Oral Literatures, Verbal Arts, Oral History and Folklore: Contested Terminologies of Orality and New Pluralism

Oral Literature, Verbal Arts, Oral History and Folklore are generalizing and unifying definitions involving a high degree of abstraction from the specific —performed— examples. This degree of abstraction raises questions concerning the translation and adequacy of such terms in other languages and according to other forms of definition, perception, and understanding of a prayer, a song, a curse, a slogan or a narrative and their contexts of production. Why should we categorize Ewe gbedodoɖa prayers, Tuareg emay tales, and Dar es Salaam hip–hop under the unifying label of Oral Literature or Verbal Art, Folklore or Oral History? Moreover, all these generalizing terms —framed in the interpretative field of Orality— have been contested as they carry past debates in an array of disciplines. In the last decennium, however, disciplinary divides have given way to flexible and unorthodox approaches that recognized the centrality of individual performance whether innovating on, diverging or proceeding from knowledge and forms inherited from the past. As a consequence, the definitions mentioned above, although roughly indicating research focuses and disciplinary fields, have progressively integrated criticisms and findings of the previous decades. As the Verba Africana series springs from the generous cooperation of researchers specialized in different (inter-) disciplinary fields, we have opted for the pluralism of definitions respecting the individual articles’ choice. In the general sections, the definitions Oral Literature and Verbal Arts are used interchangeably.

Folklore as aterm started to be used in the mid-19th century, as a substitute for the term Popular Antiquities. Folklore studies as a discipline developed in the framework of cultural evolutionism sprouting from the biological evolutionism of Charles Darwin in the course of the 19th century. Cultural evolutionism applied the idea of biological evolution from the simplest form to the most complex one in the sphere of cultures and peoples. The ‘revolutionary’ idea of evolutionists such as James Frazer (1854-1941) and Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) was that they found examples of the cultural developments of mankind in the present time. And where? In the ‘relicts’ of previous cultural stages that they thought to recognize in the ‘lore’ of the rural population. In the early studies, ‘folklore’ was intended as the whole of the intellectual and material artifacts of popular classes (popular antiquities or folk-lore) passed on from past stages and opposed to the bourgeois ‘high’ culture as expressed in the arts and the new scientific and technological knowledge emerging in 19th century urban Europe. Folklore was thus characterized as ‘low’, ‘popular’, ‘oral’, ‘collective’, ‘repetitive’ and ‘traditional’ in opposition to the norm given by (bourgeois) arts, literature and science qualified as ‘high’, ‘elitist’, ‘written’, ‘individualistic’, ‘innovative’ and ‘modern’. The concept of tradition, as ‘lore’ handed down from the past centuries to the present, in a chain of enduring oral transmission from elders to youngsters, epitomized the other qualifications and constituted the central feature of folklore. In the wave of the Romantic Movement, folklore was also seen as reflecting the (unifying and monolithical) national soul, character and mentality.

When the folklorists directed their gaze outside Europe, they believed to find examples of the hypothesized human stages in Africa, Asia and the Americas. Verbal productions, especially in the form of tales, were investigated as exemplary expression of the (so-called primitive) mentality of the studied peoples. Attention was paid to similarities in narrative motives and types and such similarities were explained in terms of either cultural stages or diffusionism. Little attention was paid to the functional and artistic aspects of verbal productions. In more recent times, folklorists have largely abandoned the ideas of cultural evolutionism and acquired a more innovating approach to oral productions as they recognize the individual artistic component and the negotiations that inform and change ‘tradition’ in time.

The term ‘folklore’ has sometimes been limited to verbal expressions (myths, legends, poems etc.), also indicated as Oral Traditions, but it is still often used to refer to the whole of cultural artifacts. See the Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore on the Unesco portal: &“Folklore (or traditional and popular culture) is the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community (...) Its forms are, among others, language, literature, music, dance, games, mythology, rituals, customs, handicrafts, architecture and other arts” (http://portal.unesco.org). An alternative terminology is that of Popular Culture that brings along problems of its own.

