Monday, November 19, 2007

Variation on folktales - a kiss or body slam?

We just purchased a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales and I started reading the first one, The Frog King. I expected to read about the story of the princess kissing the frog and him becoming a prince and the two living happily ever after. At least that's how it has been passed on to me through various media. Much to my surprise, assuming that written stories don't change, I read that only after the princess threw the frog against the wall in disgust did he change into a prince. The body slam hardly seems like a gesture of endearment. But, low and behold he changed and they did marry. I thought this would be the end of the story, but instead a new character is introduced after the main event. He is Henry, the prince's longtime aide, who's heart had to be banned three times so it would not break out of sadness (when the prince became a frog). Instead, Henry is so glad, his heart bursts out of joy for his master. The bands break and all three ride off.

The website SurLaLune Fairy Tales has some good annotations describing the reasons behind the variation and significant parts and characters of the story. So, the translator, Edgar Taylor (1823) changes a significant event in the story to suit his taste or perhaps what he thought his audience would enjoy.

In the Wikipedia write-up, the contributor calls the violent act of throwing the frog against the wall, a means to undo shapeshifting.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Kai and natural English

I've been thinking about natural English, storytelling and translation. When I attended formal schooling I was taught that sentences starting with 'and' are not proper English. I don't think my teacher went so far as to say such sentences were ungrammatical, but just not proper.

One of the goals of a good translation is that it achieves a certain naturalness. The translation doesn't sound like the language it came from but the language into which it was translated. When reading the Christmas story in some new English Bible translations (not The Message) I was surprised to see that several of the sentences started with 'and' or 'but'. This is very common for the source language, Koine Greek - 'kai'. But how common is this for English? Does starting sentences or paragraphs with 'and' or 'but' mirror spoken English? Is the rule prohibiting using 'and' sentence initial specifically for written English? Is it a reflection of the difference between spoken and written language, or possibly a reflection of a regional variety of spoken English?

I thought I'd start listening to people telling their stories and how they begin major sections. Well, just yesterday was a good time to listen as we had a 2 hour meeting and the presentations were interspersed with stories. One presenter told a story, where after the introduction each section started with 'and' and the last section started with 'so'. It was in the last section where the significant action happened, marked by language like 'he was stunned'. The transition in these paragraph starters marked a significant change in the story to me as the listener.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The relationship between literacy and orality

While working in Vanuatu people were excited to see their language developed as a written language. Some understand the benefits of literacy as shown on the banner 'Literacy Helps Us' (Literasi i givhan long ol pipol - Bislama). And generally, people enjoy seeing their stories written and illustrated. Mostly, people not living in the town centers don't have all that much to read on a daily basis, which affects their literate abilities. The relationship between orality and literacy within a culture is intriguing. Is the relationship dichotomous or interwoven?

Orality and Literacy is Ong’s most widely known work, having been translated into at least 12 languages. At first glance, the title suggests a variety of topics such as technology, and orality as compared to literacy, perhaps favoring one over the other. Before I go further, I would like to take the reader to the end of the book, where Ong states that being literate definitely has its advantages. Ong is concerned with the interrelationship between orality and literacy.

“Orality is not an ideal, and never was. To approach it positively is not to advocate it as a permanent state for any culture. Literacy opens possibilities to the word and to human existence unimaginable without writing. Oral cultures today value their oral traditions and agonize over the loss of these traditions, but I have never encountered or heard of an oral culture that does not want to achieve literacy as soon as possible. (Some individuals of course do resist literacy, but they are mostly soon lost sight of.) Yet orality is not despicable. It can produce creations beyond the reach of literates, for example, the Odyssey. Nor is orality ever completely eradicable; reading a text oralizes it. Both orality and the growth of literacy out of orality are necessary for the evolution of consciousness.” (Ong 2001 171)

The subtitle to this book is ‘technologizing the word’. In order to understand what Ong meant, he urges the reader to consider that writing in itself is a technology, using tools such as styles, quills, pencils, pens and computers. Ong notes that Plato had his objections to the technology of writing, but in order to make his point wrote about it. Plato’s main criticism had to do with the effect that writing would have on mental processes (Ong 2002:79).

Even though writing is ‘completely artificial’ according to Ong – in fact Ong states, “There is no way to write ‘naturally’”, Ong praises writing as such. “Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials.” (2002:81)

This statement on technology being internalized makes me think of playing a musical instrument. There are some songs and etudes that I play from kinesthetic memory, and when I think about them too much, stumble. Yet Ong states that:

“The use of a technology can enrich the human psyche, enlarge the human spirit, intensify its interior life. Writing is an even more deeply interiorized technology than instrumental musical performance is. But to understand what it is, which means to understand it in relation to its past, to orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced.” (2002:82)

Orality and Literacy is a seminal work on this topic taking the reader deep into the inter-relatedness and polarities between the two concepts. Ong explores the history of literacy and the change from orality to literate cultures and how literacy brings a way of thinking not conceivable by primary oral cultures. He is very careful to distinguish between intelligence and cognitive processes or ways of thinking, by no means insinuating that oral cultures are primitive and unintelligent, rather exploring how the two cognitive processes differ and interact.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Identification stories

A group of us met to talk about language development strategy the other day and got to the subject of identity, what identifies a person with a certain group, i.e. language, dress, ways of doing things, religion, accent, food and stories. We're from the USA, and can point to the legends of the founding fathers as something shared, or of conflicts, expansion, immigration, travel, exploration, science, drama and American literature as being somewhat shared. Where does one go from there? I'm from eastern Pennsylvania of southern German descent. I'm grateful to my uncle and other relatives for researching the family history. I have family tree charts and am learning the stories, which identify me with a certain people, even though for me the language, Pennsylvania German, is gone. I'm sure that if Pennsylvania German would've been passed on to me, I would've identified more strongly with that group than I do at present.

