it to be so.

Would you really call the Anglo-American south a culture of traditional oral storytelling?

If we are talking about the slaves' oral history, then maybe. But the white south was not and is not a culture of oral history. I would differentiate between oral history that is and isn't traditional.

Lillith1991
04-01-2014, 02:11 AM
If we are talking about the slaves' oral history, then maybe. But the white south was not and is not a culture of oral history. I would differentiate between oral history that is and isn't traditional.

Maybe I'm biased, but i'd say more than maybe for the slaves. Spirituals are a form of oral history in my book.

ColoradoGuy
04-03-2014, 08:53 AM
Would you really call the Anglo-American south a culture of traditional oral storytelling?

If we are talking about the slaves' oral history, then maybe. But the white south was not and is not a culture of oral history. I would differentiate between oral history that is and isn't traditional.

I'm talking about the neo-confederate revival that pedals nonsense about the Civil War, an alternate oral history that began in the 1870s and reached its apogee in the so-called Lost Cause movement.

kuwisdelu
04-03-2014, 09:39 AM
I'm talking about the neo-confederate revival that pedals nonsense about the Civil War, an alternate oral history that began in the 1870s and reached its apogee in the so-called Lost Cause movement.

The Wikipedia page for the Lost Cause movement cites multiple examples of books and literary defenses. I'm not sure why you're calling it an oral history?

The Confederate South still consisted mostly of Anglo-American whites that long ago abandoned oral tradition as their primary form of history and story-telling, so I find it hard to buy into a comparison of a revived oral history in the Confederate south that has any relevance to the oral traditions to which I'm referring.

ColoradoGuy
04-03-2014, 10:19 AM
The Wikipedia page for the Lost Cause movement cites multiple examples of books and literary defenses. I'm not sure why you're calling it an oral history?

The Confederate South still consisted mostly of Anglo-American whites that long ago abandoned oral tradition as their primary form of history and story-telling, so I find it hard to buy into a comparison of a revived oral history in the Confederate south that has any relevance to the oral traditions to which I'm referring.

Then we're referring to different things.

kuwisdelu
04-03-2014, 07:03 PM
Then we're referring to different things.

I should have said oral tradition instead of oral history.

Changed the thread title.

RichardGarfinkle
04-03-2014, 08:25 PM
I should have said oral tradition instead of oral history.

Changed the thread title.

Are you requiring that it be strictly oral? There are oral traditions which rely on and intersect with written works. The traditions and laws Jews live by are an amalgam of Biblical texts, written interpretations, and at least 2000 years of oral ideas and arguments.

kuwisdelu
04-03-2014, 10:21 PM
Are you requiring that it be strictly oral? There are oral traditions which rely on and intersect with written works. The traditions and laws Jews live by are an amalgam of Biblical texts, written interpretations, and at least 2000 years of oral ideas and arguments.

No, I think the Oral Torah is an example, too.

But I am thinking of traditions, rather than testimony.

So I would count Jewish tradition, Homer, etc.

Medievalist
04-07-2014, 09:27 PM
The Tßin Bˇ C˙ailnge or The Cattle Raid of Cooley; it's written now, but you'll notice that there are several different versions of many of the episodes and the RemscÚla or pre-tales; even the mss. acknowledge this by giving a version and then noting "others say that it happened this way . . . "

Even today Ireland and the Seannachie, traditional tale-tellers, who will offer an alternate version "Some tells it like this . . . . "

The Medieval Welsh Trioedd Ynys Prydein/ Triads of the Isle of Britain; The Welsh triads; short fragments of knowledge and data grouped in threes for easy memorization:



Llyr Half-Speech, who was imprisoned by Euroswydd, and the second, Mabon son of Modron, and third, Gwair son of Geirioedd. And one (Prisoner), who was more exalted than the three of them. This Exalted Prisoner was Arthur. And it was the same lad who released him from each of these three prisons- Goreu, son of Custennin, his cousin.

There are Irish triads as well; they tend to emphasize genealogy, and places.

The Irish Dindsenchas; tales of high points, literally, but onomastic tales about places and their names: here's one, about Ard Macha:


There came one day in bright glory to Conchobar's appointed Assembly, from the waters eastward, a man rich in herds, Cruinn son of Agnoman, lord of hundreds.
Then they bring, pacing proudly, two horses, whose like I see not, to the warriors' horse-race—hide it not!—held at that season by the king of Ulaid.
Though their like was not found among the horses of Mag Da Gabra, Cruind, eager and shaggy, said that his wife was swifter, though heavy with child.
‘Arrest ye the chieftain!’ said Conchobar, leader in battle, ‘till the warrior's fair wife come to a noble race against my steeds.’
A messenger was sent to fetch her by the king of the stout levelled spears, to bid her come from the ocean waves to contend on behalf of idle-speaking Cruinn.
The woman came without delay to the assembly of perilous exploits: her two names, not seldom heard in the west, were bright Grian and pure Macha.
Her father, not without might in his home, was Midir of BrÝ LÚith meic Celtchair; in her roofless dwelling in the west she was Grian, the sun of womankind.

