Orality's materials

Oral history

Orality's materials



In general terms, the spoken word has a much greater variability than the written one: the contents transmitted orally can change ―and in fact do change, sometimes radically― from one moment or one situation to the next, even when they are uttered by the same person.

On the other hand, oral contents are fragile: their existence depends on the people who maintain and transmit them, and on their memories. All this can disappear in an instant: hence the famous phrases that point out that when the elders of oral societies die, entire libraries disappear with them.

This is why programs for the recovery and preservation of oral tradition have been developed, especially in those contexts where knowledge and memory usually travel through spoken channels, rather than through written media.

The most logical solution to preserve orality was, in the first place, to write down these contents and, when sound recording technologies appeared, to record them (on cylinders, discs, cassettes, etc.). In fact, such a solution is still preferred today: recording the spoken testimonies (today, by using digital media) and transcribing them.

Such a procedure has, however, a number of minor drawbacks. On the one hand, the written (and printed) version of the spoken word does not always include or manage to capture all the oral variations within a testimony: from changes in volume to the diversity of tones and forms of pronunciation, silences (and their intentions), gestures accompanying speech, and a long etcetera. On the other hand, audio recordings, although they are appropriate media for collecting orality, lack context.

Video recordings, which include the vast majority of elements necessary to fully understand speech, have recently been preferred. And, at the same time, an effort is being made to ensure that oral memories are maintained, disseminated, and perpetuated through these same oral channels.

To achieve the latter, storytellers are encouraged to pass on their knowledge to others so that the chain of spoken knowledge is not interrupted and local linguistic forms are preserved. This involves the creation of "talking circles", the presentation of "living books" programs, and a wide range of complementary activities.

While the recording of testimonies is an excellent first step, especially from an archival and historical perspective, from a sociological perspective it is advisable to maintain oral channels. This is a proposal to be developed in the Galapagos Islands, an area where orality is so strong, and where so little attention has been paid to it.


  Abrams, Lynn (2010). An Oral History Theory. London, New York: Routledge.

  Vansina, Jan M. (1985). Oral Tradition as History. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.


Text & picture: (edgardo.civallero@fcdarwin.org.ec).
Publication date: 1 October 2023
Last update: 1 October 2023