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How oral is oral literature?

  • Ruth Finnegan

The study of oral literature is among the many areas to which Wilfred Whiteley made an important contribution. He was one of the founder editors of the extensive ‘Oxford Library of African Literature’, and played an essential part in both the development of the study of African oral literature and the maintenance of scholarly standards through generous encouragement and informed advice to colleagues and students working in this area. His primary interest was in Africa but, with his background in Classical studies and his continuing co-operatioii with American folklorists, he also took a wide comparative approach to oral literature. It is appropriate therefore to devote this paper, in a volume in his memory, to some comments on one aspect of oral literature viewed in a comparative context.

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1 At any rate, I am not intending to argue the point here.

2 There is not space to illustrate the statement fully here, but some examples can be found in one form or another in, e.g., Leach, M. and Coffin, T. P. (ed.), The critics and the ballad, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1961, esp. p. 7; Buchan, D., The ballad and the folk, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972, esp. ch. iii.

3 Goody, J., Literacy in traditional societies, Cambridge, University Press, 1968, 45.

4 Kagame, A, La poésie dynastique au Rwanda, Bruxelles, Institut Royal Colonial Beige, 1951, 24.

5 Best, E., The Maori school of learning (Dominion Museum Monograph 6), Wellington, 1923.

6 Chadwick, N. K. and Zhirmunsky, V., Oral epics of Central Asia, Cambridge, University Press, 1969, 330 ff.

7 Knott, E., Irish classical poetry, Dublin, Colm Ó Lochlainn, 1957, 43.

8 Johnston, H. A. S., A selection of Hausa stories, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966, p. xlix.

9 Adali-Mortty, G., ‘Ewe poetry’, in Beier, U. (ed.), Introduction to African literature, London, Longmans, 1967, 3.

10 Pinto, V. de Sola and Rodway, A. E., The common muse: popular British ballad poetry from the 15th to the 20th century, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1965, 20.

11 Savory, P., Fireside tales from the north, Cape Town, Timmins, 1966, 11.

12 Richmond, W. E., ‘Some effects of scribal and typographical error on oral tradition’, in Leach, and Coffin, (ed.), The critics and the ballad, 225.

13 Hiskett, M., ‘The “Song of Bagauda”: a Hausa king list and homily in verse’, BSOAS, xxvII, 3, 1964, 540–67; XXVIII, 1, 1965, 112–35; XXVIII, 2, 1965, 363–85.

14 See e.g. Werner, A., ‘Swahili poetry’, BSOS, I, 2, 1918, 113–27; Harris, L., Swahili poetry, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1962, 35; Whiteley, W. H., The dialects and verse of Pemba, Kampala, East African Swahili Committee, 1958.

15 Dolězelová-Velingerová, M. and Crump, J. I. (tr.), Ballad of the hidden dragon (Liu Chih-yüan chu-kung-tiao), Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1971, 2.

16 Stein, R. A., Recherches sur l'épopée et le barde au Tibet, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1959, esp. ch. iii.

17 Lord, A. B., The singer of tales, New York, Atheneum, 1965, 79.

18 Subotić, D., Yugoslav popular ballads, their origin and development, Cambridge, University Press, 1923, 90.

19 UNESCO Statistical Yearbook, 1971, [pub.] 1972.

20 Crosby, Ruth, ‘Oral delivery in the Middle Ages’, Speculum, xi, 1, 1936, 90, 93.

21 Finnegan, B., Oral literature in Africa, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1970, 50–1, 169 ff.

22 , I. and Opie, P., The lore and language of schoolchildren, 1959, and The Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes, 1951, both published by Clarendon Press, Oxford.

23 Fowke, E., Lumbering songs from the northern woods, Austin and London, University of Texas Press, 1970.

24 As in Colm (Ó Loohlainn's collection (Irish street ballads, New York, Corinth Books, 1960).

25 Curschmann, M., ‘Oral poetry in mediaeval English, French and German literature: some notes on recent research’, Speculum, XLII, 1, 1967, p. 51, n. 51.

26 Crosby, , art. oit., 100 ff.

27 Doleželová-Velingerová, and Crump, , op. cit., 8.

28 See, e.g., Horovitz, M. (ed.), Children of Albion: poetry of the ‘Underground’ in Britain, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969, esp. the concluding essay (’ Afterwords') by Horovitz, M., 316ff.

29 Quoted in Horovitz, , op. cit., 358.

30 Lord, , op. cit., 5.

31 op. cit., p. 280, n. 9.

32 Lord is very confident about his own definition: ‘we now know exactly what is meant by these terms [“oral poet” and “oral poems”], at least insofar as manner of composition is concerned’ (op. cit., 141).

33 Rasmussen, K., The Netsilik Eskimos. Social life and spiritual culture (Report of Fifth Thule Expedition 1921–4, VIII, 1–2), Copenhagen, Gyldendal, 1931, 320.

34 Grimble, A., Return to the islands, London, Murray, 1957, 200, 204–5.

35 Jones, A. M., African music (Rhodes-Livingstone Museum Occasional Paper 2), 1943, 11ff.; Tracey, H. T., Chopi musicians, London, Oxford University Press for the International African Institute, 1948, 2 ff.

36 e.g. the assumption by some of its adherents that the test for a medieval or Classical text being ‘oral’ is an ‘oral-formulaic’ style. As has been pointed out forcefully in some recent publications, formulaic styles also occur in written texts (see, e.g., Curschmann, , art. cit., 44 ff., and esp. 50–1; Benson, L. D., ‘The literary character of Anglo-Saxon formulaic poetry’, Publications of the Modern Language Association, LXXXI, 5, 1966, 334–41).

37 Wright, D. (tr.), Beowulf: a prose translation, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1957, 21.

38 As distinct from plots or motifs (which, in themselves, do not constitute a piece of literature) or perhaps particular styles or genres.

39 Though not all scholars would accept it as the most significant criterion. Lord for instance excludes ‘poetry… written to be recited.… What is important is not the oral performance but rather the composition during oral performance’, op. cit., 5.

40 e.g. Dronke, P., The medieval lyric, London, Hutchinson, 1968, 20 ff.

41 Knott, E. and Murphy, G., Early Irish literature, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966, 64.

42 Wilkinson, R. J., Malay literature, Kuala Lumpur, FMS Government Press, 1924, 40.

43 Doleželová-Velingerová, and Crump, , op. cit., 2, 8.

44 Crosby, , art. cit., 110, 100.

45 Whiteley, W. H. (comp.), A selection of African prose, I. Traditional oral texts, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1964, 107.

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Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies
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  • EISSN: 1474-0699
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