When she arrived, fierce for glory, she prayed at once for respite to the host of undefeated clans, because her hour of travail was come.
The Ulaid made answer thereupon to the quick brisk dame, big with child, that she should find no grace before the contest from the sworded battalion of famous Line.
Then the nimble bright lady bared herself, and loosened the hair about her head: without fierce cry to urge her she came to the race, to the tourney.
The horses were brought close beside her, to drive them in this wise past the noble lady: for the Ulaid of that keep continually that array of steeds was an evil omen.
Swift though the prince's steeds were among the tribes, met in might, swifter was the woman, unsparing of effort: the king's horses were over-slow.
When she reached the end of the green—noble was her stake, great and famous—she bore twin babes, without respite, before the folk of the Red Branch fort.
A boy and a girl together—through her glorious deed sorrow was their nurse; Fir and Fial were the names of the twins that Grian bore, unsparing of effort.

She leaves a word enduringly upon the pillars of the Red Branch, that in time of war they should be in distress, in anguish and labour-pangs.
The word she uttered then brought distress to the lordly host; it clave to them—it was no occasion for valour—till the ninth of nine lives.
From the reign of Conchobar of Cerna over the strong troops of northern Emain, the ill deed by her imprecation wrought their ruin until the reign of Mal son of Rochraide.
Then the woman died of that sore sickness, 'twas certain, and was buried yonder in solitude in Ard Macha, rich in mead.


They're better in Irish; they're rife with poetic figures, formula and alliteration, all of which helps make them memorable. This is about a woman named Macha; she appeared one day at the home of Cruinn son of Agnoman. She set about making dinner, and stayed with him as his wife. She asks only one thing of him; that he not boast of her.

One day he sees the king's horses race, and says that his wife, great with child, runs faster. The king says bring her and prove this or die. She comes; she races and runs faster than the faster horses, then dies, giving birth to twins. As she dies, she curses the men of Ulster that in their time of war, they will be as weak as a woman in labor; this is the Pangs of the Ulaid.

Beowulf; the poetic meter and the use of oral formulae make it very clear that this was originally an oral epic.

The Slavic epics described by Alfred Lord in Singer of Tales; these are still transmitted orally.

There's three things I've noticed about oral tale traditions; first, a citation "I got this from X," secondly the acknowledgement of alternative versions "Some tells it like this, or [these people] tell it like this . . .," thirdly, the idea that there are proper people to tell and hear a tales "This is a tale the women . . . " and that there are proper times to tell a tale, i.e. not at night, only at night, only at a particular time of year, etc.

And these three things cross cultures and languages, though not all are true of all tale-tellers.

Xelebes
04-19-2014, 08:18 PM
I was watching this (Darkest Austria) and it reminded me of this thread. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3e5mivkXmsc) Warning: it's a spoof of National Geographic and the sort, if you know what I mean, so please watch it at home and not at work.

blacbird
05-05-2014, 02:23 AM
I've never thought that "oral tradition" required being defended. A lot of stuff originating in oral tradition gets into written form for a number of valid reasons, not least of which is that, in today's world, it permits things to be shared much more widely.

A good example of this kind of thing is the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, who transformed the oral tales learned in his childhood Yoruba village into two fantastic "novels", The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. There are many other modern writers who draw upon such material (Sholom Aleichem, Velma Wallis, N. Scott Momaday, James Stephens all come to mind).

And I'm a huge admirer of stories that seem to demand being read aloud. The tale-teller is an immense part of the world's cultural history, of virtually every civilization, and continues to be. What glories have we lost, I wonder, because no written record exists of the tales of the Nazca people, the Olmecs, the Anasazi?

caw

Wilde_at_heart
05-05-2014, 05:43 PM
Would you really call the Anglo-American south a culture of traditional oral storytelling?

If we are talking about the slaves' oral history, then maybe. But the white south was not and is not a culture of oral history. I would differentiate between oral history that is and isn't traditional.

Depends on what the literacy rates were, and the social class people belonged to, wouldn't it?

The main problem with oral history is what if that particular culture is wiped out or significantly altered by later rulers? All that's left gets largely told by the people who took over.

kuwisdelu
05-07-2014, 07:03 AM
The main problem with oral history is what if that particular culture is wiped out or significantly altered by later rulers? All that's left gets largely told by the people who took over.

That's when a little thing called "survivance (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivance)" comes in.

Medievalist
05-08-2014, 08:29 AM
Would you really call the Anglo-American south a culture of traditional oral storytelling?

If we are talking about the slaves' oral history, then maybe. But the white south was not and is not a culture of oral history. I would differentiate between oral history that is and isn't traditional.

Large percentages of White southerners even post Civil war were not literate.

And yes, even if you are literate you can still have oral traditions in various forms, most especially place-name /geographic stories and genealogical stories.

In some cases, there's language-switching, so for instance, various German-speaking religious minorities will switch to various restricted forms of German for some stories.

kuwisdelu
05-08-2014, 09:55 AM
Large percentages of White southerners even post Civil war were not literate.

And yes, even if you are literate you can still have oral traditions in various forms, most especially place-name /geographic stories and genealogical stories.

In some cases, there's language-switching, so for instance, various German-speaking religious minorities will switch to various restricted forms of German for some stories.

I'm curious. Do they also tend follow the three things you described earlier?

Where I'm having trouble is: I'm sure there are oral traditions that originate from earlier cultures of origin, but did a specific oral tradition unique to the American South (across ethnic backgrounds) arise? It seems like an awfully short time for that to be possible, to me, but maybe it was. For example, I'd think the German tradition must originate from Germanic roots, and the oral tradition of slaves must have originated from African roots, or am I wrong?


