What are the characteristics of oral literature history example

Oral literature

The oral literature is the standard form or genre of literature in societies that have no written language. In literate societies it is used especially in the transmission of genres of traditions and folklore. In either case, it is passed on by word of mouth over generations. What are the characteristics of oral literature

It is the first and most widespread mode of human communication, and includes myths, popular tales, legends, songs, and others. Now, certain forms — such as the folk tale — continue to exist, especially in complex societies that do not yet have a writing system, but written culture necessarily influences oral tradition.

Indeed, even the term ” literature”  poses challenges in naming this tradition. The word is derived from the Latin littera (letter), and essentially refers to the concept of the written or the alphabetic; therefore other names have been suggested. Among others, it receives the name of standardized oral forms or oral genres.

However, the term oral literature is the most widely used. In general, this highly varied and dynamic oral and auditory medium has served the purposes of the evolution, storage, and transmission of knowledge, art, and ideas.

History of oral literature What are the characteristics of oral literature


The history of oral literature dates back to the earliest human societies. In any age, people have created stories for entertainment, to educate others, and for many other purposes.

Before the introduction of the writing system, all these stories were passed down orally from generation to generation. This was a means of transmitting the knowledge accumulated through the years.

When the stories of Germanic songs became known in the Middle Ages , the tradition was already very old, and was in a state of transition from a purely oral poetry to a fully written one.

Transition to writing What are the characteristics of oral literature

After the invention of the written code, many of the texts of the oral tradition were transcribed and remained as fixed texts. This has allowed to have an approach to the different societies that originated them.

On the other hand, once registered, the texts allowed the story to be maintained without risk of variations and to be shared between groups, whether they were literate or illiterate.

Some authors claim that the process of transition from oral to written of compilations made to folklorists and oral historians shows that oral literature has not been replaced. What are the characteristics of oral literature

On the contrary, it persists alongside books and electronic media as a secondary orality. This is rekindled in each execution, coexisting with the written one and, on occasions, surpassing and updating it.

Characteristics of oral literature

Oral literature has a number of characteristics:

Specific structures to allow memorization

Because they had to be memorized and transmitted orally, works of oral literature had to be composed of specific metrics to aid memorization.

In some cases, the memorization of a single work of oral literature included several forms of recitation.

Alterations during execution What are the characteristics of oral literature

The transmission of oral literature necessarily involves interaction with an audience. This is one of the main differences from written literature, in which the author is physically separated from his reader.

Due to this, oral literature has the peculiarity of being variable according to the speaker and the audience.

This introduces the risk that the content may be modified. Sometimes, due to the omission of details or the inclusion of new elements, the contents degenerate. This can produce several similar versions.

Time space between versions

Another characteristic of oral literature is that it is often written centuries, or even millennia, after the original oral version is created. What are the characteristics of oral literature

This was present in all the cases of the first societies before the invention of the writing system.

At present, there are societies that still favor oral transmission over written transmission. Such is the case with the Indian Brahmans and the Druids of Britannia, who refuse to transcribe their religious texts as blasphemous.

Varied thematic categorization

There are several ways to categorize works in oral literature. They can be classified by their genres (epic, myth, religious scripts, historical stories), by their regions, language or simply by the time to which they belong.

Examples of oral literature

The Iliad and The Odyssey What are the characteristics of oral literature

In the 20th century, researchers demonstrated that Homer’s works, The Iliad and The Odyssey , began as part of an ancient Greek oral tradition.

They were later passed down by word of mouth through generations of poets. This transmission took place before and for some time after the invention of the alphabet.

These texts speak of the time of the Mycenaeans. This civilization disappeared in 1150 BC. C.  However, Homer’s poem is dated 750 BC; the time separation between these two dates corresponds to the period of oral tradition.

Annals of Tlatelolco

In the opinion of various scholars, the Anales de Tlatelolco are the oldest record of Mesoamerican oral tradition.

Both its date and its authorship are still debated; however, it is estimated that they were written between 1528 and 1530. What are the characteristics of oral literature

In this sense, it is thought that the authors were a group of literate indigenous people. They dedicated themselves to writing in the Latin alphabet all the ancestral information on the genealogy of their rulers. They also included the indigenous point of view on Spanish colonization.

The Huehuetlahtolli

They are also known as the speeches of elders. It is a written compilation of the models of social behavior of the ancient Aztecs. They were transcribed by Franciscan friars from the stories told by the natives.

The Huehuetlahtolli cover different topics in indigenous life, including advice, educational dialogues, and warnings on various topics. They also contain speeches by important members of the Aztec community.

In summary, it is a compilation of the moral philosophy and ancestral wisdom of the Nahuatl.

Real feedback

Royal Comments was published by the Inca mestizo scholar Garcilaso de la Vega (El Inca). Historians consider that thanks to this work the history of two cultures in South America was preserved.

Taking advantage of his status as the son of an Inca princess and a Spanish conqueror, he took care to collect the oral memory of ancient Peru from his mother and relatives . What are the characteristics of oral literature

In his stories for Europeans he spoke of Manco Capac and the first Andean residents in Tahuantinsuyo (Peru). With this work he protected the knowledge of pre-Columbian cultures for future generations.

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