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A Study on Oral Tradition as a Communication tool

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A Study on Oral Tradition as a Communication tool
David Wilson D
Dept. of English,
Karunya University, Coimbatore
Abstract-
How many mothers can sing a lullaby? How many Fathers do tell bedtime stories to their wards
today? The ability of man to speak and communicate distinguishes him from other beings. Human
activity to communicate through speech and his intelligence, the cognitive ability to be aware of his
surroundings and visualize them in his mind are the two pivotal factors in human society’s
progression. In it, Oral Tradition is an aspect of human society’s evolution. Oral tradition has
become a domain of great interest to scholars of different disciplines of knowledge today. It has a
huge scope for the discipline of communication too. In the absence of script, it is a complex process
of passing on information of a people’s culture, custom and behaviour from one generation to the
next by word of mouth through stories. This article presents an appraisal of oral tradition as a
means of communication. It also discusses whether oral traditions can be taken as valid historical
sources.
Key Words Oral Tradition, Communication Tool, Information, Historiography, Folk
Traditions, Story Telling.
I. Introduction-Defining the Oral Tradition
Many people have tried to define the term in their own ways. Vansina [10] has defined oral
traditions as “documents of the present” also inheriting “a message from the past.” For Turner [9], it
is one of the branches of literary studies which reaches back far enough in time to invite a
consideration of that crucial period in human prehistory when biological evolution overlapped with
cultural evolution (p. 68). The oral traditions encompass all verbal testimonies that are reported
statements concerning the past [10]. According to Henige [5], oral tradition, as a genre, should have
been transmitted over several generations and to some extent be the common property of a group
of people (p. 232). As Rosenberg observes, it “is the transmission of cultural items from one
member to another, or others. Those items are heard, stored in memory, and, when appropriate,
recalled at the moment of subsequent transmission” [7].
Two types of testimonies have been commonly discussed direct and indirect. Bauer and
Bernheim use the term ‘direct testimony’ for eyewitness account, and ‘indirect statement’ for a
reported one. Bernheim puts oral tradition in the category of direct testimonies on the grounds that
both are communicated orally. It is, however, better to classify oral traditions and eyewitness
IJRESS Volume 5, Issue 7 (July, 2015) (ISSN 2249-7382)
International Journal of Research in Economics and Social Sciences (IMPACT FACTOR 5.545)
International Journal of Research in Economics & Social Sciences
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accounts separately, because each has special characteristics. Anyone can narrate and transmit the
events, which they have seen, or heard from their ancestor. However,
the definition of ‘oral tradition’ by Bauer and Berhneim does not accept that ‘oral tradition’ which
comes from an eyewitness.
II. Oral Tradition versus Written Tradition
There are different point of views in the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ regarding the interrelationship
between oral and written tradition. In Vedic Hindu tradition, it is believed that both oral and
written form of word existed since creation, though the emphasis is primarily on oral one [1]. Here,
literacy was not considered a sine qua non of wisdom, and it is said that even the great grammarian
Panini was not a literate [6]. But, in the context of the West, it is widely assumed that only
‘developed’ societies or countries have their own advanced ‘written culture’ which is a sign of
modernity and progress.
Certeaus argues that writing as a technical instrument became divested of its Christian
determinants and was re-employed as a function of new strategies of reproduction and
capitalization [2]. According to Certeau, ‘Written tradition’ symbolized the concept of modernity
and the ‘oral’ tradition became a symbol of backward societies of nation [8]. In this background,
written tradition has ride on top of the orality, and a visual architecture of language has been
superimposed upon restless acoustic flow of sound [4]. However, we cannot say that oral tradition
does not exist. As Turner [9] argues, the oral tradition continues in our own culture in at least two
realms: liturgy and theater (p. 86). When oral and written forms of expressions are taken in the
context of communication, the significance of oral tradition becomes even apparent.