There's three things I've noticed about oral tale traditions; first, a citation "I got this from X," secondly the acknowledgement of alternative versions "Some tells it like this, or [these people] tell it like this . . .," thirdly, the idea that there are proper people to tell and hear a tales "This is a tale the women . . . " and that there are proper times to tell a tale, i.e. not at night, only at night, only at a particular time of year, etc.

And these three things cross cultures and languages, though not all are true of all tale-tellers.

I hadn't thought about it before, but when you describe it and I started looking for these things, you are right. I start seeing them everywhere, too.

RichardGarfinkle
05-09-2014, 07:49 PM
I'm curious. Do they also tend follow the three things you described earlier?

Where I'm having trouble is: I'm sure there are oral traditions that originate from earlier cultures of origin, but did a specific oral tradition unique to the American South (across ethnic backgrounds) arise? It seems like an awfully short time for that to be possible, to me, but maybe it was. For example, I'd think the German tradition must originate from Germanic roots, and the oral tradition of slaves must have originated from African roots, or am I wrong?

This is an interesting question. It may depend on how long you think something needs to exist for it to become an oral tradition. Organizations and groups of people with common interests tend to acquire their own oral histories and their own customs, sometimes very quickly. And people can very quickly assert that those are the way things are done, and the attitudes people should have.

By way of example, I would point toward SFF fandom which is only a couple of generations old, but is old enough to have people miffed at the changes brought about by younger generations.

Human groups tend to develop private language, customs, and stories at a fairly quick pace. Those tend to be passed on orally more than anything else.

I'm torn as to whether or not there is a qualitative difference between these and the longer scale traditions you focused on when you started this thread. I would argue that they are structurally similar, but rarely as long lived.

I guess my point is that there is a great deal of oral tradition and history that people use all the time, but that they neither notice nor respect that they are doing so.

Medievalist
05-10-2014, 02:14 AM
I'm curious. Do they also tend follow the three things you described earlier?

Yes. Those qualities are so universal, across times, languages, and geographies, that folklorists watch for them, and why modern oral history takers and folklorists are exceedingly careful about how tradition is recorded.

There are for instance, archives at UCLA that only particular classes of people may access, and that was part of the agreement when the tales/histories/songs/rituals were recorded.


Where I'm having trouble is: I'm sure there are oral traditions that originate from earlier cultures of origin, but did a specific oral tradition unique to the American South (across ethnic backgrounds) arise?

Humans form groups. In isolation (geographic, or caused by war, etc.) disparate groups may form new groups, hence the descendants of Scots, Irish, and Germans in rural Appalachia regard themselves as Appalachian first and their ethnicity second.

One might look, in terms of First Nations peoples, at the Comanche, and how their language has evolved from its original shared Shoshone roots to its own not mutually intelligible language.

Or Yiddish, which has been its own language, with written texts that go back to the twelfth century. Or Ladino, which may have an even older written history, I'm not sure.

Or to look at it another way, a Child Ballad called Matty Groves (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matty_Groves), among other names, migrated from the English and Scottish borders to St. Croix in the Virgin islands, probably via the rum/slave triangle.

I strongly suspect that the average person is not going to recognize the Matty Grue song (http://www.allmusic.com/song/matty-gru-mt0007609533) that has been incorporated into local feasts for several generations as a descendent of Matty Groves, one that has been transformed to fit local traditions associated with the cultural indigenous festival and scratch bands (http://www.rounder.com/2011/03/albums/crucian-scratch-band-music).

The songs are kin. But Matty Grue is their song; it's not a Child Ballad.

Another musical instance are all the "who's gonna shoe" songs (http://compvid101.blogspot.com/2011/08/whos-gonna-shoe-your-pretty-little-foot.html).

Farther back, there are songs where no longer living languages are preserved in songs—the ballad version of Sir Orfeo is one; there's a medieval text in several versions, as well as the ballad, but the ballad has a chorus in Norn.

People kept right on singing the ballad, in multiple versions, and eventually about 15 years ago someone found an authentic medieval fragment of it in ms., recognizably the same song.

So cultures adapt, they spread, they exchange, and they evolve.

This is why cultures with religious imperatives—Jews, for instance, or Hutterites in the U.S. West, deliberately maintain their own languages—languages preserve cultures.

kuwisdelu
05-10-2014, 02:21 AM
Humans form groups. In isolation (geographic, or caused by war, etc.) disparate groups may form new groups, hence the descendants of Scots, Irish, and Germans in rural Appalachia regard themselves as Appalachian first and their ethnicity second.

[...]

All of those examples make sense to me.

I was asking more specifically about this...


Look at the wrong information we see about the Civil War, its causes and aftermath. In this particular case the "wisdom" of the Civil War experience is toxic to our current society. Yet some insist we should honor the misguided notions as valid in some way because misguided people believe it to be so.

...which is what I was hesitant to classify as oral tradition.

But would you say Neo-Confederacy has a valid and unique oral tradition?

Pup
05-10-2014, 02:55 AM
...which is what I was hesitant to classify as oral tradition.

But would you say Neo-Confederacy has a valid and unique oral tradition?

When you refer to written history, do you mean things written about something that happened long after the actual occurrence, such as a history of the Civil War written in 1910? Or do you mean only things written down as events were happening or immediately afterwards, such as a letter written in 1862?

