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 the 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]

Native America

Writing systems are not known to exist among Native North Americans before contact with Europeans. Oral storytelling traditions flourished in a context without the use of writing to record and preserve history, scientific knowledge, and social practices.[22] While some stories were told for amusement and leisure, most functioned as practical lessons from tribal experience applied to immediate moral, social, psychological, and environmental issues.[23] Stories fuse fictional, supernatural, or otherwise exaggerated characters and circumstances with real emotions and morals as a means of teaching. Plots often reflect real life situations and may be aimed at particular people known by the story's audience. In this way, social pressure could be exerted without directly causing embarrassment or social exclusion.[24] For example, rather than yelling, Inuit parents might deter their children from wandering too close to the water's edge by telling a story about a sea monster with a pouch for children within its reach.[25] One single story could provide dozens of lessons.[26] Stories were also used as a means to assess whether traditional cultural ideas and practices are effective in tackling contemporary circumstances or if they should be revised.[27]

Native American storytelling is a collaborative experience between storyteller and listeners. Native American tribes generally have not had professional tribal storytellers marked by social status.[28] Stories could and can be told by anyone, with each storyteller using their own vocal inflections, word choice, content, or form.[29] Storytellers not only draw upon their own memories, but also upon a collective or tribal memory extending beyond personal experience but nevertheless representing a shared reality.[30] Native languages have in some cases up to twenty words to describe physical features like rain or snow and can describe the spectra of human emotion in very precise ways, allowing storytellers to offer their own personalized take on a story based on their own lived experiences.[31][32] Fluidity in story deliverance allowed stories to be applied to different social circumstances according to the storyteller's objective at the time.[29] One's rendition of a story was often considered a response to another's rendition, with plot alterations suggesting alternative ways of applying traditional ideas to present conditions.[29] Listeners might have heard the story told many times, or even may have told the same story themselves.[29] This does not take away from a story's meaning, as curiosity about what happens next was less of a priority than hearing fresh perspectives on well-known themes and plots.[29] Elder storytellers generally were not concerned with discrepancies between their version of historical events and neighboring tribes' version of similar events, such as in origin stories.[31] Tribal stories are considered valid within the tribe's own frame of reference and tribal experience.[31]

Stories are used to preserve and transmit both tribal history and environmental history, which are often closely linked.[33] Native oral traditions in the Pacific Northwest, for example, describe natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Various cultures from Vancouver Island and Washington have stories describing a physical struggle between a Thunderbird and a Whale.[34] One such story tells of the Thunderbird, which can create thunder by moving just a feather, piercing the Whale's flesh with its talons, causing the Whale to dive to the bottom of the ocean, bringing the Thunderbird with it. Another depicts the Thunderbird lifting the Whale from the Earth then dropping it back down. Regional similarities in themes and characters suggests that these stories mutually describe the lived experience of earthquakes and floods within tribal memory.[34] According to one story from the Suquamish Tribe, Agate Pass was created when an earthquake expanded the channel as a result of an underwater battle between a serpent and bird. Other stories in the region depict the formation of glacial valleys and moraines and the occurrence of landslides, with stories being used in at least one case to identify and date earthquakes that occurred in CE 900 and 1700.[34] Further examples include Arikara origin stories of emergence form an 'underworld' of persistent darkness, which may represent the remembrance of life in the Arctic Circle during the last ice age, and stories involving a 'deep crevice,' which may refer to the Grand Canyon.[35] Despite such examples of agreement between geological and archeological records on one hand and Native oral records on the other, some scholars have cautioned against the historical validity of oral traditions because of their susceptibility to detail alteration over time and lack of precise dates.[36] The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act considers oral traditions as a viable source of evidence for establishing the affiliation between cultural objects and Native Nations.[35]

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