III. Oral Tradition and History
Every literate or illiterate person has a certain kind of ‘oral’ practice. For illiterate ones, oral
communication becomes crucial and even most of the people who are literate do not write. Thus, it
is a primary means of communication and a practice of daily life. People can remember and
transmit many oral traditions, which they have or which they listened from their ancestors,
irrespective of whether they have ‘written’ practice or not. Apart from regular practices of
conversation, people have their legends, myths, folktales, memories, folksong, sayings and
IJRESS Volume 5, Issue 7 (July, 2015) (ISSN 2249-7382)
International Journal of Research in Economics and Social Sciences (IMPACT FACTOR 5.545)
International Journal of Research in Economics & Social Sciences
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proverbs. However, there is no possibility of precise transmission of those oral practices from one
generation to another.
Among the various kinds of historical sources, oral traditions occupy a special place. They
are constantly used not only as the most important sources for the history of peoples without
writing, but also as the foundation of many written sources too, especially those of classical
antiquity and of the early Middle Ages. Oral traditions are historical sources of a social nature that
derives from the fact that they are unwritten, they can transmit, and preservation depends on the
powers of memory of successive generations of human being. The oral tradition forms the main
available source for a reconstruction of the past, who have no written culture practice and even
among peoples who have writing, many historical sources, including the most ancient ones, are
based on oral traditions.
Oral materials could be of potential value to historians, whether proverbs, poetry/songs,
lengthy historicized texts, or epics. Vansina urged historians to regard these materials in much the
same way as they had traditionally regarded written documents as capable of being exploited for
both direct and indirect historical information. In fact, most of the historians and ethnographers are
taking oral tradition as sources of history. India can be taken as a case for this point.
India became independent in 1947 and people still remember and compare the situation
before and after independence. Some people are eyewitness of the whole transition period and thus
have their stories. Those kinds of stories, rhyme, songs, and proverbs can help to study the
perception of people and it can help to narrate cultural, political, social histories of the particular
society or the nation. If we compare the written text before independent and after independent, it
will give different kind of historical knowledge. Same way, we can compare the oral (linguistic)
change among people. Apart from this, we can compare the perception of different generation,
which may help to analyse the historical, cultural or social transition of the society.
IV. Beyond Historiography
The oral tradition is not only the sources of histories but itself a history of language, culture,
society and tradition. It tells us what people speak, how they behave, how they speak or what they
think and speak. It tells different people can explain the certain events differently. Yes, if the
different versions of a story or event exist, the question of ‘reliability’ would be raised. But, if we
analyze some concept like “different social groups use different varieties of language”, “language
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reflect the society or culture in which it is used”, “language shapes the society in which it is used”
[3] etc, we can see possibilities different versions in accordance with time, space or language.
It may be in the poetic form or it may be in rhyme, story, proverbs or other forms.
Sometime there may be different ‘character’, ‘place’ or time’ in accordance with the socio cultural
value and tradition. The possibilities of distortion of the events prevailed anywhere which should
be examined. Nevertheless, oral tradition speaks the ‘story’ of not only the past but also of
contemporary social, cultural and linguistic structure of the society. Moreover, it is also a history of
language, culture and society.
V. Oral Traditions of India
Men must have been definitely communicating amongst themselves before invention of
script. Even after invention of script, which must have been the preserve of the privileged few,
record of events, epics, traditions, stories of valour, songs, etc. must have been passed on from
generation to generation through oral tradition. In India even after the advent of script, Vedas were
to be learnt only from a Guru through oral rendition and never through reading. One reason could
be the need for chaste pronunciation and correct intonation. Another reason could be the selfish
desire to keep it the preserve of a few.
On another plane, till the advent of gadgets like phonogram, record-player, tape recorder,
etc. music was preserved entirely in the minds of a few and passed on to the disciples through word
of mouth. Not only the lyrics, but the entire style was preserved and carried forward by the Gurus
and Sishyas through oral tradition. It is mind boggling to realise that there were and are well-
versed veda pandits who could chant thousands and thousands of lines from memory even while
learning new lessons and practicing what was learnt already. Likewise, the repertoire of an eminent
singer, who can elaborate a raga, brings everything from out of his memory improvising the style
and duration for that particular occasion, particular mood, particular audience, is also something to
marvel.
Likewise historical events, mythological stories, etc. are sung by illiterates all learnt by rote.
