What is oral literature?

Literature refers to written works, and oral, in this case, refers to utterances or spoken words. I have seen the expression "collection of oral literature" but don't understand how this can be correct.

Merriam-Webster gives several definitions for literature:

  • written works (such as poems, plays, and novels) that are considered to be very good and to have lasting importance
  • books, articles, etc., about a particular subject
  • printed materials (such as booklets, leaflets, and brochures) that provide information about something

In contrast, Merriam-Webster defines oral as:

spoken rather than written

From these definitions, it's obvious that oral doesn't seem to fit with literature.

  • Does the Wikipedia article answer your question?
    – JEL
    Sep 27, 2016 at 7:48
  • 1
    Why do you think literature has to be written down?
    – deadrat
    Sep 27, 2016 at 7:59
  • 1
    I don't think that the Wikipedia article does answer my question, and yes I do think literature has to be written down. It is one thing to coin terms for new concepts as culture changes, but changing definitions of such traditionally used terms as literature, obfuscate for future generations the foundations of our intellectual and cultural heritage, which are almost entirely in written form, and while largely ignored by people that don't read often or well, are still the largest repository of knowledge and wisdom that we have.
    – James Free
    Sep 27, 2016 at 10:18
  • 1
    At ELU, debate (except in subversive forms) is not allowed. That is, this is not (advertised as) a forum for discussion per se, but rather a forum for "questions and answers". As a result, questions are expected to demonstrate that basic research has been done; if the basic research is not sufficient to answer the question, the reasons why not should be included in the question, if for no other reason than to save answerers the effort: "oral literature n. poems, stories, songs, etc. passed down through the generations by word of mouth" (OED, attested from 1815 to present day).
    – JEL
    Sep 28, 2016 at 18:21

3 Answers 3


Indeed, "oral literature" is an oxymoron, as the Wikipedia article indicates:

The Ugandan scholar Pio Zirimu introduced the term orature in an attempt to avoid an oxymoron, but oral literature remains more common both in academic and popular writing.

Alternatively, consider the possibility that the term literature may be experiencing semantic broadening.

Semantic broadening would help to explain why media is considered to be a form of literature.


James, your doubts are entirely justified.

"Oral literature" is nothing more than a misnomer for "oral tradition" and the fact that OED acknowledges its existence says more about the standards of OED and less about the validity of the expression.

Why literature has to be written down is because that's what literature means, as seen by its definitions at, inter alia, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=literature

literature (n.)  early 15c., "book-learning," from Latin literatura/litteratura "learning, a writing, grammar," originally "writing formed with letters," from litera/littera "alphabetic letter" also "an epistle, writing, document; literature, great books; science, learning" (see letter (n.1)). In English originally "book learning" (in which sense it replaced Old English boccræft); the meaning "activity of a writer, the profession of a literary writer" is first attested 1779 in Johnson's "Lives of the English Poets;" that of "literary productions as a whole, body of writings from a period or people" is first recorded 1812. Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree. [Ezra Pound, "ABC of Reading"] Meaning "the whole of the writing on a particular subject" is by 1860; sense of "printed matter generally" is from 1895. The Latin word also is the source of Spanish literatura, Italian letteratura, German Literatur.

By the by no, Pound appears to have been talking about the content, not the medium. Does anyone think that because I can sometimes use a big screwdriver to bang a nail into a plank, that makes a screwdriver any kind of hammer?

It might be said that “oral literature” showed the same history as, for instance “analog” as opposed to “digital watch”, “acoustic guitar” or “landline phone” but the difference should be clear. There were watches, there were guitars and there were telephones and after more-than-somewhat new versions of each arrived, it did become necessary to find retronyms for all of them; neologisms providing new names to differentiate the original from the new form. We have “analog” only as opposed to “digital watches”; we have “acoustic” only as opposed to “electric guitars”; we have “landlines” only as opposed to “mobile (or cell) phones”.

“Oral literature” could have been an example of that mechanism, except that anywhen around 1815, writers lived and worked in an environment which paid far more attention to the spirit than the letter of any rule for writing and even then “far more” meant little.

Should we now accept an abuse just because 10 years after someone was ignorant or lazy enough to overlook the very basis of what he appears to have been writing - not talking; writing - about, two or three chaps in Oxford didn’t bother to question it?

Equally, should we now try to force “literature” onto the oral tradition of each and every “lost tribe” found living in the Amazon rain forest?

It is clearly legitimate to use “saga” to mean what it means, which is something “said” as opposed to written or expressed in any other medium popular in ancient Iceland and equally, that is not the same thing as trying to distort “writing” into “oral writing”.


The dictionary definition JEL provided in the comments:

oral literature n. poems, stories, songs, etc. passed down through the generations by word of mouth" (OED, attested from 1815 to present day). – JEL

To continue with the Oxford English Dictionary entry:

1815 N. Amer. Rev. 1 313 This country has a literature... But it is not the least indebted for it to the labour of its colonies. I now refer to the oral literature of its aborigines.

1898 S. A. Brooke Eng. Lit. from Beginnings to Norman Conquest ii. 42 This was the origin of the early unhistoric sagas, like that of Beowulf, and such a saga was the highest form of the oral literature of the German tribes.

1953 S. A. Brown in A. Dundes Mother Wit (1973) 40/1 The Negro was contributing..through what we call oral literature—folk literature.

2013 in M. Turin et al. Oral Lit. in Digital Age Introd. p. xiii,
The term ‘oral literature’ broadly includes ritual texts, curative chants, epic poems, folk tales, creation stories, songs, myths, spells, legends, proverbs, riddles, tongue-twisters, recitations and historical narratives

True, the OED definition of literature refers to written works only. But we should not expect absolute consistency in language, except computer languages.

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