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, sagas , myths and traditions . It plays a major role in all cultures , 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

The phrase, "You know what you have in mind" is a key phrase used to describe the methods of remembering and knowing in a primary oral culture. Walter J. Ong clearly distinguishes the primary oral cultures from the secondary orality that has evolved through radio , television and telephone in today's world. Peoples who can do entirely without the written word and whose memories and memories consist of purely oral structures are those of a primary orality. Written cultures obtain organized knowledge almost entirely from scriptures, while oral peoples only know what is remembered. But how do you preserve this knowledge?

In the stage of total lack of writing, there are hardly any possibilities to reproduce the same train of thought or to recreate a complicated explanation with the same wording. The conversation partner is therefore very important in order to share knowledge and also to be aware of his knowledge.

In Plato's Dialogue, Socrates already complained to Phaedrus of the loss of value in communication that had arisen due to writing.

“Because this questionable thing, Phaedrus, clings to the writing, and in this it is really like painting. Even their works stand there like living ones, but if you ask them to understand what has been said, they always only show one and the same thing. However, every speech, if it is only written once, floats around everywhere, equally among those who understand it and those for whom it does not fit [...]. "


Various methods have been used to ensure that oral forms of transmission survive. Often important narratives are built into rituals , which are then particularly impressed in the memory of those involved because of their non-verbal content . A well-known example is the annual reading of the Christmas story in many families and in church services - and its reinforcement through the re-enactment of the children - which is also documented in " shepherd games " or in countless folk songs .

In order to create easily memorable images for memories, so-called mnemotechnics were used, which made it easier to remember. Repetitions, antitheses , alliterations , assonances or other formulaic expressions, as well as proverbs and rhymes were helpful in absorbing and reproducing knowledge. However, human memory is limited, which is why primarily oral peoples also practiced homeostasis . Reality maintains its balance by eliminating knowledge that is not relevant to the present.

Structural amnesia

Scientists Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed this structural amnesia in the Gondsha people of Ghana.

“Writings drawn up by the British at the turn of the century prove that the oral tradition of the gondsha at the time granted the founder of the Gondsha state, Ndewura Jakpa, seven sons, each of whom ruled one of the seven districts of the country. When the myths of the state were re-recorded sixty years later, two of the seven districts had disappeared, one through incorporation and the other through a boundary change. These late myths reported only from five sons of Ndewura Jakpa […]. [...] that part of the past that had no directly recognizable relation to the present had simply been forgotten. ”The relation to remembering and forgetting takes place in a different way. What was important to remember was what was related to the present. Otherwise it was deleted immediately.

Brockmeier also points to the connection between individual and social forgetting as a problem of structural amnesia, because the social framework conditions also influence individual forms of forgetting. This is e.g. For example, there was also a problem of the Holocaust , in which many national Jewish lines of tradition were interrupted, while the initiatives of the State of Israel primarily favored the Zionist traditions.

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 Gospels of the New Testament were handed down orally for several decades before their form of some witnesses was put into writing. "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 seem very strange.

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 to the 20th century the tradition of the Guslars in the Balkans often only survived based on the oral transmission of the epics.

The two most important collections of orally transmitted texts were created during the German Romantic era : The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (children's and household tales) and Des Knaben Wunderhorn 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 published his collection on national wealth , in which he combined orally transmitted aphorisms , poems and counting rhymes . Rühmkorf emphasized the rough, 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 cafes of Damascus. The fantastic telling of fairy tales, fables and parables lived on utopias and fictions. In his stories about storytelling, Rafik 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 a. by Milman Parry , Eric A. Havelock and Walter Jackson Ong, and Jack Goody and Ian Watt . An example of oral tradition that is well 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. In this way, many scholars have contributed to bringing some written traditions closer to their original version in the form of methodical text criticism .

Oral history

Oral history describes a special method of historical science, 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 on, 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. Special 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 u. a. 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 of Linguistics and Communication Studies. = Handbooks of linguistics and communication science. . Vol. 10, Halbbd 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 Lexicon of Switzerland .
  • David R. Olson, Nancy Torrance (Eds.): Literacy and Orality. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge u. a. 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: Phaidros (= Diederichs pocket editions . Vol. 19, ZDB -ID 255192-5 ). 3rd edition, revised by the translator. Translated into German by Rudolf Kassner . Diederichs, Düsseldorf a. a. 1959.
  • Jan Vansina : Oral Tradition. A Study in Historical Methodology. Routledge & Paul, London 1961.
  • Oral tradition. ISSN  1542-4308 . 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

Wiktionary: Orality  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

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