There were songs for every occasion and every chore to lessen the burden of the task or for mere
merriment. All these are passed on through oral tradition. The tradition of making children commit
to memory is a continuation of this process. If we are to preserve the vast heritage of our culture,
IJRESS Volume 5, Issue 7 (July, 2015) (ISSN 2249-7382)
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epics, sagas, language, history, we should nurture our tradition of imparting knowledge by rote.
Mere publication or recording alone will simply not be adequate.
VI. The Folk Oral Traditions of India
The folk oral traditions of India go back into timeless antiquity. The heroes and heroines of the
bygone eras are kept alive through songs and dances of simple rustic people. The nomadic tribes
that wandered far into distant valleys in search of pastures and waterholes to tend their herds
burst out into poignant soulful songs pining for their beloveds and yearning for the smells, sounds
and feel of their motherland. Nehru, in his Discovery of India talks about how tribes that had drifted
apart long ago, recognized each other through their songs, after centuries of separation.
The two major epics that shaped the Indian sensibility, the Ramayana and Mahabharata,
were preserved and spread as oral epics. The Suthas narrated and sang the glory of its heroes and
heroines in divine fervour. Even to this day the tradition of devote groups of listeners gathering
around a Sutha to listen to the ancient stories, rather than read the epic poems themselves, is still
alive.
VII. Indian Story Telling
Though poetry is easier to remember than prose, the oral tradition in Indian literature was
not confined to poetic literature. Indian story telling has been moulded to suit oral form right from
the very beginning of narrative fiction in India. India owes a lot of its rich tradition of storytelling to
its tribal people. The tradition of storytelling evokes pictures of weary travellers, at the end of a
long day’s hard journey, gathering around a fire lit on the sands of a river bank un der the starry
night, listening with rapt attention and amusement to the stories of wonder and awe of distant
lands inhabited by exotic people, narrated by an elder, in magical soothing voice with theatrical and
lyrical interludes. With each re-telling, the stories gathered additional narrative, becoming more
circuitous to enhance the drama of the live recitation.
The power of the spoken language to ignite the listener’s imagination and transport him to the
world of ideas, dreams, myths and fables, is truly amazing. As a professor of Mass communication
remarked that in the saying of the word, something is also done, and cannot be undone. Indian
literature is full of tales in which a word was misused, uttered capriciously or wrongly, with
IJRESS Volume 5, Issue 7 (July, 2015) (ISSN 2249-7382)
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mischievous or even disastrous consequences. And, in some ways the power of words can be seen
as magic; but this is not mere magic.
VIII. Validity and Reliability
Ethnologists who have attempted to study the past of people ‘without writing’ have faced
some problems and they believe or think that oral tradition are never reliable or it may contain a
certain amount of truth. They also believe that it is impossible to assess the amount of truth
contained in oral tradition so it should be thoroughly examined [10]. Definitely, oral tradition
should be examined from the parameter of validity and reliability but the same is true with ‘written
text’. F. Graebner argues that the reliability of oral traditions cannot be probed unless there is some
measure of agreement between various independent accounts and unless the facts conveyed
correspond with those postulated by cultural historical studies [10].
In brief, the question of validity and reliability is to be welcomed unless it is put with a bias
to discredit the oral tradition. Any provision and instrumentation regarding its validity and
reliability will, in fact, increase the scope of examining the oral tradition in order to explore it as
more authentic source of information.
IX. Conclusion
Every study of the ‘oral traditions’ is a part of the historical study which belongs to society.
Every ‘oral’ or ‘written’ tradition has some information about the past events, even if they are
fiction. We collect and preserve all ‘written documents’ because we think it is ‘real’ and ‘reliable’ but
we do not want to collect the ‘oral narration’. My argument is that it is not a matter of technology,
time consumption or expenses but of our conviction always emphasis that the ‘written documents’
have certain ‘truth’ than any kind of ‘oral tradition’.
