What Oral Literature Is

One of the most important developments in this century in both the popular and academic understanding of culture has been the wide growth of awareness that only a tiny percentage of man's total creative achievement has depended on literacy. Writing is at most a comparatively recent invention, and while it is useful for keeping records of all sorts, it is a cumbersome and inefficient means of cultural communication, even with the help of printing.

Despite their mechanical awkwardness and inefficiency, writing and printing are undeniably two great tools of civilization. But they are not basic assets of human nature. The more fundamental and most readily apparent distinctive cultural property of men everywhere remains their innate power of speech. Spoken words are the ultimate source of graphic communication, and any decay or diminution of the arts of speech immediately erodes the value of graphic culture. We live in an age when, moreover, other potentially civilizing inventions based on electrical recording and electronic dissemination of speech have only begun to be used and appreciated.

A large part of current speech in any language is ephemeral, and is employed for merely transient purposes. But a certain proportion of spoken communication is enduring, whether or not any record is made of it in writing or otherwise. It expresses ideas of such proven, lasting utility that special, poetic modes of speech exist in every language to assure the remembrance and continuation of those vital ideas in oral traditions. Oral literature is the material recorded from oral traditions in every age and in every language.

The Harvard Tradition

Harvard University is today internationally known and respected as a center for the collection and study of oral literature.

The University's prominence in this field arises partly from the devoted work of its numerous present members who are engaged in oral literary studies, and partly from an older tradition of scholarship on oral literature that goes back more than a hundred years in the history of Harvard College. Much of the best work now being done, whether at Harvard or elsewhere, is only a fulfillment and deepening of the research on oral literature that began at Harvard about the year 1856.

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