If the goal is to figure out what actually happened, I think the weakness of oral tradition is that it's open to alteration due to agendas and influence of a future time period, in the same way that history written long after the fact also is. Any history of the Civil War written in 1910, for example, will be influenced consciously or subconsciously by the Lost Cause, just as the memories of an old man in 1910 telling about the war will also be, and one has to take that into consideration.

Things written at the time will have their own biases of course, but those biases won't be doubly affected by unrelated future social pressure.

Sometimes oral history or history written long after the fact is all the evidence available, but when both written records from the time and written/spoken histories from long afterwards are available for comparison, the later histories often turn out to be full of errors. It's like the old saying: someone with one clock always knows what time it is; someone with two clocks is never sure.

kuwisdelu
05-10-2014, 03:15 AM
Sometimes oral history or history written long after the fact is all the evidence available, but when both written records from the time and written/spoken histories from long afterwards are available for comparison, the later histories often turn out to be full of errors. It's like the old saying: someone with one clock always knows what time it is; someone with two clocks is never sure.

Why I question the validity of Neo-Confederacy as an oral tradition is because I think true oral tradition tends to preserve historical truth as well or better than written history.

For an example of oral history being more reliable than written history (even considering accounts written at the time), consider events like the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

Medievalist
05-10-2014, 04:28 AM
But would you say Neo-Confederacy has a valid and unique oral tradition?

Now, see, here is where I get uncomfortable as someone engaged in preserving oral history—I don't care if it's valid, or true.

I want to preserve is as a potential useful piece of data. It's no my job to pick and choose—it's my job to try to preserve. I do think that the tales we tell, mythological or derived from lived experience, carry data about us. I don't want to pick and choose.

So, for instance, at UCLA we preserved, documented and transcribed audio recordings of Civil rights leaders, and their opponents. We don't label one "true" and one "not-true."

And in terms of stories—here's a thing from written tradition, but the same thing happens in oral tradition and in attempting to transcribe an oral tradition.

The primary Irish national hero, at least in the Middle Ages, was C˙ Chulainn. His birth name was SÚtanta.

I'm truncating the story (and its various versions) brutally, but he travels with his hurley-stick and ball to a gathering at the hostel of the Smith Culann.

Culann's dog was a supernatural protector and patrolled the bounds of the Smith's hostel. He attacked SÚtanta, who killed him. In reparation, SÚtanta offered to be the hound (C˙) of the Smith (Chulainn). Cathbad the druid proclaims that henceforth C˙ Chulainn will be his name.

There are two versions of the tale; the earliest manuscript gives one version—SÚtanta smashed the dog agains a pillar stone (a boundary marker) and then notes, roughly, that there's another version, in which SÚtanta kills the dog by hurling his ball down the dog's throat.

Neither version is privileged or prioritized. Both are presented. I've heard many many tale-tellers in several languages do this kind of thing.

Pup
05-10-2014, 05:02 AM
Why I question the validity of Neo-Confederacy as an oral tradition is because I think true oral tradition tends to preserve historical truth as well or better than written history.

The problem is that that leads to a "no true Scottsman" definition. If it's more accurate, it's true oral tradition. If it's not, it's something other than oral tradition.

Imagine, though, if we had no other evidence of the Civil War other than neo-Confederate stories passed down in families--no writing, no archaelogy, no photographs or drawings made at the time. How would we know those stories weren't accurately preserving what happened?


For an example of oral history being more reliable than written history (even considering accounts written at the time), consider events like the Massacre at Wounded Knee.

I haven't done any research on such events, so can't comment specifically. Today, we have no way of knowing what actually happened during any historic event except by examining a totality of the surviving evidence, so if two pieces of evidence contradict, we need some way to decide between them if we declare one to be more accurate.

I'm guessing that one can tell which account of a massacre is more accurate through archaelogical or physical evidence?

Or perhaps by showing that independent accounts written at the time don't match the way they should? That's one way to falsify contemporary written sources which is difficult with later oral tradition, because it's hard to find several separate oral traditions that could not possibly have influenced each other.

kuwisdelu
05-10-2014, 05:12 AM
The problem is that that leads to a "no true Scottsman" definition. If it's more accurate, it's true oral tradition. If it's not, it's something other than oral tradition.

I'm not saying it's infallible. That's silly. But I am differentiating between oral tradition and an oral account.


Or perhaps by showing that independent accounts written at the time don't match the way they should? That's one way to falsify contemporary written sources which is difficult with later oral tradition, because it's hard to find several separate oral traditions that could not possibly have influenced each other.

The point of an oral tradition is that it is a living history, so why would an earlier written account be more valid than the oral story that's been passed down? Simply because one is written and the other isn't?

Medievalist
05-10-2014, 09:20 AM
then there's things like this:

Follow the Drinking Gourd (http://www.followthedrinkinggourd.org/Collection_Story.htm)

blacbird
05-10-2014, 10:38 AM
the oral tradition of slaves must have originated from African roots, or am I wrong?

A major reason for the "oral tradition" of American slaves must surely be that they were forbidden, by law, to learn to read and write. They developed distinct American cultural roots over two centuries or so, and Joel Chandler Harris, in particular, drew on that story-telling heritage for his "Uncle Remus" tales. Later African-American writers such as Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston certainly were influenced by that oral tradition.

caw

Pup
05-10-2014, 01:34 PM
The point of an oral tradition is that it is a living history, so why would an earlier written account be more valid than the oral story that's been passed down? Simply because one is written and the other isn't?

