oral tradition

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a community's cultural and historical traditions passed down by word of mouth or example from one generation to another without written instruction.
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Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is oral tradition?

Oral tradition is the cultural knowledge and information that has been passed down through speech from one generation to the next. Oral tradition can also refer to this mode of communication.

Tradition means something that is handed down from generation to generation. Oral means transmitted by speech, and it is used in the term oral tradition to specifically distinguish information passed down through speech, song, or demonstration, as opposed to writing.

Despite widespread literacy and modern electronic recordkeeping, oral tradition is still the most widely used form of communication in the world.

Why is the purpose of oral tradition in a society?

Once upon a time, there were no books and not a single person knew how to read or write. Yet people still had rich cultures and stories that were important to their way of life. All over the world, societies kept their folklore, rituals, and traditions alive for many generations through stories, songs, speeches, sermons, dances, and other non-written forms of communication. Even today, cultures continue to pass on important information through oral tradition.

Oral tradition can happen informally (telling Grandma’s stories around the fire), but in many cultures, the people tasked with passing on their culture by word of mouth are highly trained, and their stories are highly rehearsed. This is especially true in primarily oral societies where oral tradition is still dominant. Many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas rely on storytellers to pass on their rituals and sacred stories. In western Africa, storytellers called griots have the responsibility of keeping an oral history of their tribe or village and entertaining with stories, poems, songs, and dances. Across the world, the method by which oral tradition is transmitted is often highly structured, allowing the storyteller to recall large amounts of information and maintain the same story or lesson from one generation to the next.

People from literacy-focused societies sometimes view oral tradition as obsolete or an unreliable form of recordkeeping. However, many of the traditions kept by oral societies remain largely unchanged over centuries due to successful transmission of oral tradition. While oral tradition and literacy are often contrasted to each other, many societies have relied on both forms of communication.

Did you know ... ?

Oral tradition is alive and well in the city of New Orleans, where people perform “toasts,” long poems or stories about folk heroes.

What are real-life examples of oral tradition?

Despite the prevalence of modern technology, oral tradition is still an important part of how we communicate with each other.


What other words are related to oral tradition?

Quiz yourself!

Which of the following is an example of cultural knowledge that has been passed on through oral tradition?

A. Folklore
B. Religious teachings
C. Songs and dances
D. All of the above

How to use oral tradition in a sentence