While living on Epi Island in Vanuatu, we learned some of their stories, such as how Lamen Island arrived in its present location, having floated over from Malakula Island. They say you can see the hole in the reef where it once stood. Knowing the story, especially in the Lamen language, helps Lamen Islanders identify with their group. It's a shared story of their past.

Even in Vanuatu identity is layered. One can be called 'Man Vanuatu' as being a citizen of Vanuatu, or 'Man Epi' as being from the particular island called Epi. Epi has at least 5 languages though, spoken by around 5,000 people. So, 'Man Epi' is not enough to identify oneself in that situation. Someone might speak the Lewo language and then is probably not 'Man Lewo' as you'd expect, but identified by the village they live in. People there know what language is spoken in what village. After that, people are identified by their clans and families.

We had a good discussion on language and identity, and shared stories that mark that group. What stories identify you and your group? It can be a difficult question to answer, but one worth asking.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Storytelling as an assessment tool

Lately we've been discussing Doug Lipman's course on storytelling (called Storytelling Workshop in a BoxTM, available from or email and most recently the topic of eliciting stories. Doug urges storytellers to hear other people's stories and in so doing this will help them become better storytellers. Some important aspects of eliciting a story are listening and imagining what is happening in the story. At some point in the imagining processes the listener needs to question what they might be missing in the story. What gaps are there in the story? My wife for instance can read a novel and find holes or character changes.

Then I was thinking after listening to some children retell a Bible story they had just heard in church, about storytelling or retelling a story as an assessment tool for comprehension. In one way, this would help the teller see what impressions the story made on the audience, and in another possibly show what the listener understood or didn't understand.

In the field of sociolingusitics, questioning people about stories they've heard is a useful way to assess how well they might understand another language variety. This method can take a variety of forms, answers to direct questions on short stories or a retelling of the story.

So, I did what I usually do, and search Google to see what others have written on the subject of storytelling and assessment and found this e-article on the subject of using storytelling as an means of assessment by George Rooney called 'Storytelling and Contextually Based Design Techniques for Needs Assessment'

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Connecting with the audience through storytelling

Last July, my wife and I attended the National Storyteller Conference in downtown Pittsburgh overlooking Fort Pitt and Heinz field. Other than being so close to where our favorite team, the Steelers plays football, we had a great time meeting storytellers from around the country and hearing not only their stories but what helps to make their stories so interesting to listen to, or what makes them good storytellers. It was the first time for us to attend a National Storytelling Network (NSN) Conference. After attending several of the workshops, we came away convinced that telling stories is an engaging and memorable form of communication. We decided to tell stories rather than presenting our work and vision through a progression of points. The first thing we did when we arrived home was to redo our 'presentation' by selecting stories that would communicate the same ideas. Having practiced weaving stories together at the conference, we wove together stories, some of which were ancient, some current and some from Vanuatu. The audience we spoke to knew us, but after this talk they commented that they had a much better idea of what our work is all about and what we hoped to do in the future. It was an 'aha' experience for me, as well as being somewhat humbling, in the sense that I thought we had communicated those same ideas several times previously. The experience was also somewhat exciting in that we received unsolicited and positive feedback and had a taste of connecting with our audience through storytelling.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Storytelling and Oral Tradition Graduate Course Notice

This year I (Karl Franklin) am again offering a graduate course (August 20 to September 17) on oral tradition and literature (storytelling) at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (GIAL) in Dallas, TX. It provides insight into why storytelling is so important in oral cultures and what it has to offer in literate cultures as well. Although illustrations are given from Biblical storytelling sources, the course is designed to encourage fieldworkers to understand and document oral histories, genealogies and folklore through stories, which include parables, proverbs, songs and other genres. The course runs for two hours a day and is divided into information processing in the first hour and practice in the second. There is also a fairly heavy reading schedule. My background is in linguistics and anthropology (Papua New Guinea for almost 35 years), but it is only in the last few years that I have worked on storytelling. - Karl Franklin

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Land ownership and oral tradition

