Stories and the spoken word

Geeta Ramanujam

Stories may be shaped by the world, but stories in turn shape the world. The stories people tell govern their view or reality, and determine their perception of the world. The picture of the universe shifts from tongue to tongue.

Our earliest lessons are in the form of stories told by parents and grandparents. Since ancient times, human beings have depended on the word of mouth to transfer culture from one generation to another. Words began to assume meaning when they were transmitted from one person to another through different telling styles, languages, and methodologies. These methodologies became the pillars of oral literature, which formed the basis of language development and effective communication among human beings.

When humans first wandered the Earth, they were survivors. They observed, sensed, and smelt the trees, animals, and the Earth to fulfill their basic needs. They hunted for meat and protected themselves from the rain and storms. Each lived alone and found no time or need to speak.

Years later, they found other similar humans on the other side of the shore. They were anxious, tense, angry, envious, and friendly all at the same time. They began to communicate with the help of sounds, gestures, and paintings on cave walls to express their environment.

Soon humans struck fire and settled around the fire, cooking the meat they had hunted, sharing the food and their experiences of hunting. They gathered themselves as a tribe. Tribal communities around the world shared tales using animal and bird sounds, indicating a gamut of expressions, meanings, and experiences. These sounds eventually became words and words became sentences.

Tribal communities, now, began to ask many how and why questions. “How did the elephant get its trunk?” “Why is the sky so limitless?” They built myths, legends, fables, and folktales around these questions which became folklore.

These folktales encapsulated folk knowledge, which was transmitted to their children, grandchildren, communities from generation to generation. These narratives did not have any particular structure or pattern. Stories began with sharing of experiences involving the teller and the listener. These stories got crystallized and consolidated as oral literature and formed the basis of oral tradition.

The oral tradition became a system for acquiring, storing, and retrieving cultural articulations and a primary source of shared understanding and wisdom. The oral tradition was lodged in the mind and memory of people and operated without conscious effort. Through stories and anecdotes and spoken tales, this knowledge preserved traditions and kept values alive.

Stories became the basic means of communication both in the regional and the universal tongue around the world. Language was transacted in different styles as narratives and in the written form as words in novels, textbooks, and books of learning.

Over time, stories instilled not only a love for reading and language, but they also transmitted wisdom from diverse narrative styles, through the spoken word and written texts.

In the early years of the evolution of oral literature, few people were conscious of the complexity of the stories they told. They just spoke, almost entirely unaware of the subtleties of the word choice, of the grammar, of sentence structure, or emphasis. This gift of storytelling and the language they spoke was remarkable, considering that the average adult can pick and choose from a reservoir of some 50,000 words. When voice or vocabulary failed, they called on gestures to take the place of words. Such development of language was an extraordinary achievement.

It is this literature that has made it possible for man to erect civilizations and master the sciences that make human life what it is today. Literature is the primary cause of man’s swift and ever-accelerating cultural evolution. From oral literature to the written one, man has progressed from passing on knowledge with stone or bronze tools to inventing electronic communication networks that bind the world together.

At the simplest level, storytelling and speaking are physical actions comparable to walking or lifting things. Countless nerve cells located in the brain coordinate muscles that create meaningful vocal signals. In addition, words, spoken with various tones and accents, constitute overt behaviour. Speech also influences human behaviour. To communicate through stories is to be human.

Most experts refuse to guess how man first invented stories, language, and literature. They believe, the invention probably occurred in many different places at different times. Stories and language did not grow entirely in isolation. Oral literature influenced one another or intermarried and produced offspring.

Today we have so many ways to communicate anecdotes, stories, and feelings. Mobile phones and WhatsApp services help man connect widely, yet briefly. With Artificial Intelligence already a part of our lives, I wonder what sacrifices the spoken word will undergo.

The author is a master storyteller, trainer, author, academician and founder director of Kathalaya’s International Academy of storytelling India. She has been in the education field for over 44 years and has won several accolades in the field of storytelling and education. She can be reached at kathalaya@gmail.com and www.kathalaya.org.

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