In a world where many minority languages are being wiped out, there is one tradition that is fighting to keep them alive: oral history. Alien to many ‘Western’ cultures, oral history involves passing down ancestral tales in a native mother tongue, often with the aid of song and dance. Thanks to dedicated practitioners around the world, oral history traditions have the power to push back against the creeping homogenisation of global languages. Here are some of the specific traditions doing just that.
Native American oral histories form the backbone of society
The oral history traditions of the Native American Nations are some of the most important in the world, in terms of what they mean to people in these communities’ everyday lives. One of the most stunning examples is the Ocmulgee Indian Celebration in Oklahoma, which draws thousands of visitors every year.
So important is this tradition that the 2017 Celebration wasn’t even cancelled amid fears surrounding Hurricane Irma. As a homecoming for people of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who were driven away from their homeland by the US government in the 1800s, Ocmulgee Indian Celebration features song, dance, sport, and oral history, with storytellers passing down tales in Muscogee language, which now has only 5,000 speakers, according to a US census.
Native American oral history is not exclusive to annual celebrations, though. In most tribes, oral history delivered in a native tongue helps strengthen the connection between modern people and their ancestors, with a mixture of mythology and history being passed down from generation to generation. For many Native Americans, this is the primary way of preserving a legacy which has survived for hundreds of years amidst constant persecution.
Sean-nós song preserves Irish culture
The country may be better known for Guinness, Westlife and Liam Neeson in some parts of the world, but traditional Irish culture lives on thanks in no small part to oral history. The practice of sean-nós song, in particular, is one of its most prominent formats. Performed in the Gaelic language, sean-nós is an unaccompanied singing style which relays stories from Irish history and mythology.
Sean-nós is most popular at events such as funerals or weddings in Ireland, where older members of the family will often sing on the fringes of the party while friends and relatives gather to listen.
A 2016 census found that just over 73,000 people speak Gaelic daily in the Republic of Ireland. This may seem like a big figure, but it is a tiny proportion of the country’s 4 million residents. It is fortunate, then, that sean-nós song helps keep those who don’t speak it regularly stay in touch with the Gaelic language.
Aboriginal oral traditions preserve language and history
Whilst most of the Irish and Native American history detailed above blends mythology with real events, Aboriginal oral history traditions in Australia have proven to be extremely accurate.
Recent scientific research has found that the sea level on Australia’s Port Phillip Bay has risen dramatically over the past 10,000 years, covering several islands. But this was not a new discovery. Aboriginal Australians have passed down information about the submerged islands over hundreds of generations. This oral history is so detailed that many present day Aboriginals can point to the vanished islands, and even recall their original names.
Groups of scientists worked with translators to determine just how true these details were. Perhaps staggeringly, the results were overwhelmingly accurate. With many of these scientists coming from a background that can only preserve written information, the findings were remarkable. This example proves that oral history is not just useful for preserving little-spoken languages, but also a valuable tool to scientific and historical researchers.
With oral history traditions in lesser-spoken languages providing insights into cultural and world history, there has never been a more important time to preserve them. Our language translators are fluent in many declining languages, putting them in prime position to help with preservation.