Eva Ledi Barongo

The Influence of Oral Storytelling on Written Literature

by Evangeline Ledi Barongo, Uganda


This paper attempts to show the relationship between oral tradition/ oral story telling techniques and written literature form of language on the one hand and the effects of oral storytelling on the written of the other.

Most African societies and perhaps many other societies all over the world, trace their history to oral traditions.

It is true that the history of writing is much younger than that of oral tradition.  Every society any written document originates from spoken word  Although there are specific rules that govern the use  of each of the two media of communication quite often on form may influence the way the content and style of the other is presented.

First and foremost this paper will attempt to examine the characteristics of oral form of storytelling and then look at how those particular aspects of orality have and can influenced the written form.


Oral storytelling is among the oldest forms of communication that were used in indigenous society to advise, educate, teach, entertain, preserve and shape people’s behaviors or otherwise influence people’s opinions over a particular subject matter. They shaped the values and norms of the society

This oral form of communication used to take place in public to across section of people for a particular purpose and would at times attract responses from the audience.


The main aim of oral form of communication was to pass on the facts or knowledge as soon as possible before it is forgotten.  In many societies, there were grandmothers and grand fathers.  Sometimes some were self appointed to talk about particular topics to people. They assumed the custodianship of social values and norms upon which oral tradition is/was.

These people were normally old talented orators who would narrate the history or legends of a group and there were particular or style forms they had to use.

It was not only the African societies that used this oral tradition, but quite a number of other communities. In the Asian community, the Indian once used oral tradition in passing on knowledge and ideas about their religion.

In Hinduism, there was a long history of oral tradition and the aim was to pass on the belief systems of the people.  This practice went on from one generation to another for quite a long time.

The grammar of Sanskrit indeed is based on this transfer from oral to written form of communication.  Due to the approach and format of description the grammar was described in peculiar way the characteristic description of this grammar reflected the influence of oral form on the written language.

In the Indian tradition the language of Sanskrit was transformed to writing, because the oral tradition was not matching with the spoken form of language of the time.  The language was then written but the major aim was to make it possible for people to speak it better by sticking to the letter.

In the Hebrew tradition, it has been noted that the Bible initially was maintained through oral traditions.  Each succeeding generation had to be written down, unlike the case of information about the myths and legends of different societies and how they were passed on succeeding generations.  The Biblical facts were to be written down, reflecting the actual words as spoken by God to his people.

There were rules to stick to; No changing of facts, No addition, No free will in the reporting and so on.  It was normally not on the will of the storyteller and one could afford to add in a few of his facts here and there and leave some information out.


The transition from oral tradition to written form of communication was really needed because of a number of factors.  This did not however mean the replacement of oral form; rather, it was the utilization of another tool for information dissemination and storage.  The two forms still exist side by side up to date and there is influence from one to the other.  


Oral storytelling might influence written forms in a number of ways which might include the following:

  • The Objective- Advise, entertain-influence people’s opinion
  • The aim - pass on the facts before forgotten or knowledge
  • The format - to encourage having the same format
  • The content - the length of the story
  • The chronology-to show how the event happened, where   when, why, who.

One of the ways is the format of writing. We see in the “songs” of the Ugandan writers in the 1960s, who were heavily influenced by the stories in writing affected the pattern that one would not know whether it was/ is a poem or novel or something in between.

This was because of the heavy influence of writing we see this format especially with Okot. P. Biteks Songs of Lawino, Song of Ocol, Songs of Malaya, Song of Prisoner and many others.

It cannot be denied that oral tradition is fundamental in any endeavor to determine the nature of African literature.  Almost each African works has an identity of its own derivable from the oral narrative. 


(Introduction of some definition)

To me, oral storytelling means expression in spoken words, but oral literature now includes materials of written/ (as long as it was originally expressed orally).

The immediacies of the spoken word contribute to the richness and the beauty of the written language.  It is this evidence that the direction of being regarded as oral African literature.  Because all forms of literacy composition in which any of the three elements characteristic of orality is dominant namely;
I.    Oral composition
II.    Oral performance
III.    Oral transfusion
The oral literature contribution

Having broadly defined oral tradition as oral literature, some attention will now be devoted to the contribution of oral literature to the study of written literature.

Oral literature being both a unique literature from medium of instructions and entertainments.  Oral literature has occurred side by side with advance in the study of African literature and the world at large.

The two phenomenons have been motivated by change in circumstances and their effects have clearly shed light on one another.

 They promise to give us a better understanding of the nature of human culture and the history of the society in general.


In matters of characterization, there is a marked influenced of oral tradition on the written literature on oral tradition, name signify something. The names in Africa culture life, goes far beyond more identification and distinguishes on person from another.

A name may serve as a wish, a reminder of bad or good things that happened to individual in the past describe the physical features and behavior traits of a person.


Oral literature especially folktale, always end with a definite message for the audience to relay on.  Their concluding paragraphs do not leave the audience in suspense as to what moral lesson to learn from the narration.

In many written works, this has been influenced by oral literature and this pattern is noticeable   Ngugi wa Thong is one of African writers who has been heavily influenced by tradition in his works. In the interview Ngugi had to say;
“In so far as the oral tradition is concerned it is part and partial of ones cultural upbringing.  It is bound to affect one’s narrative technique”.  Ngugi employs a lot of oral tradition features in almost all his works.

In the River Between (1965), he employs historically significant moments in the lives of his characters and interweaves with myths, legends drawn directly from oral tradition.

In storytelling, there are also many features that reflect orality.  In Petals of blood, The Devil on the cross and others, similar oral features are dominant.

Actually, written African literature is heavily influenced by the writer’s oral traditional background.

It should however be noted that the written form of language is not a mere version of oral narration but the work of authors using and shaping traditional materials for a particular purpose.



Oral literature was intended and still is intended at helping people to look or focus at reality of   life and shape their behavior accordingly.  In other words storytellings were out and there are still there to create and preserve people’s history and cultural values.

The oral literature is normally carried out by elders, written by authors to define and reinforce cultural values aiming at instilling into young ones the spirit of respecting elders and create social interaction and entertainments.  Oral literature is a body that matter on the way people move about their day to day lives.


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