Orality is a rich medium. People can convey a great deal of complex information by what we say and how we say it. This makes oral information worth studying. Would you like to learn more about some of the powerful ways orality and oral information have been used throughout history?
The American Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded numerous arts activities in part to recover from the 1930s Great Depression. Given this funding and the more recent Library of Congress American Memory project, we can now hear what Zora Neale Hurston, a WPA researcher and later novelist, learned about information African Americans at that time shared through song (also see http://hurston-sweat.wikispaces.com/ ).
Before literacy was widespread, oral information entertained, educated, and helped socialize children and adults. Storytellers shared elaborate stories. The epic poem Beowulf was an early example of such a tale (see Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales, 1960).
Blank on Blank, a website offered by the nonprofit content studio Quoted in collaboration with PBS, is an example of how advanced technology can facilitate access to oral histories, or reminiscences told about one’s lifetime. Could the digitally illustrated “Lost Interviews” be a new genre of animated oral histories? (See also Alex Widdowson, “‘Storycorps Animated Shorts’ by the Rauch Brothers,” Animated Documentary, November 9, 2013.)
The 2013 movie The Lunchbox documented the work of 4,000 tiffin-wallahs, who deliver home-cooked lunches (packed into an aluminum lunchbox called a tiffin) to workers in India. Although the tiffin-wallahs have a low level of traditional literacy, mathematical equations and oral information are central to their organizational practices. They handle as many as 160,000 lunches a day in two shifts and it is exceedingly rare for a tiffin wallahs to misdeliver. Their oral systems are models of speed and precision.
For almost 150 years, Cuban cigar-factory workers have been entertained and educated by people whose job it is to read books, newspapers, novels, and more aloud to them while they work, often sparking debates about the reading material. The Cuban government recently suggested that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization designate cigar-factory readers as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Elder members of the native peoples living off the southeastern coast of the Indonesian archipelago on the Andaman and Nicobar islands observed the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 and retold oral tradition stories of a “huge shaking of ground followed by a high wall of water.” Despite having no modern communication system, nearly all their members subsequently survived the tsunami by moving to higher ground before the giant waves came ashore. Their traditional stories had incorporated crucial information.
The United States Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires that federally supported agencies return Native American and Native Hawaiian “cultural items” to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and organizations. To prove such cultural affiliation, descendants can provide linguistic and oral traditions—or stories from at least one lifetime ago—as evidence.
Cuban baseball fans gather all day long to argue passionately about baseball in Peña de Parque Central park, also known as “Havana’s hot corner.” This oral tradition reflects how the history of baseball intertwines with the history of the island nation.
Orality was once considered so powerful that a separate word, tetragrammaton, was given to the written, four letter divine name that appears in the Psalms Dead Sea Scroll (dated between 30 and 50 CE). Only trained spiritual leaders were permitted to speak this name aloud; others who dared did so on pain of death (Discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls [exhibit text], Pacific Science Center, Seattle, Washington, 2006).
In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded numerous arts activities as part of an effort to create jobs that would help the United States recover from the Great Depression. You can hear what Zora Neale Hurston, who worked as a WPA researcher before becoming an acclaimed novelist, learned about the information African Americans shared through song in that era (http://hurston-sweat.wikispaces.com/).