Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 40.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Wed, 28 May 2003 05:22:59 +0100
From: Alexandre Enkerli <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Nested Orality
This is not a subject I'm directly familiar with, but orality does have a
bearing on my work.
As this list does seem to allow "thinking out loud," here are my thoughts.
Memory is certainly a major theme in the study of orality, especially in
works comparing it with writing (written-ity?). Yet, at first glance, it
seems cognitively awkward to "memorize" stories with so many levels of
nesting. In fact, there has to be psychological writings on the fact that
the human mind can't remember more than three levels of nesting.
Yet, it seems to be happening in oral traditions, It doesn't seem likely
that, for oral texts available in written form, the nesting would have been
added by transcription.
Now, don't we in fact use a similar process in conversation? What I mean is
that, anecdotally, I used to have playful conversations with a friend of
mine in which the main challenge was to switch from one topic to another
("coq l'ne") and then tracing back these topics and closing them. I do
advise you to try it, not only because it can be fun, but also because it
helps one experiment the beauty of orality.
Which brings me to a possible explanation of nesting in oral literature,
namely the cognitive appeal of the challenge. Nowadays, writers often (?)
use tools to keep track of plots, characters, dates, and such. Oral
performers, on the other hand, often take great pride in the power of their
memory. How hard could it be to say that we can get our mind to work as an
outliner with the in-built ability to, like Panurge, "go back to our sheep"
and close the open ends. The mind truly is a beautiful thing.
My guess would be that narrative landmarks are a prominent device to make
nesting and recursiveness work in the oral medium. Surely, some of you must
have good examples on how an oral narrative goes from a nested level to its
I do hope these ramblings are appropriate enough here.
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