Oral tradition

A traditional Kyrgyz manaschi performing part of the epic poem at a yurt camp in Karakol

Oral tradition, or oral lore, is a form of human communication wherein knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material is received, preserved and transmitted orally from one generation to another.[1][2][3] The transmission is through speech or song and may include folktales, ballads, chants, prose or verses. In this way, it is possible for a society to transmit oral history, oral literature, oral law and other knowledge across generations without a writing system, or in parallel to a writing system. Religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, for example, have used an oral tradition, in parallel to a writing system, to transmit their canonical scriptures, secular knowledge such as Sushruta Samhita, hymns and mythologies from one generation to the next.[4][5][6]

Oral tradition is information, memories and knowledge held in common by a group of people, over many generations, and it is not same as testimony or oral history.[1][7] In a general sense, "oral tradition" refers to the recall and transmission of a specific, preserved textual and cultural knowledge through vocal utterance.[2][8] As an academic discipline, it refers both to a set of objects of study and a method by which they are studied.[9]

The study of oral tradition is distinct from the academic discipline of oral history,[10] which is the recording of personal memories and histories of those who experienced historical eras or events.[11] Oral tradition is also distinct from the study of orality defined as thought and its verbal expression in societies where the technologies of literacy (especially writing and print) are unfamiliar to most of the population.[12] A folklore is a type of oral tradition, but knowledge other than folklore has been orally transmitted and thus preserved in human history.[13][14]


According to John Foley, oral tradition has been an ancient human tradition found in "all corners of the world".[8] Modern archaeology has been unveiling evidence of the human efforts to preserve and transmit arts and knowledge that depended completely or partially on an oral tradition, across various cultures:

The Judeo-Christian Bible reveals its oral traditional roots; medieval European manuscripts are penned by performing scribes; geometric vases from archaic Greece mirror Homer's oral style. (...) Indeed, if these final decades of the millennium have taught us anything, it must be that oral tradition never was the other we accused it of being; it never was the primitive, preliminary technology of communication we thought it to be. Rather, if the whole truth is told, oral tradition stands out as the single most dominant communicative technology of our species as both a historical fact and, in many areas still, a contemporary reality.

— John Foley, Signs of Orality[8]

In Asia, the transmission of folklore, mythologies as well as scriptures in ancient India, in different Indian religions, was by oral tradition, preserved with precision with the help of elaborate mnemonic techniques.[15] Some scholars such as Jack Goody state that the Vedas are not the product strictly of an oral tradition, basing this view by comparing inconsistencies in the transmitted versions of literature from various oral societies such as the Greek, Serbia and other cultures, then noting that the Vedic literature is too consistent and vast to have been composed and transmitted orally across generations, without being written down.[4] According to Goody, the Vedic texts likely involved both a written and oral tradition, calling it a "parallel products of a literate society".[4][6]

In ancient Greece, the oral tradition was a dominant tradition. Homer's epic poetry, states Michael Gagarin, was largely composed, performed and transmitted orally.[16] As folklores and legends were performed in front of distant audiences, the singers would substitute the names in the stories with local characters or rulers to give the stories a local flavor and thus connect with the audience, but making the historicity embedded in the oral tradition as unreliable.[17] The lack of surviving texts about the Greek and Roman religious traditions have led scholars to presume that these were ritualistic and transmitted as oral traditions, but some scholars disagree that the complex rituals in the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations were an exclusive product of an oral tradition.[18] The Torah and other ancient Jewish literature, the Judeo-Christian Bible and texts of early centuries of Christianity are rooted in an oral tradition, and the term "People of the Book" is a medieval construct.[8][19][20] This is evidenced, for example, by the multiple scriptural statements by Paul admitting "previously remembered tradition which he received" orally.[21]

Other Languages
العربية: تراث شفهي
español: Tradición oral
Esperanto: Parola tradicio
euskara: Ahozko usadio
فارسی: سنت شفاهی
français: Tradition orale
Gàidhlig: Beul-aithris
한국어: 구전
Bahasa Indonesia: Tradisi lisan
Bahasa Melayu: Tradisi lisan
Nederlands: Orale traditie
日本語: 口承
norsk nynorsk: Munnleg overlevering
português: Tradição oral
Seeltersk: Fertälstere
Simple English: Oral tradition
Basa Sunda: Tradisi lisan
Türkçe: Sözlü gelenek
中文: 口头传统