Thanks for stopping by. I've been thinking more of what Walter Ong has written in 'Orality and Literacy' lately under the section of 'From Memory to Written Records'. I find what I'm reading as fascinating and resonates with current issues in the Pacific, especially with regards to land. In some parts of the Pacific, like Vanuatu, land is owned solely by people from Vanuatu. It is largely inherited, passed on from generation to generation. Others can lease the land for around 75 years (see Oxfam NZ report). Land disputes frequently come before chiefs, land councils and the courts. It's a problem. Land disputes traditionally are settled by what the claimants can say about the land in question, which has to do with ancestors, lineage, stories concerning the land and ancestors, and the language of the area. The oral memory is crucial to land ownership. In the last several years there has been a push to prove ownership with written records. It would be a major step toward a very different way of settling disputes and connection with one's land. Here, the story is more than something about the land, it is vital to the future of one's family. I'm not sure where the process is at the moment, but at the least it points to how one's story is one's identity in the Pacific. What got me thinking on this was this quote from Ong on page 97:
"Customary law, trimmed of material no longer of use, was automatically always up to date and thus youthful – a fact which paradoxically, makes customary law seem inevitable and thus very old (cf. Clanchy 1979, p. 233). Persons whose world view has been formed by high literacy need to remind themselves that in functionally oral cultures the past is not felt as an itemized terrain, peppered with verifiable and disputed ‘facts’ or bits of information. It is the domain of the ancestors, a resonant source for renewing awareness of present existence, which itself is not an itemized terrain either. Orality knows no lists or charts or figures.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Variability on a story theme and oral memory

While living on Epi Island, Vanuatu, my wife and I started collecting what is known as 'custom' stories from adults in the Lamen language group. Custom stories are traditional stories that have been passed on from generation to generation. The Lamen language community is mostly an oral community and although a multilingual community they use their own language, Lamen when telling stories to each other. Most of the stories we collected had to do with the origins of Epi and Lamen Islands. Much to our surprise, none of the stories were the same. Our assumption was that if not the same, they would be very close to being so. We assumed oral memory would equate a verbatim retelling. I mentioned earlier that I'm reading Orality and Literacy by Ong and came to a section that made me reflect back to our experience on Epi Island learning the Lamen language and culture. Ong writes on page 66:
"In all cases, verbatim or not, oral memorization is subject to variation from direct social pressures. Narrators narrate what audiences call for or will tolerate. When the market for a printed book declines, the presses stop rolling but thousands of copies may remain. When the market for an oral genealogy disappears, so does the genealogy itself, utterly."

Friday, May 11, 2007

Storytelling and language communities with small populations

Language groups with small populations are often bypassed in language development projects, partly because agencies that are involved in aspects of literacy and translation do not have trainers or consultants to assist. Translation and literacy involve infrastructures that are available to only a limited degree in isolated areas. In addition, there are economic factors that affect small, isolated groups. The two articles given here ('Re-thinking stories' and 'Proposing an alternative initial strategy') suggest that storytelling can be a viable initial language development strategy for small languages in particular.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Orality and Literacy - Walter Ong - 'Wish I read this years ago'

I'm finally reading through Walter Ong's book 'Orality and Literacy' and wish I had done so years ago. It would have helped me to appreciate some issues that we recognized while living in Vanuatu, but wished I had understood . We lived in Vanuatu since 1991, spending several years on rural Epi Island and several more in the 'urban' center and capital, Port Vila. During that time we ran many training events dealing with language development, literacy and translation and learned that our 'normal' mode of training wasn't working with people from Vanuatu. While people from Vanuatu are not what Ong would call 'primary oral' cultures, probably the majority operate in an oral mode. Because we were intent on making our training fit the trainees, we recommended that trainees learn in groups and be the sole speaker of their language in the course. We also learned that not all needed to write what the group had learned, but one could serve as the scribe. In this way, the small group could process orally what they were learning.
Had I read 'Orality and Literacy' I think I might've appreciated repetitive stories more than I did. When meeting Vanuatu friends, we'd hear what was happening since our last meeting, then we'd hear the same story a couple more times before we departed. I don't know how normal this is for mostly oral cultures but I would imagine it would be fairly normal. It's a device for helping people remember the story and provides continuity. Ong states on page 40
"Since redundancy characterizes oral thought and speech, it is in a profound sense more natural to thought and speech than is sparse linearity. Sparse linear or analytic thought and speech are artificial creations, structured by the technology of writing.... With writing, the mind is forced into a slowed-down pattern that affords it the opportunity to interfere with and recognize its more normal, redundant processes."
Even when I read the word 'redundancy' I get a negative connotation as my educational experience taught me to be concise, being educated from a mostly literate culture. Had my childhood been in a mostly oral society, redundant probably would've been good and normal.
More on Ong later, thanks for dropping by.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Tell me a story, or a half a dozen or so. We heard several good ones in a variety of styles this weekend at the Dallas Storytelling Festival in Heritage Park. Some of the stories were memorized and rhyming, some passed on from people like Ray Bradbury, some deeply personal, some with props, and some of our own. At the first station we visited the professional storytellers actually wanted to hear some of our stories. So they heard about cultural miscues in Kewa and Lamen, two language groups from Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu that we collectively had lived and worked among.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Oral Tradition & Literature (Storytelling) Course

A graduate course on oral tradition and storytelling is going to be offered in Dallas from August 20 through September 17 during evenings at GIAL in Dallas. View pdf here.