Orality and definitive texts

Although Sanskritists know that the Veda was and is memorized in a way as to preserve all its features, it is hard not to think of oral texts as open texts. Especially performed texts tend to be conceived as texts which are open to modifications at each performance, whereas writing (and even more printing) tends to be hold responsible for the canonization of a single text. Reality is, thanks God, always more complex than theories about it.

Coming back from the forth Coffee Break Conference, I just finished reading On the Concept of “Definitive Text” in Somali Poetry, by Martin Orwin, which was suggested to me by Giorgio Banti at the end of his fascinating speech on the Somali metrical system. Orwin is adamantine in his claim that Somali maanso poetry knows definitive texts independently of writing and of Western influences. Maanso poetry is one of the two main divisions of Somali poetry (the other being hees, which includes most of all working songs, children songs and other songs performed while doing something else). It is a (politically or socially) engaged poetry, alliterative and with a distinct metrical scheme. More interestingly for me, it displays:

  • a strong concept of authorship (claiming a line as one’s own when it is not entails the risk of being ridiculised and attacked)
  • a strong concept of text as a definitive entity (no additions or deletions, not even by the author, are admitted)

How did writing (Somali has first been written in an official script in 1972, but  “a number of people, both Somalis and non-Somalis, had used writing prior to this time”, p. 293) affect this reality?


Hardly at all, explains Orwin.


Poets have kept on composing and performing definitive texts as before. Listeners have kept on thinking of definitive texts in the same way. Thus, the concept of strong authorship and of definitive text is

  • not an exclusively  Western concept (Orwin is quite sure that Somali poetry was until recently immune of Western influences)
  • not linked with writing (Orwin quotes Said Sheikh Samatar speaking of ”an unwritten copyright law, no less strict than those observed in literary societies”)
  • not incompatible with the oral performance of poetical texts

Thus, orality and writing and openness and fixedness can be related to each other in complex ways. Nonetheless, one might observe that writing may interfere with the literality of quotations, though only indirectly, insofar as: 1. cursive kinds of writing and print allow a wider circulation of the text to non-insiders, and, hence, a control by the audience; 2. writing allows only a limited space to glosses, interpolations and addenda (adding an extra folio is not always possible and is anyway more expensive than adding a few strophes in a poem one knows by heart);  3.  writing means reflecting on what belongs to the text and what does not, and may have influenced the processes of fixation of “Canons”.

It might be interesting to note that this a post hoc process. Writing and even more printing do not in themselves cause a standardisation of orthography, canons, etc., but they allow a greater circulation of texts and enable their comparison. This, in turn, may prompt people to initiate a standardisation process (this topic has been discussed during the panel on manuscript and print cultures in the CBC 4).

Do you have further examples of unexpected combinations of orality, writing and openness and fixedness of texts?

On textual reuse, see a ton of posts on my previous blog, starting from this one.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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