Scholars think that every ‘oral content’ might be distortion by people or the right story of
the past might be blurred in the transmitting process. However, in my opinion, distorted or blurred
oral traditions also have ‘historical’, ‘cultural’, ‘social’ and ‘linguistic’ content and it is a part of
history. As P.C. Lloyd argues, all traditions contain some truth and the historian may be able to see
in what directions distortion is most likely to have taken place and to asses better their value as
historical evidence [10]. Oral tradition may have some confusion and contradictions, partly because
IJRESS Volume 5, Issue 7 (July, 2015) (ISSN 2249-7382)
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of lapses of memory, partly because of possible motives for distortion. However, this kind of
problem also seems in ‘written content’.
As Kaviratna [6] says, "the written word can give only an idea of the fact, but the word is not the fact
itself." Whether ‘oral sources’ is reliable or not for particular events can be examined but it speaks
the ‘contemporary social, linguistic and cultural history, therefore, we have to record and analyze it.
I would like to quote Rosenberg, Oral traditions are both more specific and less ambiguous
communication, because the speaker reinforces his or her specificity of meaning with gesture,
expression, intonation, and so on, and various self-correcting mechanisms of which fixed print is
incapable [7]. Certainly, it is not the matter of advocating illiteracy, but giving oral tradition its due
importance.
References
[1] Adhikary, N. M. Hindu awadharanama sanchar prakriya”, M.A. thesis, Purvanchal
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[2] Ahearne, J. Michel De Certeau: Interpretation and its other. Stanford
University Press, 1995.
[3] Burke, P. The art of conservation. New York: Cornell University Press.1993.
[4] Havelock, E. A. The alphabetic mind: A gift of Greece to the modern world.
Oral Tradition, 1(1), 1986,134-150. Retrieved from http://journal.oraltradition.org/
[5] Henige, D. Oral, but oral what? The nomenclatures of orality and their
implications. Oral Tradition, 3(1-2), 1988, 229-38. Retrieved from
http://journal.oraltradition.org/
[6] Kaviratna, H. Unbroken chain of oral tradition.1971, Retrieved August 17, 2012
fromhttp://www.theosophynw. org/theosnw/world/general/ge-kavi.htm
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[10] Vansina, J. Oral tradition a study in historical methodology. Trans. H. M.
Wright. Penguin Books.1965.
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In challenging a remark I had once made while presenting a paper at a professional meeting, a member of the audience said that he could demonstrate that there was no oral tradition in sixteenth-century Spain. To me this meant that the speaker had proof that people living on the Iberian Peninsula at that time never spoke to one another. Obviously, to him, "oral tradition" meant something else entirely. The very concept, the comprehension of such a mode of life, is alien to literates; and despite the writing done on the subject in recent decades by Walter Ong, Albert Lord, Ruth Finnegan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jack Goody (to name only a few), "Oral Tradition" is not a concept widely understood by professional educators, let alone agreed upon. This essay will outline some of the major research and thinking done on this subject to date, to provide a context for uni-disciplinary work now done. It will not announce a truth; it will describe what the author has in mind when speaking of this mode. Although many Romantics were, for their own reasons, enthralled with the idea of savage nobility and its lifeworld, a world in which the complicating (and corrupting) products of technology had not yet been imposed, that simple (oral) society has not been easy to identify. In his The Singer of Tales (1960:137), Albert Lord laments the rise of literacy in the Yugoslavia where he and Milman Parry did so much of their fi eldwork with the remark that printing had introduced the notion of the "fi xed" text and that there were now very few singers "who have not been infected by this disease." Their performances are reproductions rather than creations, Lord continues, and "this means death to oral tradition . . ." (ibid.). Anthropologists and folklorists would not agree, since much of their research on the subject indicates that rarely is a
Hindu awadharanama sanchar prakriya
  • N M Adhikary
Adhikary, N. M. "Hindu awadharanama sanchar prakriya", M.A. thesis, Purvanchal University, Nepal, 2003.
Interpretation and its other
  • J Ahearne
  • Michel De Certeau
Ahearne, J. Michel De Certeau: Interpretation and its other. Stanford University Press, 1995.
The art of conservation The alphabetic mind: A gift of Greece to the modern world
  • P Burke
  • E A Havelock
Burke, P. The art of conservation. New York: Cornell University Press.1993. [4] Havelock, E. A. The alphabetic mind: A gift of Greece to the modern world.