You seem to be talking about something different than using evidence to try to figure out what actually happened at a certain place and time. That's what I mean by history.

I don't know what you mean by "living history" or "valid" in that context. My initial reaction, based most likely on misunderstanding what you mean, is that living means changing. Like the game of telephone, the more something is retold, the more that slight changes are introduced, and the less valid it will be as evidence, because the future people adding or subtracting details weren't at the event and therefore aren't basing their changes on any knowledge of what happened.

I get what Medievalist was saying above, that the oral stories themselves are raw data. If the history question is about 1950: "How were people remembering this 1850 event in 1950?" then a recording of someone telling a story in 1950 would be ironclad evidence to support an answer.

If the history question is about 1850: "What actually happened at this 1850 event?" the recording would be only one piece of evidence that could easily be overturned if something more reliable--archaelogical evidence, for example--turned up.

If the same oral tradition was transcribed in 1920 and contained differences from the 1950 version, each would be indisputable evidence for how the story was being told in those eras (barring transcription errors, influence caused by the interviewer, etc.), but both would be weaker evidence for what actually happened in 1850 because both couldn't be literally true if some details contradicted each other.

When people are skeptical of oral tradition and want to corroborate it with other primary sources, I'm assuming they're referring to the second question (what happened in 1850) and not the first (how was the event remembered in 1950).

RichardGarfinkle
05-10-2014, 02:12 PM
I'm not saying it's infallible. That's silly. But I am differentiating between oral tradition and an oral account.



The point of an oral tradition is that it is a living history, so why would an earlier written account be more valid than the oral story that's been passed down? Simply because one is written and the other isn't?

I don't want to get too far into the Neo-Confederate stuff because of my blood pressure, but if you have any two cultures with a history of warring with each other both are likely to have strongly biased oral traditions about the others and about their battles.

Those traditions will most likely be biased, selective, and combine self-glorification with contempt for the other culture. From a historical perspective both of these oral are useful oral histories without either being the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Every culture biases its histories, usually in a manner that makes them look good. Some of those biases are so far out of reality that they amount to self-aggrandizing propaganda, but I doubt any of them are golden-rule honest about themselves and other peoples around them.

kuwisdelu
05-11-2014, 02:29 AM
I don't know what you mean by "living history" or "valid" in that context. My initial reaction, based most likely on misunderstanding what you mean, is that living means changing. Like the game of telephone, the more something is retold, the more that slight changes are introduced, and the less valid it will be as evidence, because the future people adding or subtracting details weren't at the event and therefore aren't basing their changes on any knowledge of what happened.

The comparison to the "game of telephone" is inaccurate bias about what oral tradition actually is.

That is one of the differences between oral tradition and what might merely be an oral account.

Rhetorical devices and ritual practices are used to preserve the original meaning and original truth. It's not like a "game of telephone" at all.

That's what makes it "living".


I get what Medievalist was saying above, that the oral stories themselves are raw data. If the history question is about 1950: "How were people remembering this 1850 event in 1950?" then a recording of someone telling a story in 1950 would be ironclad evidence to support an answer.

As I've pointed out above though, oral tradition does not answer the question "how are people remembering this 1850 event in 1950". We are talking not about personal memory, but about cultural memory, which is something shared by those who originally experienced the event. In your example, oral tradition answers the question "how was the event experienced by those who lived it".

kuwisdelu
05-11-2014, 02:31 AM
Those traditions will most likely be biased, selective, and combine self-glorification with contempt for the other culture. From a historical perspective both of these oral are useful oral histories without either being the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Every culture biases its histories, usually in a manner that makes them look good. Some of those biases are so far out of reality that they amount to self-aggrandizing propaganda, but I doubt any of them are golden-rule honest about themselves and other peoples around them.

Yes, but those biases are no less true of written history and written accounts, yet one is often treated as more accurate and more objective.

RichardGarfinkle
05-11-2014, 03:29 AM
Yes, but those biases are no less true of written history and written accounts, yet one is often treated as more accurate and more objective.

I'm not disputing that. I was inquiring after the distinction you were making about oral history needing to be true.

kuwisdelu
05-11-2014, 03:45 AM
I'm not disputing that. I was inquiring after the distinction you were making about oral history needing to be true.

Sorry, I was trying to make a distinction between oral tradition and an informal oral account, where the former employs formal rhetorical and ritual methods that allow it to retain its original accuracy far better than a haphazard game of telephone. I was doing a poor job of it.

Pup
05-11-2014, 04:11 AM
Sorry, I was trying to make a distinction between oral tradition and an informal oral account, where the former employs formal rhetorical and ritual methods that allow it to retain its original accuracy far better than a haphazard game of telephone.

How does one know what degree of accuracy is retained? The usual way of judging the accuracy of something is to compare it to other corroborating evidence and if it matches that other corroborating evidence, then one can have more confidence that the parts which cannot be corroborated are also true.

I have a feeling, though, that this thread is about the problem of doing just that, because if one has faith in oral tradition, one must assume it trumps even strong "other evidence" such as in the discussion of pre-Columbian horses here (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=8858580#post8858580).

kuwisdelu
05-11-2014, 04:13 AM
How does one know what degree of accuracy is retained? The usual way of judging the accuracy of something is to compare it to other corroborating evidence and if it matches that other corroborating evidence, then one can have more confidence that the parts which cannot be corroborated are also true.

