epics and oral traditions

Frances Garrett fmg3u at server1.mail.virginia.edu
Wed Jun 18 17:42:07 UTC 1997

Another modern day example of the below is the Baul 
singers of Bengal. Their songs, particularly the class 
of Baul songs called /deho tatto/ (philosophical songs 
about the body), contain a large enough percentage of 
archaic vocabulary that even educated Bengalis cannot 
understand the songs very well. Authentic Baul 
singers, who are largely illiterate (or at least 
living as part of an illiterate culture, meaning that 
although they are able to read, they don't, except 
when necessary) still compose songs using this archaic 
vocabulary. The fact that well-read Bengalis do not 
understand the songs suggests that it not simply a
literary form of Bengali used in the songs but rather 
a vocabulary that is genuinely archaic (I can't read 
Bengali myself so haven't been able to confirm this 
first-hand)--if others on this list can confirm this, 
I'd be interested.

Frances Garrett
Dept. of Religious Studies
University of Virginia

On Fri, 6 Jun 1997 22:12:54 BST Allen Thrasher 
<athr at loc.gov> wrote:

> 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

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