Authors: Ruth Finnegan
ORAL LITERATURE IN AFRICA
The praise singer Mqhyai, distinguished Xhosa imbongi, in traditional garb, with staff (courtesy Jeff Opland).
World Oral Literature Series: Volume 1
ORAL LITERATURE IN AFRICA
Open Book Publishers CIC Ltd.,
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© 2012 Ruth Finnegan. Forward © 2012 Mark Turin.
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This is the first volume in the World Oral Literature Series, published in association with the World Oral Literature Project.
World Oral Literature Series: Volume 1.
Digital material and resources associated with this volume are hosted by the World Oral Literature Project (
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ISBN Hardback: 978–1-906924–71-3
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Cover image: West African epic singer with lyre, probably Mandingo or Fula (courtesy Anne-Marie Dauphin and Jean Derive).
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To all my teachers
and to all those students
who may find this work of some use in their
study of the oral literatures of Africa
and of the world
is a Visiting Research Professor and Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Open University. Her particular interests are in the anthropology/sociology of artistic activity, communication, and performance; debates relating to literacy, ‘orality’ and multimodality; and amateur and other ‘hidden’ activities. She has published widely on aspects of communication and expression, especially oral performance, literacy, and music-making. Her publications include
Limba Stories and Story-Telling
(1977; 2nd edn 1992);
Information Technology: Social Issues
(joint ed., 1987);
Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication
Oral Traditions and the Verbal Arts
Communicating: The Multiple Modes of Human Interconnection
The Oral and Beyond: Doing Things with Words in Africa
(2007). Her most recent book,
Why Do We Quote? The Culture and History of Quotation
was published in 2011, and, to appear around 2013, an edited study of dreaming and telepathy.
Ruth Finnegan was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1996 and an Honorary Fellow of Somerville College Oxford in 1997; she was awarded an OBE for services to Social Sciences in 2000. Under the pen name of Catherine Farrar she has also published the first two parts of fantasy-fictional ‘The Self Quartet’, namely
The Little Angel and the Three Wisdoms
Three Ways of Loving;
also a collection of short stories,
The Wild Thorn Rose
. She can be reached at:
is a linguist and anthropologist. Before joining the South Asian Studies Council at Yale, he was a Research Associate at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. He has also held research appointments at Cornell and Leipzig universities, and the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Sikkim, India. From 2007 to 2008, he served as Chief of Translation and Interpretation at the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). Mark Turin is now the director of both the World Oral Literature Project (Cambridge and Yale)—an urgent global initiative to document and make accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record—and the Digital Himalaya Project, a platform to make multi-media resources from the Himalayan region widely available online. He writes and teaches on ethnolinguistics, visual anthropology, digital archives and fieldwork methodology at the Universities of Cambridge and Yale. His publications include
Grounding Knowledge/Walking Land: Archaeological Research and Ethno-historical Identity in Central Nepal
(joint, 2009) and
A Grammar of Thangmi with an Ethnolinguistic Introduction to the Speakers and their Culture
(2012). He can be reached at:
Introductory. Didactic and narrative religious poetry and the Islamic tradition; the Swahili
Hymns, prayers, and incantations: general survey; the Fante Methodist lyric. Mantic poetry: Sotho divining praises;
What is known to date: content and plot; main characters. Types of tales: animal stories; stories about people; ‘myths’; ‘legends’ and historical narratives. What demands further study: occasions; role of narrators; purpose and function; literary conventions; performance; originality and authorship. Conclusion