I have a feeling, though, that this thread is about the problem of doing just that, because if one has faith in oral tradition, one must assume it trumps even strong "other evidence" such as in the discussion of pre-Columbian horses here (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?p=8858580#post8858580).

I'm not saying it trumps other kinds of evidence. I'm saying written evidence does not trump it.

Basically, I'm arguing for equality between the literary and oral traditions.

The historical record versus the scientific record is a completely different matter.

(Written history and oral history are both history; neither are scientific.)

Russell Secord
05-25-2014, 02:54 AM
The thing about writing stuff down is, once it's written, it doesn't change. People have to adapt. Books that don't hold up tend to disappear.

A recent study found that, when you take a picture of something, you tend to remember less about it. I would guess the same is true of words. When most people in a culture can't write, they have to depend on their own memories.

A book I read recently mentioned that people used to take manuscripts from the Library at Alexandria and burn them for fuel. The point was about the loss of ancient knowledge. Writing isn't a guarantee that wisdom will survive.

milkweed
05-25-2014, 04:03 AM
Are we including mythology in this discussion as well? Myths seem to be overlook when it comes to history particularly in cultures that value the written word over oral history. Which in turn means myths and other things that don't make up "true" history by western standards are dying out as the elders who are the main source of this information die out.

I don't think imparting wisdom by oral tradition in for example the form of old negro spirituals that lot's of older black people were taught as kids is invalid. Likewise I feel myths,fables, and legends from other cultures have great valueand wisdom. All those things are a form of history to me.

Because someone decides to write a book on the history of such a plant by such peoples doesn't mean said history didn't exist before it was written down. It did, even if "just" in the oral sense which is why it was worth writting about in the first place.

there also lies the fallacy of written language. What defines a written language, and who does the defining???

Many indigenous peoples did in fact have a written language, it just wasn't written the way western europeans were accustomed to seeing. I'm mi'kmaq and we have/had a written language before the euro's landed in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Other cultures use story sticks, story stones, etc., the keeping of these stories, and their accuracy, was considered an honor and a priviledge in many cultures. And like kuwisdelu the wisdom that was handed down with said priviledges.

milkweed
05-25-2014, 04:07 AM
The problem is incorrect history is written as well.

And this is because history is often written by the victor, not the guy whose culture just got trashed by the invading hordes of whomever!

C.bronco
05-25-2014, 06:14 AM
Beowulf was passed down orally long before it was written. We have to look at oral tradition for what it is, like a testimony of one person's perspectuve. If we view it in context, discerningly, it does not mean we can't learn something from it. Historic matters would be the same. Typing with a wii remote is hard.

milkweed
05-25-2014, 06:27 AM
Beowulf was passed down orally long before it was written. We have to look at oral tradition for what it is, like a testimony of one person's perspectuve. If we view it in context, discerningly, it does not mean we can't learn something from it. Historic matters would be the same. Typing with a wii remote is hard.

AND likewise the written word is one persons perspective! See what I did there???:evil Just because it's written down does NOT make it truth!

kuwisdelu
05-25-2014, 06:32 AM
We have to look at oral tradition for what it is, like a testimony of one person's perspectuve.

That is a fallacy, though. (To be clear again, I am not saying it is infallible.) Oral tradition is not the same as oral testimony. It is not the same as expressing one's perspective. Oral tradition relies on ritual and rhetoric methods to ensure the integrity of what is passed on. Within a tradition, there may be ways to experiment and introduce new elements, but continuance and an unbroken connection between past, present, and future are still very much central to any such tradition.

C.bronco
05-25-2014, 06:36 AM
What? You don't believe everything you read?

Anywho, I think that when anything is written, more people have the opportunity to contest it because the audience is larger.

C.bronco
05-25-2014, 06:41 AM
Kw I see your distinction and understand the point. In the end, it might come down to seeing fact or seeing the big picture.

Pup
05-25-2014, 03:02 PM
Within a tradition, there may be ways to experiment and introduce new elements, but continuance and an unbroken connection between past, present, and future are still very much central to any such tradition.

The bolded part is to me the key difference. Once one verifies that a written account is not a later forgery, one can be certain it hasn't been changed in the decades or centuries after it was written, and one can be certain the person's writing wasn't influenced by anything that would happen later.

RichardGarfinkle
05-25-2014, 06:12 PM
That is a fallacy, though. (To be clear again, I am not saying it is infallible.) Oral tradition is not the same as oral testimony. It is not the same as expressing one's perspective. Oral tradition relies on ritual and rhetoric methods to ensure the integrity of what is passed on. Within a tradition, there may be ways to experiment and introduce new elements, but continuance and an unbroken connection between past, present, and future are still very much central to any such tradition.

Kuwi, it might help to elaborate on the methods used. Most people these days are unfamiliar with the particular techniques of preserving and presenting oral tradition.

I'm also personally interested as I'm only familiar with the Art of Memory as practiced in Medieval Europe and not any other cultures methods.

kuwisdelu
05-25-2014, 07:58 PM
The bolded part is to me the key difference. Once one verifies that a written account is not a later forgery, one can be certain it hasn't been changed in the decades or centuries after it was written, and one can be certain the person's writing wasn't influenced by anything that would happen later.

