epics and oral traditions

Allen Thrasher athr at loc.gov
Fri Jun 6 20:56:53 UTC 1997

I think I could have expressed myself more clearly.  I was speculating
(not asserting) that the brahmans did not merely preserve archaisms in the
hymns of the Veda, but continued to use productively a whole earlier stage
of language (without the use of a codified and taught grammar to do so).
In other words, they might have been able to orally compose hymns in a
form of language much older than what they spoke in, and perhaps even the
language of the Brahmanas was older than what they spoke in in everyday
use, but they still were able to produce in it.  It would be rather as if
the singers of the old ballads in the Appalachians were not merely able to
continue using older forms of speech in their songs, but were able to
compose new ballads in Middle English or even Anglo-Saxon.  In other
words, I was speculating, is it possible to preserve an ancient form of
speech in an illiterate society without preserving verbatim the
compositions in that speech?

I seem to recall, but couldn't locate the reference for the life of me,
that some group of Southwest Native Americans uses in some religious
contexts forms of speech that seem radically archaic to the scholar who
studied them in comparison to their regular speech and even to most of
their religious speech.  If so , would it be necessarily a matter of
memorizing verbal formulae, or of retaining an ancient form of speech
fully productively in certain contexts?  

Allen W. Thrasher

The opinions expressed do not represent those of my employer.

On Fri, 6 Jun 1997, Birgit Kellner wrote:

> The example given by Allen Thrasher (samhitas seemingly represent an
> older form of Sanskrit than brahmanas, but shouldn't, according to
> Lord/Parry/Ong) would deserve a closer look. If we find two texts
> representing different stages of linguistic development side by side in
> writing, the first obvious question is "how did they get there?". Did
> somebody put two independent written texts together, or were the texts
> recited together, in (approximately) the very form that we have them
> now? 
> Preservation of archaisms, that is, linguistic conservativism, has been
> singled out as one important feature of oral transmission, so I'm not
> sure why this would be strange according to Lord/Parry/Ong. That a
> privileged class of "text-producers" handles different linguistic styles
> for different purposes seems quite plausible to me (THIS would be an
> instance of pragmatic factors accounting for the specific character of
> transmitted orality). 

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