Manifesto for Oral Literacy

Storytelling and language are simultaneously cultural and cross-cultural. G.K. Chesterton states that “Literature is a luxury, fiction is a necessity.” All cultures tell stories and language is core to humanity, but various cultures tell stories in diverse ways and have unique applications of language. For example, Western culture is one that has traditionally valued written literature, but with modern technology and globalization is becoming more viral, allowing for film and even video games to tell stories. On the other hand, many indigenous cultures, such as Native American and African people groups, tell stories orally, passing on myth from generation to generation. Oral literature is “a spoken, acted (performed) art whose media, like that of written literature, is words.” Oral literature consists of narratives, songs, proverbs, and riddles, all of which amalgamate to serve the purpose of unifying communities, cultures, and nations in addition to functioning as a mode of personal expression.

Oral literature goes beyond the imagination and delves into the human heart; it is “the people’s own means of expressing the way they see the world, their values, and aspirations.” Due to the linguistic colonialism that resulted from the expansion of the written word, many societies are losing the art of oral literature. For example, Spanish and Portuguese replaced the indigenous languages of South America, just as English and French replaced the Native American languages of North America and indigenous African languages. With the loss of indigenous languages, indigenous stories are also lost. In a newfound appreciation for oral literature, indigenous stories could be restored, and communities fostered. The idea of a community gathering together to tell stories challenges the modern thought that fiction is a recreational pastime, meant to be enjoyed in brief instances of leisure. On the contrary, stories are core to personal identity and communal culture. Due to globalization and the growth of technology, Modern Western culture would benefit from the community, performance, and storytelling skills inherent to oral literature based on concepts in composition theory.

Telling stories help “people to feel more at home in this world, to make it their own since something explained, even by recourse to fantasy, is less frightening or alien than something unexplained.” The “something explained” can only be explained through discovery. In the ancient world, ‘invent’ was almost synonymous with ‘discover.’ By telling stories, written and oral composers discover their beliefs, values, and emotions, and communicate them to others in their community.

Written and oral storytelling both constitute composition, but the consumption of both types of literature must also be explored. In the field of semiotics, the study of signs and sign-using behavior. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure said, “specific language (parole) gains meaning from the system of a language (langue).” The signs which Saussure claims define langue exist in both oral and written literature. In performing, signs and meanings can be communicated through various paroles. There is literature that argues listening to an audiobook “counts” as reading (such as “What Does It Really Mean to ‘Read’ a Text?” by Jessica Moyer, published in the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy), but the langue of oral literature is more like that of slam poetry than an audiobook due to aspects of performance and audience engagement. The langue of oral literature and slam poetry consists not only of words but movement, tone, and even eye contact, which “readers” can then interpret in addition to the words themselves.

Kenyan doctor and writer Margaret Ogola reminisced her “reading” of her mother’s oral tales. She stated, “My mother told me very many stories, short ones with songs…. the way African stories go…. She felt very strongly about transmitting the culture and traditions, she talked a lot telling us the stories of her life, tribal stories, folklore and with a lot of song.” Ogola did not merely listen and vaguely understand the words her mother said; she was actively interpreting stories, language, and culture in a way that fostered her identity.

A white buffalo calf, as the one Darrin describes in his story

During my summer in South Dakota, I listened to Darrin Merrival, a Lakota storyteller, tell the story of the White Buffalo Woman. I listened in a similar way to Ogola. Hearing the story every week for two months, I found myself interpreting it differently every time, always noticing something new. In the same way, I see specific details more clearly when reading a book for a second or third time, and with each reread, the characters, plot, and symbolism become more familiar with each encounter.


More research would be needed to prove that listening to oral literature is reading. Although there are many advantages of writing and reading stories, performance is also a valid, even necessary, medium of fiction. This is an art that has been lost to a modern society that values tangible goods. Since it is oral, the stories cannot be held like a book or seen like a film. Even a play has costumes and staging that appeals to the eye. It has no tangible form, but it also requires no physical resources such as pens, paper, a film budget, or costumes. On the contrary, oral literature is a mode of creative expression available to all people, but that by no means makes it more primitive than novels or cinema. Considering the abundance of literary tools available within oral literature, Modern Western culture would benefit from adapting the performance and traditional aspects of oral literature to enhance appreciation of storytelling. In a fast-paced age of digitalized stories, oral storytelling could strengthen family communication, promote creativity, and even engender respect for elders.

In addition to community building in a modern context, oral literature promotes the preservation of traditional cultures. The most important lesson to be learned from a greater understanding of oral literature is that there is no illiterate society. British and American literature are emphasized in American education due to linguistic access, but even when world literature is studied, the works are often postcolonial novels or plays. To more fully understand the literacy, culture, and history of world literature, students should be exposed not only to stories told after the cultural, religious, and linguistic colonialism, but also stories traditionally told. If one aspires to understand a people, he/she must first learn their stories. Cognitive, affective, and behavioral aspects of culture can be learned from the stories they tell and how they tell them. Humans are storytellers not by luxury, but by necessity; stories are who we are.

Literature manifests itself in a variety of forms throughout cultures, but literature transcends culture. Every method of storytelling offers new insight into form and content. Both my personal experiences with oral literature in African and Lakota cultures, as well as my research in composition theory, I have seen the value of stories in new and transformative ways. In a society that views stories as recreation rather than the backbone of individual and communal identity, communities should strive to foster a culture of storytelling, both written and oral.

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