Do oral narratives and other forms of oral art still have a place in this modern world? Can we still categorize these genres under literature?The general view is that literature is essentially...

Do oral narratives and other forms of oral art still have a place in this modern world? Can we still categorize these genres under literature?

The general view is that literature is essentially written- novels, plays, poetry, short stories, etc. What the becomes of the creativity in non literate societies? Does it mean that their art which is preserved, perfomed and communicated by word of mouth is not creativity? What of the changes taking place with the development of modern technology and sophisticated means of communication? Does this in any way mark the end of these forms of art, or does it enhance modern ways of performing, preserving and communication?

Asked on by lisa6063

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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I think it's actually more likely now than ever that oral "literatures" from various cultures all over the world are going to move from the obscurity they currently suffer into the mainstream of literature and, for the first time, they will be studied seriously by a growing number of students and scholars.

Let me discuss this in the context of American Indian literature, most of which is either still only in oral form or in very outdated translations (many of which date from the early 1900s).  Even today, because so much Indian cultural history is in oral form, and is therefore very idiosyncratic, there can be numerous variations on the same tale or sequence of tales as there are people who can recite them.  The advent of relatively inexpensive speech-recognition software, which has some drawbacks but works, will make recording this oral tradition not only much more common but also will capture the variations from different groups.

In the Pueblo Indian population in Arizona, for example, dialects stil vary according to Pueblo and so the oral tradition varies slightly, as well.  Students and scholars (which include Native Indians) will now be able to record this oral tradition fairly easily and reliably.  The gain from this technology is incalculable right now because so much oral tradition is disappearing as people age, and we are now able to capture these cultural stories inexpensively and with consistent quality, and almost anyone can accomplish this.  It does not take a specialist to walk around with a laptop and speech-recognition software.

Because most American Indian oral literature is non-linear (see the work of Leslie Marmon Silko), it is difficult for many people to understand, but the lack of understanding comes from having so little of this literature to read.  In the next few years, given the technology already available, I am hopeful that we will begin to capture what remains of American Indian oral tradition, and this literature will become a canon of its own that will be available for study, analysis, and performance.


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