The Phenomenon of Oral Culture

If we look at the world we live in from the point of view of humanity as a whole, culture is an element that creates separation between human beings. Operating also on the basis of a criteria of exclusiveness, like religion and nationality do, culture is yet another key pillar of the world we live in. Based upon ad-hoc (created) criteria of ascription to something that a part of humanity has in common, culture creates invisible edges that separate human beings. By doing so, culture also creates human segments that are seemingly homogeneous — artificial isles of ‘homogeneity’ structured around shared identitarian traits.

The expressions of culture may talk to the specific features of one ‘cultural collective’ (e.g., the French culture, the ‘Catalan’ culture, etc.). This, however, does not have to be the case for every cultural expression. Although the Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo Da Vinci could be said also to be a product of Italian culture during the Renaissance period, it is also true that it transcends time and space when it captures so magnificently the inner-beauty of women.

Oral culture, in particular, is a form of culture that was historically transmitted by word of mouth or through oral transmission in the context of specific communities that share the use of one language as a means of communication and expression. Even if the correlation is not perfect, and if the phenomenon of oral culture precedes the creation of the modern nation-states, nowadays these language communities tend to overlap with other communities also founded upon the principle of exclusiveness (e.g., nationality). In such a context, oral culture expressions are seen as natural reinforcers of what make a collective distinct. Oral culture is part of the set of elements that structure life in the name of ‘tradition’ and that also helps to make sense of the present. Through tradition, it brings the past into the present.

We look at oral culture with a distinctly benign eye. This is so for two main reasons. First, it is a reservoir of identity and of wisdom that holds and confirms us somehow. Second, the oral culture expressions we use today have survived the test of time. So, it is reasoned that if they have made it so far and are still around, there must be a reason to it. If on top of this, we find similar expressions across ‘cultures’ we know that the expression survived both the test of time in more than one culture. In such cases, there is an extra reason to confirm both its validity and value.

Oral culture expressions cover almost every aspect of life in some depth albeit not equally so across the board. In this regard, they remind us that our wisdom on life and our understanding of it, is uneven across its different aspects. They are the reflection of specific human lived experiences and specific human learning on specific matters within a given vital realm. As it is always the case, the quality of the learning, the amount of wisdom and truth in them (something is true if it is equally true for everyone) contained therein varies a great deal. This is important, since we ‘consume’ specific oral culture expressions only when we feel that the truth they convey is aligned with the ‘consumer’s’ way of looking at the world and its own way of living. Often times, we can find oral culture expressions to say something and then others that say the exact opposite. This means that any consumer of these expressions has to choose out of the available stock of expressions. The one the consumer chooses has to make deep sense to him/her. Otherwise, it is difficult to foresee that anyone would resort to something that doesn’t carry value for him/her. So, we choose according to where we are at in our own development as beings. This taints our understanding of what is of value and what is not. While for some, a piece may be revelatory and helpful, for another it may not be necessarily so.

Oral culture permeates our expression. Yet, the particular expressions we use are not just anyone. Since they are expressions whose wisdom has to be in sync with our wisdom, through the study of the use of oral cultural expressions we can learn about people’s livingness and how they use language to socially help to construct the present and the future.

by Eduardo Feldman Sapir

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