Oral Tradition

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The influence of oral tradition on written literature

Summary:

Oral tradition significantly influences written literature by preserving cultural stories, values, and histories that are later transcribed into written form. This transition helps maintain the authenticity and richness of the original narratives, ensuring they reach wider audiences and endure over time. Furthermore, oral traditions often shape narrative structures, themes, and stylistic elements in written works, reflecting the cultural heritage from which they originate.

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How does oral literature influence written literature?

All literature can be traced to oral tradition, a term that refers to storytelling that was passed down verbally from one generation to the next. Legends, fairy tales, folk tales, and even epics stem from oral tradition.

Before literacy was widespread, a few educated writers decided to write down versions of oral stories within their culture. These include lengthy works like Beowulf or shorter ones like Grimm’s European fairy tales. In these cases, oral tradition inspired print literature.

In modern-day society, oral tradition still impacts the written word. Storytelling is integral to community and culture building, and people often form a connection with stories before ever learning to read or write. As a result, most authors draw inspiration from the craft of oral storytelling, in such diverse forms as a rumor or a childhood bedtime story.

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How does oral literature influence written literature?

Written literature is often based on oral stories.  Before humans developed writing, we passed down stories in the form of oral literature.  With the invention of writing, people began to record these stories.  In these stories they passed down their culture, traditions, values, and histories.  Many early stories were part of religion.  For example, myths and legends were passed down this way, including the creation myths of different cultures. 

Storytelling is still very important.  Many of our modern stories can trace some of their influences to ancient stories, but oral storytelling still continues today.  Whenever you describe something funny that happened to you, you are telling an oral story.  If you write it down later, or turn it into a book, you have completed the cycle of oral literature becoming written literature.

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How has oral tradition influenced written literature?

Oral literature flourished in cultures where literacy was uncommon or nonexistent. Because people did not read, storytellers had to rely on memory to transmit important stories, and listeners also had to rely on memory to recall and retell these sagas, which were often important to solidifying group memory, culture, and identity. This need to remember had an important impact on written literature.

Oral cultures relied on repetition, rhyme, and alliteration as memory aids. Important parts of a story were often repeated as refrains. When these stories—told in forms we would recognize today as poetry—were written down, these oral conventions were preserved and passed on. A ballad, for example, might not need a refrain repeated four or five times when transmitted in written form, but the style had become part of a tradition. As poets composed new ballads they included refrains even if the works were first dispersed in written form, as refrains had become a convention of the ballad. Rhyme and alliteration were also preserved as poetic conventions even when they were no longer strictly needed as memory devices. Only in the last century have strict rhyme schemes been largely dispensed with.

Oral traditions have survived the transition to literacy and continue to inform and enrich poetry and other literary forms.

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How has oral tradition influenced written literature?

In Western literary tradition, oral literature played several important parts in unifying all the literary traditions, from Latin and Greek, to the disparate tribal cultures. An excellent examples lies in the Arthurian traditions, influences by Cretien de Troyes, etc., but beginning with The Mabinogion, a Welsh narration of the exploits of the original Arthur and his knights, transformed from the oral traditions into written literature in the Middle Ages. Another example: thousands of oral folk stories that were gathered into Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Folk songs and oral legends of all cultures are incorporated into the written literature of that culture, not only in plot and character, but also in rhythms, in folk idioms, and in cultural mores. On the continent of Africa, a fairly recent effort to consolidate African literature as a special area of study has revealed that, although the lack of a common language may have thwarted written literary development, that lack has been more than made up for by the extremely rich oral traditions of all the African cultures, and several common historical themes, notably colonialism, slavery, and exploitation of natural riches, have unified the modern written literature of Africa which has taken advantage of all the oral literature of the continent.

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