That's fair. Another way of saying that is that oral traditions tend to keep history alive, while in written accounts history is relegated to the past. That can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, though.

An advantage is that keeping a living history through oral tradition tends to preserve context better. Because it is kept alive through people rather than paper and ink, it often provides a greater opportunity to ask questions about it and have them answered. It's harder to have a conversation with a dusty tome.


Kuwi, it might help to elaborate on the methods used. Most people these days are unfamiliar with the particular techniques of preserving and presenting oral tradition.

Lisa mentioned a few of them, such as the ritualized practices of only telling some stories at particular times of the year or at certain places or to certain people. In Zuni, tales must be told during the winter, while true stories can be told all year round.

There is also the acknowledgement of other versions, and often this can come with an implicit understanding of how the versions relate to one another. For example, many versions of our creation story exist, but they all draw upon certain versions that are considered to be the "official" versions. In addition to humans, different kachinas tell different versions of it, and the "most official" version is the one told by Kiaklo, who is the keeper of our history. While other versions may introduce variation, this version never changes, except maybe to include recent history. (An interesting cultural note is that we don't call it a "creation" story or differentiate it from the rest of history. Any history or "true" story can be considered to be a part of the same story, as a continuance from the beginning of time. There is no significant difference between the past of a thousand years ago and the past of yesterday. Both are equally connected to each other and to the present day and the future.)

Many oral traditions call upon poetic devices. Or rather, many of what we now consider poetic techniques can trace their origins to oral tradition. These greatly depend on the language, so it's hard to generalize. European examples can be found, for example, in Homer and Beowulf. You see the use of rhythm and meter: Homer being written in dactylic hexameter, for example.

In other traditions (depending on the language) it may be more difficult to characterize meter, but it's not uncommon for oral tradition to come in the form of song or forms that are chanted. Even when it is simply spoken, there is usually a rhythm, and everything from timing of pauses and volume become significant.

Other techniques include repetitions (saying the same thing multiple times for emphasis) and motifs of re-phrasing, such as use of synecdoche and metonymy. Repetition and re-phrasing key ideas multiple times or in multiple ways is a very common technique.

There are often ritualized beginnings and openings and transitions between sections. Homeric tradition begins with invocation of the gods or muses, for example. Likewise, Zuni stories begin and end with set phrases, which also indicate the kind of story (tale or history, etc.), and variations on these set phrases can also say something about the story. For example, one might tell a true story in the style of a tale, or a tale in the style of a true story, and this would be evident in the way it is told.

Similar to many traditions of poetry (or rather, poetry inherits these attributes), there is often an extensive lexicon of set phrases and words that represent meaning. There are metaphors and imagery that are understood to represent specific things or actions. This can be found everywhere from (relatively) modern poetry to Biblical stories to ancient oral traditions around the world, where meaning is preserved through elaborate ritual shorthand, and knowledge of the ritual language is often necessary to fully understand what is being said.

milkweed
05-25-2014, 07:58 PM
Kuwi, it might help to elaborate on the methods used. Most people these days are unfamiliar with the particular techniques of preserving and presenting oral tradition.

I'm also personally interested as I'm only familiar with the Art of Memory as practiced in Medieval Europe and not any other cultures methods.

I mentioned a couple in the form of story sticks, some NA groups used a series of shells and stones and other objects as mechanisms that trigger the story memory. I think it's in south america where they have a series of cords with knots upon the cords that relate to each story.

Or did you have something else in mind?

RichardGarfinkle
05-25-2014, 08:11 PM
I mentioned a couple in the form of story sticks, some NA groups used a series of shells and stones and other objects as mechanisms that trigger the story memory. I think it's in south america where they have a series of cords with knots upon the cords that relate to each story.

Or did you have something else in mind?

Nothing specific, but it can be hard for people in reading-centric cultures like ours to understand how much is possible with memory and oral story-telling and related arts. I figured it would make the discussion clearer if some of the techniques were elaborated.

The abstract discussion of such techniques goes only so far to comminicate how this is done.

kuwisdelu
05-25-2014, 09:05 PM
Here are a few more in-depth examples specific to Zuni oral tradition, taken from Zuni Ritual Poetry by Ruth Bunzel.


There are regular stereotyped phrases for all things commonly alluded to in prayer. The sun always "comes out standing to his sacred place," "night priests draw their dark curtain," the corn plants "stretch out their hands to all directions calling for rain," the meal painting on an altar is always "our house of massed clouds," prayer sticks are "clothed in our grandfather, turkey's, robe of cloud." Events are always described in terms of these stereotypes, which are often highly imaginative and poetic.[2] These fixed metaphors are the outstanding feature of Zu˝i poetic style. There are not very many of them; they are used over and over again, the same imagery appearing repeatedly in one prayer. A prayer recorded by Cushing more than 50 years ago contains all of the same stereotypes and no turns of expression different from those in use to-day. A comparison of Cushing's texts[3] with mine shows a rigidity of style in oral tradition.

This is specifically referring to prayer, but the same techniques form the basis of non-sacred oral tradition. I would note that most stories are characterized by plain language rather than the colorful language in this example. This is meaningful, however. Colorful metaphors are limited to key set phrases that reappear throughout all stories and prayers and tales.


