Oral Literature


Petra Cech

Oral Literature

Writing and Orality

For centuries, writing and literacy were limited to just a few privileged classes of society in Europe and served the rulers as an instrument for maintaining power and supporting hierarchical structures. As a result, until the recent past, only parts of Europe’s populations were able to read and write, until literacy gradually superseded orality in most areas of life.

Because Roma and Sinti were ostracised from European society for centuries, certain aspects of community life of most groups were dominated by orality for longer than in the majority societies – in some language communities until well after the Second World War. This does not mean, however, that literacy as a fundamental aspect of a society was an unknown or alien concept for these groups.

Orality and an oral tradition mean more than simply ‘telling stories’.

Orality and an oral tradition mean more than simply ‘telling stories’. They are the means by which the cultural and historical memory of a community is preserved. This generally encompasses the history of the group, the fate of individual ancestors, family relationships, social practices and customs, rules of behaviour, social taboos, community structures and role models. Oral traditions can play an important role in bringing up children and teaching professional skills, in passing down recipes as well as knowledge about how to dispense justice within the group.

Oral Literature

Oral literature is expressed in sayings and narrations, stories, lyrical texts, ballads and songs, performed and passed down over several generations through recited or sung narratives – often involving an incredible memory. One fundamental difference between written and orally transmitted literature concerns standardisation: when creative oral expression is recorded in writing a certain version becomes fixed, which creates the erroneous impression of a standard version. An example of this process in German-speaking countries is the standardisation of tales by the Brothers Grimm who collected folk tales and wrote them down in the nineteenth century.

In some areas of oral narration, for example recitations from the holy scriptures of the various religions or the telling of heroic epics, an only slightly altered rendition is primary and is considered a mark of quality, for it demands that the exact wording be memorised and practiced. A certain stability in the versions of tales in many different countries enabled the researchers Antti Aarne (from 1910) and Stith Thompson (1961) to catalogue and number recurring folktale types based on their subject matter (AaTh, AT numbers, respectively). Beginning with Finnish tales, this classification system was at first distinctly Eurocentric. There were no tales from Roma and Sinti. The scope of the classification system has since been significantly expanded by the revision of literature scholar and German specialist Hans-Jörg Uther (ATU index 2004).

Wherever the focus is not on the narrator’s faithfulness to the subject matter and wording of a previous version, each recitation is in itself a creative act of literature and a performance. This was the case in the ancient narrative traditions of India, Persia and the Ottoman Empire: even the written versions of the great Indian collections like the Panchatantra (The Five Treatises) or the Shukasaptati (The Seventy Tales of the Parrot) served the reciter only as a memory aid for the content and basic framework. Literate, educated and well-read, Indian and Persian narrators constantly moved in the grey zone between written and oral literature. A recitation of written literature was supplemented by the ‘composition of their own independent versions’ (Merkel 2015: 170). The performers were at once reciters and poets.

In Persian and Ottoman storytelling, creatively elaborating the variation being narrated was a practice held in high esteem. The art of storytelling resided not in the repetitive presentation of versions as identical as possible, but in the capacity to create something individual and surprising from a basic type of narrative, embroidering it with other subjects, subplots and motifs. This required, on the one hand, an extensive repertoire of stories, on the other a lot of imagination and fantasy in order to reshape a narrative and recombine the different elements.

The imaginative and fanciful elaboration of fictive, at times magical plots is, however, precisely the characteristic that in the European reception, steadfastly committed to ‘realism’ since the rise of modern literature, belittles such narratives as mere ‘tales’, hence calling into question their status as genuine prose or literature. This attitude is still prevalent today, and many readers refuse to consider the current literary genres of fantasy and science fiction as ‘high’ literature or indeed literature at all.

The Oral Narrative Traditions of Roma and Sinti

Oral traditions can encompass all spheres of life, spanning group or individual history, life experiences, social structures, religious ideas and moral precepts, and including family conflicts or utopias. They decisively shaped the life of many Roma and Sinti for centuries.

Until a few decades ago, stories told in Romani were primarily an orally transmitted art form, although particularly in states with communist regimes – i.e. the Balkan countries and the former Eastern Bloc states – a vibrant literary scene existed among Roma in the majority language of the respective country.In many Prague Romani families, storytelling in their own language for nights on end was a practice still cultivated into the 1970s. (Hübschmannová 1983).

So too among the families of the Turkish Sepečides in the villages around Izmir – stories were told while basket weaving or at get-togethers well into the 1980s. Sepečides from the generation born in the first decades after the Second World War testify that they grew up in a tradition that was exclusively orally transmitted.

Dragan Jevremović, a Kalderaš Rom who grew up in Serbia, recalls how oral storytelling in his community was only superseded as a leisure-time activity by the arrival of television (Fennesz-Juhasz et al. 2012: 398–399).

Mozes F. Heinschink | Dragan Jevremović | photograph | Austria | 2012 | lit_00526 Rights held by: Mozes Friedrich Heinschink | Licensed by: Mozes Friedrich Heinschink | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International | Provided by: Mozes Friedrich Heinschink – Private Archive

Limiting storytelling to children, as happened in many European countries, did not occur in many Roma communities, nor did oral literature become disparaged. The repertoire of stories in the oral tradition of many Roma and Sinti groups has in fact expanded over time thanks to contact with the folk literature of Europe and the Near East.

