The World Oral Literature Project

  • Posted on April 12, 2010

Mark Turin and Imogen Gunn discuss the World Oral Literature Project, a global initiative to make endangered oral literature accessible.

The Situation

A sobering statistic: the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (http://www.unesco.org/culture/en/endangeredlanguages/atlas), released by UNESCO in early 2009, claims that more than 2,400 of the over 6,500 languages spoken around the globe today are in danger of disappearing. Most of these vanishing voices – amounting to more than a third of the world’s total living languages – are entirely oral and have no written form. These unwritten languages face a dual threat: when a language dies, the associated oral traditions may also vanish without a trace.

Threats to endangered and marginalised languages come in many forms: some implicit and unintended, others more explicit. Globalisation and rapid socio-economic change exert particularly complex pressures on smaller communities, often eroding expressive diversity and transforming culture through assimilation to more dominant ways of life. A well-intentioned and important national education programme in one of the world’s major languages, such as Mandarin Chinese or French, may have the side effect of undermining local traditions and weakening regional languages. In the name of national unity, some governments may even intentionally suppress local languages and cultural traditions as a way of exerting control over minority populations.

The death of a language is not just about words, syntax and grammar. Languages convey unique forms of cultural knowledge; speech forms encode oral traditions and provide form for oral literatures. The broad term ‘oral literature’ includes ritual texts, curative chants, epic poems, musical genres, folk tales, creation stories, songs, myths, spells, legends, proverbs, riddles, tongue-twisters, word games, recitations, life histories or historical narratives. Most simply, ‘oral literature’ refers to any form of literature that is transmitted orally or delivered by word of mouth.

For many communities around the world, the transmission of oral literature from one generation to the next lies at the heart of cultural practice. While our European epics and classics are published and taught as literature, oral narratives rarely have that chance since, until relatively recently, few indigenous peoples have had a means to document their cultural knowledge, whether in writing or using newer recording technologies. Oral literature must be seen for what it is: complex, beautiful and sophisticated, on a par with the writings of our great authors. These creative works are an invaluable part of a community’s heritage that may be threatened when their mother tongue becomes endangered. Such traditions are usually not translated when a community switches to speaking a more dominant language.

Linguists have responded decisively to the crisis of language endangerment with such initiatives as the Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project (http://www.hrelp.org/), the Volkswagen Foundation-funded Documentation of Endangered Languages (DoBeS) (http://www.mpi.nl/DOBES) and the National Geographic Enduring Voices Project (http://www.nationalgeographic.com/mission/enduringvoices/), all of which support communities in the field and scholars based in universities around the world. However, such momentum has yet to be felt among anthropologists and other professionals working on endangered oral traditions, and there is little agreement on how historical and contemporary collections of oral literature can be responsibly managed, archived and curated for the future. We hope that the World Oral Literature Project may play a role in this discussion.

The Response

In January 2009, the World Oral Literature Project was established at the University of Cambridge to document and make accessible the voices of vanishing worlds before they disappear without record. Our goal is to encourage collaborations between local communities and committed anthropologists and linguists by providing supplemental grants for the field documentation of oral literature and by organising lectures and workshops to discuss the best strategies for supporting and stimulating research on these endangered narrative traditions. In addition, we publish and archive collections of oral literature, online and in print.

In our first year, with generous support from the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research, we awarded almost £40,000 in grants to scholars working with communities to document their oral literatures and living traditions. Examples include recordings of ceremonial chanting in the Vaupés region of Colombia; an audio archive of the vocal repertoire of the last royal singer of Mustang, Nepal; and a collection of Altaian heroic epics sung by ritual practitioners. Copies of the resulting digital collections are deposited with the project as well as with local communities. See our website for more details on the grant programme and to learn about our grantees: (http://www.oralliterature.org/grants/grantees.html)

Our first workshop was held on December 15-16, 2009, and proved to be a great success. Sixteen speakers presented on their work and Professor Emeritus Ruth Finnegan, an expert on African oral literature, offered a compelling keynote. The presenters were joined by delegates and participants from all over the world, including students, linguists, anthropologists, community representatives, museum curators and archivists. The packed room and diversity of participants created a lively atmosphere that has led to ongoing collaborations and partnerships. Podcasts of the papers are available online so that anyone may benefit from the content of the discussion: ( http://www.oralliterature.org/research/workshops.html).

We are currently investigating how collections deposited with us – both contemporary field recordings generated by our grantees and other fieldworkers, as well as heritage recordings – can best be protected and disseminated while still respecting the intellectual property rights and sentiments of local communities. While Cambridge may be the location where materials are hosted and maintained, both physically and digitally, communities will require copies of the output so that future generations can access and make use of the cultural knowledge and language of their ancesto

The Ultimate Goal

The New Zealand Film Archive (http://www.filmarchive.org.nz/) has a mission to collect, protect and connect New Zealanders with their moving image heritage. These three verbs also summarise our aims. Collection is the gathering and documentation of oral literature in the field, not in an extractive or acquisitive manner, but in a way that is responsible, collaborative and predicated on trust. Protection is its archiving and curation – doing the best we can to ensure that these unique cultural materials are maintained, migrated and refreshed as new technologies become available and older technologies become obsolete. The connection is made when collections are returned to source communities and when they reach a wider public in print and online.

To find out more about the project, for information on how to apply for a grant, or to explore ways to support the initiative, please visit: http://www.oraliterature.org

Mark Turin is the Director and Imogen Gunn a research assistant of the World Oral Literature Project.

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