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."

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