What is Oral Literature?

Are you concerned about what Oral Literature really means? Are you confused owing to the conflicting definitions by different scholars and critics? We’ve got you covered, this article explains the meaning of this art form


In a nutshell, oral literature is a literary form that is passed down orally from generation to generation through word of mouth.

Oral expression was used as a form of literature long before the invention of writings, and it is still prevalent in many societies today.

Meaning of Oral Literature

There are many definitions of Oral Literature, however, we will give you a more comprehensive one while reproducing the other ones in subsequent paragraphs.

Simply put, Oral Literature is the form of literature that is originally created to be rendered through word of the mouth or physical performance.

This means that written texts that are meant to be performed, recited, told, and chanted, are also examples of the art form.

Forms of Oral Literature

The following are the forms of the art form:

1. Folktales

2. Spoken Words

3. Oral Poetry

4. Praise Songs

5. War Songs

6. Fables

7. Folklores

8. Myths

9. Legends

10. Fairy Tales

11. Incantations

12. Chants

13. Folk Songs

14. Proverbs

15. Riddles and Jokes

16. Tongue Twisters

17. Festival (masquerades, cultural dance)

18. Epics

19. Ballads

20. Idioms, etc.

Forms of oral literature - 1

Examples of Oral Literature in Written Form

Orality does not suggest something that is not written, it means meant to be rendered in a word fixed form. There are some that have been published as printed texts. They include:

  • The Ozidi Saga by J. P Clark
  • Beowulf
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Characteristics of Oral Literature

Below are some of the characteristic features of this art form:

1. Oral Literature is Based on the Actual Performance

There is no other way for oral literature to be realized as a literary product than for a performer to formulate it in words on a specific occasion.

This point becomes clear when we consider literary forms intended for delivery to an audience, even in more familiar literate cultures.

When we consider forms such as a play/drama, we realize that they are more effective when presented on stage rather than read as a book.

2. Oral Literature is Transmitted through Words of Mouth

The term “oral” means “spoken” rather than “written.” As a result, art form employs the medium of words of mouth (spoken form) to convey the message to the audience.

The message is received by the audience through listening and watching.

Characteristics of oral literature-1

3. In Oral Literature the Artist and the Audience have a Face to Face Contact

Because the artist meets with his audience in person, he can use this to both influences and be influenced.

Sometimes he chooses to directly involve his listeners, as in story-telling situations where the narrator opens with a phrase that arouses his audience’s attention; he also frequently expects them to participate actively in the narration, particularly in the choruses of songs that he introduces into the narrative.

4. Oral Literature is Contextual

It enhances the local environment as well as the time at which it is presented.

When telling a story in the Lake Zone, the narrator may say “the hippo disappeared into the lake,” but if told in Dar-es-Salaam, the narrator may say “the hippo disappeared into the sea.”

Even within the same culture, many set styles of performance may exist to suit the various literary genres recognized in the culture.

Indeed, these genres are sometimes distinguished primarily by their medium of performance rather than their content or purpose.

5. Oral Literature is Born, Grows, Lives, and Dies

The development of science and technology has had a significant impact on the lifespan of oral literature.

While oral literature is older than written literature, it faces significant threats from the rapid development of science and technology in its growth, spread, and survival.

As most works of this art form are preserved in formats other than human memory, their oral flavor begins to fade.

Because we now have works stored on CDs, DVDs, Tapes, Computers, memory cards, books, and so on, this art form has lost its oral quality, and some works have become extinct.


In conclusion, the orality preceded written Literature and by extension is richer in form than the latter. It performs the same functions as the written form.  The major difference between the two is the presence of a performer and audience which is only found in the former.

Nsikak Ekikor.

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