• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

oWords are the designated means of exchange in the oAgora, the default currency of the OT marketplace. More to the point, given the performative power of this special code, oWords are customarily the only currency that OT surfers hold and spend. On the other hand, given the control exerted by textual ideology in most aspects of our daily lives, it can be difficult to imagine any medium other than tWords. Agoraphobia is so powerful that it’s hard even to conceive of a non-textual communicative unit for our verbal transactions. But we need to reset our tAgora default and open ourselves up to other possibilities for words.

How are oWords defined? Instead of crafting a definition from outside the arena of oral tradition, let’s hear from an actual OT practitioner, an experienced navigator of OT networks. In the following excerpt from a conversation about the performance of South Slavic oral epic, the non-literate poet (or guslar) Mujo Kukuruzović explains to his interviewer, Nikola Vujnović, the real nature of oWords versus tWords. The opening topic in their exchange is a poetic line that amounts to four dictionary-words in the original language of the Former Yugoslavia. I leave the term reč, the conventional designation for “word,” untranslated:

NV: Let’s consider this: “Mustajbey of the Lika was drinking wine.” Is this a single reč?
MK: Yes.
NV: But how? It can’t be one: “Mustajbey of-the-Lika was-drinking wine.”
MK: In writing it can’t be one.
NV: There are four reči here.
MK: It can’t be one in writing. But here, let’s say we’re at my house and I pick up the gusle [accompanying instrument] – “Mustajbey of the Lika was drinking wine” – that’s a single reč on the gusle for me.
NV: And the second reč?
MK: And the second reč – “At Ribnik in a drinking tavern” – there.

Consider the facts. Mujo Kukuruzović couldn’t write himself, but he nonetheless recognized the difference between oWords (here a whole decasyllabic line in length) and tWords. He knows and appreciates the disparity in marketplace currencies. Further on in this conversation and in similar interviews with other poets, it becomes apparent that there are two additional levels of reč, or units of utterance, in the oAgora of South Slavic oral epic: both scenes and even entire stories are understood as single “words.”

Nor is this particular OT unique in that respect. The same notion of an oWord as an indivisible unit consisting of many tWords informs numerous oral traditions, including ancient Greek, Old English, Finnish, and Mongolian. And this cognitive discrepancy between oAgora and tAgora communication is significant and telling. To reduce an oWord to its component tWords is to fracture a meaning-bearing word into meaningless syllables, to segment an integral unit into gibberish. If (unlike the non-literate but still media-savvy Kukuruzović) we fail to recognize this fundamental discrepancy, we will inevitably misconstrue the real expressive unit and thought-byte.

Within the OT arena, an environment consisting of and depending on oPathways, oWords contribute crucially to surfing the web of oral tradition. You start up the process and enter the marketplace, and then choose the next pathway from among those available to you. That choice generates a new spectrum of options from which you make your next selection, and the process continues until you exit the oAgora. During that time you co-create an experience that emerges as you go, and for that reason it will never be wholly predictable or repeatable. Navigating through networks, performers and audiences process a rule-governed and performative code. They find their way through a constellation of pathways constructed and used not by a single person but by a group. Variation within limits, the stock-in-trade of oWords and eWords but a dynamic inherently foreign to tWords, underlies all transactions in the oAgora.

oWords work for the same reason that oral traditions work – because they actively support morphing.