Preservation and Exploration of Oral Literature: A Global Endeavor

Did you know that languages die? That’s right, a language—that which a person uses to express themselves in numerous ways—can simply vanish from the earth. When we think of dead languages we might think of Latin or ancient Greek, or perhaps Middle English, languages that have been replaced with newer and more efficient modes of speaking. But the dying languages I speak of are not simply a dot in the annals history. These are languages spoken in today’s world, often in remote locations in every corner of the globe. Now you make think to yourself, why should I care if these languages cease to exist, why are they even significant? The answer can be found in one simple word: stories.

When learning and exploring the roots of literature, the literary tradition begins with word of mouth, transmitting a story from one person to another. From ancient Indian stories, such as those later written in the Vedas, to European troubadours roaming from town to town, and to the stories that you were told at bedtime as a kid, there is a long history of what can be dubbed “oral literature”. And yes, you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute, literature implies something written down, while oral traditions are not…what?” That’s the same reaction I had until I stumbled across the website for the World Oral Literature Project sponsored by both Yale University and the University of Cambridge.

Started in Cambridge in 2009, and joined by Yale in 2011, the World Oral Literature Project has been extending grants to fieldworkers who are dedicated to rooting out and preserving oral literature around the world, especially in Asia, the Pacific, and in areas of cultural disturbance. They define oral literature as “any form of verbal art which is transmitted orally or delivered by word of mouth,” including but not limited to “ritual texts, curative chants, epic poems, musical genres, folk tales, creation tales, songs, myths, spells, legends, proverbs, riddles, tongue-twisters, word games, recitations, life histories or historical narratives.” As they state on their website, they believe that “local languages act as vehicles for the transmission of unique cultural knowledge, but the oral traditions encoded within these languages become threatened when elders die and livelihoods are disrupted.”

Not only have they given over 30 grants to different projects, they have also made each of these studies available to the general public. By creating an interactive map of the different places in which the studies were conducted, they have created a user friendly interface in which any one with an interest can listen to the cultures of Zanzibar, Mongolia, and even Greenland. You don’t have to know the language to be able to understand the significance of capturing that which can so easily be lost.

Many believe that given the technology that we have at our fingertips today, such things as oral literature have fallen by the wayside; tradition is thrown out or changed when faced with such advancements. This project is the perfect example of how we can use the technology available to us not to leave behind the old ways, but to document them for both the people of that region and people like me half way around the world who want to learn about these traditions. And that is a truly wonderful concept; that people from all walks of life can connect to each others’ histories and pasts, and look into their culture if only for a brief moment. That is what the World Oral Literature Project achieves.

–Laren Jaenecke


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