“Oral Traditions became sources” for historical investigation in the field of study defined as Oral History (Vansina 1978: 63). Oral History refers to two intersecting fields of research. On the one hand, we have the recording of oral testimonies of witnesses whether to substantiate written historical sources with personal details (usually on ‘important’ events and characters) or to counter the written history of the ‘elites’ with the experiences and perspectives of the un-heard classes and populations (as in the recordings of participants in the maji maji insurrection in Tanzania, often ignored in official accounts and historiographical reconstructions). On the other hand, Oral History refers to ‘oral traditions’ seen (and investigated) as historically valid materials (Vansina 1961). Folklorists saw myths and folktales as a mix of fantasy and unverifiable accounts of past events; oral historians believed that such materials expressed historical recounting and data. In the latter approach, &“chronology is perhaps the single greatest weakness of oral traditions” according to Vansina (1978: 73). This field of research has been much more debated. Oral historians try to disentangle witnesses’ accounts (investigated as ‘truthful’ historical data) from ‘distortions’ also present in oral creation stories, epics and genealogies. Critics of this approach think that oral materials, when approached as historical sources, are perceived as a ‘minor’ form of historiography, lacking the precision and scientific dimension of history as a product of historiography. These critics, on the contrary, believe that although oral historians can try to detect historiographical information, oral materials do not aim at ‘making history’ in the way the historians do, but have their own function, logic and aim(s).

Rejecting the centrality attributed to ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional lore’, a number of scholars used or introduced definitions such as Oral Literature, Verbal Art, and Orature. All these terms underline the fact that oral materials not only pass on from elders to youngsters (as in folklore), recount past events and un-heard voices (as in oral history) or tackle and construct the fundamental tenets of society (as in anthropological approaches), but also work and should be understood in their performative, artistic, and entertainment genre system(s) (Finnegan 1970, Okpewho 1992).

Oral Literature is a widely used but highly debated term as well. Critics of this term find ‘oral literature’ an unacceptable concept because it is etymologically linked to writing (literature derives from littera, letter, in Latin), what would express the researchers’ incomprehension of orality as mode of cultural production because of their own ethnocentric model of written activities (see Ong 1982). On the contrary, students of ‘oral literature’ emphasize the central role of individual artistry and entertainment in oral narratives, songs and poems as well as the existent continuity in the whole field of ‘oral and written literatures’, and oppose the dichotomy between orality and literacy established by the critics of the term ‘oral literature’ — a dichotomy defined as ‘the great divide’ and interpreted as biased by an ethnocentric approach (Finnegan 1973). Orature was introduced by the Ugandan scholar Pio Zirimu as a viable alternative to ‘oral literature’, but this term has seen limited diffusion.

The folklorist R.W. Bascom (1955) introduced the definition ‘Verbal Art’ referring to the verbal material usually included in the more general term ‘folklore’. This definition is widely used in all disciplines, although a number of scholars criticize the emphasis put on ‘art’: ‘esthetics’ is not always the main trait culturally attributed to — for example — a prayer, a meditation, a religious story. This term has been mostly used in the anthropological and linguistic approach known as ethnopoetics.


Finnegan, R., 1973, 'Literacy versus non-literacy: the great divide?' In R. Horton and R. Finnegan (Eds.) Modes of Thought, Essays on Thinking in Western and Non-Western Societies, Faber and Faber, London, pp. 112-144. Ong, W., Orality and Literacy: the technologizing of the word, Methuen Press, New York, 1982. Okpewho, I., African Oral Literature, Indian UP, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1992. Vansina, J., 'Oral Tradition, Oral History: Achievements and Perspectives', in Fonti Orali, Oral Sources, Sources Orales, B.Bernardi, C.Poni and A.Triulzi (Eds.), Franco Angeli, Milan, 1978, pp. 59-74. Vansina, J., Oral Tradition. A Study in Historical Methodology, Chicago and London, Aldine and Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961 (first publ. as De la tradition orale: Essai de méthode historique). See also revised version Oral Tradition as History, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1985.