The sentence structure is that of continued narrative in the hands of a particularly able story-teller. Zu˝i is a language that is very sensitive to skillful handling. Oratory is a recognized art, and prayer is one of the occasions on which oratory is used. The best prayers run to long periods-the longer the better, since clarity of expression is not necessary, nor particularly desirable.

Zu˝i, like Latin, is a highly inflected language and can handle effectively involved sentences that can not be managed intelligibly in English. These features, which are difficult enough of translation in prose, are emphasized in the poetry. The long period is a characteristic feature. The typical Zu˝i word order is subject, object, verb; the verb always holding the final position. The usual method of expressing temporal or causal subordination is by means of participial or gerundive clauses, fully inflected, preceding the principal proposition. These participial clauses are impossible in English. In the translation it has been necessary, therefore, to break up the original sentences. Thereby an important and effective stylistic feature is unavoidably lost. But the reader should think of the Zu˝i sentences rolling on like the periods of a Ciceronian oration to their final close.

Linguistics and grammatical structure is a key rhetoric device that can be exploited for power, emphasis, and ensure the memorability and continued integrity of a story. Again, repetition and re-phrasing of actions in multiple ways is a common technique.


It has been impossible, of course, to render the original rhythm. One characteristic feature, however, has been retained, namely, its irregularity, the unsymmetrical alternation of long and short lines. Cushing, in his commendable desire to render Zu˝i verse into vivid and intelligible English verse, committed the inexcusable blunder of reducing the Zu˝i line to regular short-line rhymed English stanzas. If one were to choose a familiar English verse form it should be the line of Milton or, better still, the free verse of the King James version of the psalms. I have tried to retain the sense in the original of the fluidity and variety of the verse form. In reading the translations one must be mindful of Zu˝i methods of declamation. The short lines are declaimed slowly and with marked emphasis, the long lines are spoken rapidly, unaccented syllables are slurred or elided, and the word accents pile up on each other. The two types of line are like the booming of the surf and the rushing of the brook.

Zu˝i poetry has no feminine endings.[5] The heavy accent with noticeable lengthening on the final syllable can not be transferred to English. The translation therefore suffers greatly from loss of sonority and vigor. In the original every line is like the declaration of a creed--an effect which no translation can adequately render. It is interesting to note that although the natural cadence of Zu˝i is trochaic, the poetic rhythm is predominantly iambic. The principal word accent in Zu˝i is invariably on the first syllable, with a secondary accent, in words of four or more syllables, on the penult. The final syllable is always unaccented, yet the important poetic stress is always on the final syllable of the line, which gives the verse a curious syncopated quality, very difficult of reproduction. The final syllable is usually distinguished by prolongation and a high falling tone.

Again, rhythm and meter are a strong part of oral tradition. This can be found in Western examples such as Homer and Beowulf, and can still be found in oral traditions around the world that have not been written down. Like structure, the use of rhythm and meter can be used for emphasis and meaning and to aid in recalling the story.

Ethnopoetics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnopoetics) is a field that attempts to capture some of these techniques of oral tradition in written form.

An example can be found here (http://books.google.com/books?id=fu0kdYjXt4YC&lpg=PA122&pg=PA65#v=onepage&q&f=false), in transcribing the telling of a traditional Zuni tale.

And here (http://books.google.com/books?id=WIy5tQXzHCYC&lpg=PA7&ots=ZQQHLMXH9N&dq=sayatasha's%20night%20chant&pg=PA7#v=onepage&q=sayatasha's%20night%20chant&f=false) is an example of a Zuni prayer, many of which can take an hour or more to recite from memory.

Medievalist
05-25-2014, 09:46 PM
Google "Oral formulaic composition," with the caveat that oral formulas work/exist in prose tales too.

Key names:
Milman Parry -- analyzed Homer in the Greek and discovered metrical formulaic metaphors/conceits i.e. "rosy-fingered dawn"
Albert Lord -- analyzed traditional Serbian oral epics s.v. Singer of Tales
Francis P. Macgoun -- Old English poetic formulae, i.e. litotes and kennings
John Miles -- a folklorist and student of Lord -- see http://oraltradition.org

There are traditional tale-tellers, SeanchaÝ, in Ireland who tell stories in Gaelic; these include songs/poetic pieces in the tales and rely on highly elaborate "runs" that use formulas to describe action.

Oral formulae are a pre-built library of phrases, metaphors, conceits. The serve to fill in the meter, to make memorization easier, and to aid in on the spot creation.

Dave.C.Robinson
06-14-2014, 01:29 AM
I'm not saying it trumps other kinds of evidence. I'm saying written evidence does not trump it.

Basically, I'm arguing for equality between the literary and oral traditions.

The historical record versus the scientific record is a completely different matter.

(Written history and oral history are both history; neither are scientific.)

I see your point about the importance of oral history, but I think written history is given more weight in many cases because it can be verified in a way that was impossible with oral history until relatively recently.

As an example, consider both an oral and a written history of a given event, both initially composed at the same time (let's say 200 years ago).

If we have the original written document from that date, we can know that it hasn't changed. It may or may not be accurate, it may be biased, but we know it is fixed.

When it comes to an oral tradition, regardless of its accuracy, we cannot perform the same cross-check. Without a time machine, there is no way of verifying that the words heard today are identical to those heard 200 years ago.

Its constancy can't be verified in the same way, so we can't prove it hasn't changed. That's not to say it has, but simply that it's impossible to prove it hasn't in the same way that you can prove a document from the era has remained unchanged.