While it is impossible to determine precisely what in the narrative tradition of Roma and Sinti stems from where, in general it is clear that, besides the Indian heritage, Near Eastern and European folk literature – now long forgotten – has been preserved among Roma and Sinti to the present day. In the fairy-tales of the Lovara, vanished names and figures from Hungarian folk literature have been preserved, while the same can be said of the Servika Roma from Slovakia and the Czech Republic.


Was der Knabe träumt [What the boy saw in his dream]
Andrej Blada, Milena Hübschmannová | Oral Literature | Ústí nad Labem | 1976-05 | lit_00081

Heroic epics and the subjects of ancient ballads (external Link) of the Balkan countries were preserved by the speakers of the Arli dialects (external Link) and narrated and sung until a few decades ago.

Oral literature, however, includes not only tales of magic (1, 2, 3, 4) but also farces, instructive stories and parables, fables, erotic stories, personal first-hand accounts and ghost stories (e.g. ‘Mulo’ stories, i.e. stories about the dead and revenants) as well as sayings and poems.

An oral narrative mirrors the individual mode of expression of the narrator, including his or her own experiences, the audience and even the mood he or she is in that day. One illuminating example is the story about Prince Kokalo adapted specially for an audience of young schoolchildren.

Stories are considered as ‘true’ in the sense of ‘genuine’, i.e. they do not claim to give a rendering of ‘reality’ but rather seek to make a relevant and genuine statement, whether a piece of worldly wisdom (see O phabardo mandro) [The Charred Bread]), an experience or a confirmation of belief.

Tall tales were popular above all in the Ottoman storytelling tradition and are conceived to show off a narrator’s fantasy and imagination in contriving absurd plots. In contrast, according to the Serbian Kalderaš Dragan Jevremović, storytellers from his language community tried to pull the legs of visitors from outside the group, entertaining them with credible but fictional personal stories told playfully; see for example Jeg xoxaimaski paramič [A Yarn].

Lyric poetry is to be found in dialogues within longer tales, performed as sung verse lines, or in sayings and adages of some Sepečides families from Izmir. Here the storyteller Fatma Heinschink tells how it was usual for the young Romani girls of the village, vying for the most poignant rendition, to express their longings and sorrows of love in poetic sayings, either while working or during social gatherings. This habit followed a Turkish tradition and the verse lines were thus recited or sung in Turkish.

Fatma Heinschink (née Zambaklı) was born in Izmir on 6 March 1948. She died in Vienna on 4 August 2017. Her parents and older ancestors were …

Style and Creativity

The majority of currently documented renditions of oral storytelling by Roma represent the type of creative, poetic recitation, independent of group affiliation and the performer’s country of origin. This by no means precludes other narrative styles in some groups: for example, the families of Dolenjski Roma living in small settlements in Southern Slovenia explained that it is not customary at all in their community to tell stories. Their relatives who migrated to Italy in the 1940s said the same, quite independently.

The Hungarian Rom János Berki told stories as faithfully as possible, leaving them unchanged, and did not wish to be interrupted (Görög et al. 1985). Despite this example, there is no doubt that an oral performance is very much a dialogue in two respects: firstly, often the stories told contain longer dialogues between the protagonists, where variations in pitch and style are used to make clear who is speaking; secondly, the storytellers and the audience are constantly communicating with (sometimes non-verbally) and responding to each other, which influences the delivery and meaning of what is being told in that specific context. Among good friends, storytelling can develop into a conversation between the narrator and the audience, as the example of Guszti Szendrei’s I čori ketana [The Poor Soldier] shows.

In free, poetic recitation, parables and allegories vary less than tales of magic. Many tales cannot be clearly assigned to a specific type (as in the ATU index mentioned above), because they are in fact composed by the reciter. Even the rendition of ballads, songs and epics can be modified individually to fit the respective audience or setting.

Some of the structural differences in how stories are constructed are due to regional specifics: the rendering of the most important dialogues from a prose story in sung verse form (e.g. Arzu and Kamber) is originally an oriental stylistic element, documented by professional storytellers, which found its way into the Balkans and further northwards by Ottoman influence.

Frame narratives, for example O drugari [The Companion], or the famous collection of A Thousand and One Nights, are in turn originally an Indian ‘invention’. They served as a means of bringing together single stories into a structured whole and arrived in Europe from India via Persia and the Ottomans.

In poetic narration the linguistic expressiveness of the narrator is of key importance, while the faithful rendition of standardised versions demands of the narrator a precise memory more than an individual gift for phrasing. Roma families in Prague repeatedly emphasised in their discussions the essential value of a good narrative style (Hübschmannová 1983; 1996; 2015). A good storyteller was expected to use specific turns of phrase perceived by the audience to be genuine. Skill in using language rich in metaphors also played an important role in the stories told by Serbian Kalderaš.

Narrators and Narrating Situations

Oral narration and storytelling in their own language is well documented among Roma, less so among Sinti (though still may exist). As far as it is still practiced, it follows a general pattern, but is, for the most part, not carried out by professional narrators. Members of various communities from different countries describe how wake vigils – when scores of relatives and friends gather in the house of the deceased and hold a vigil for at least one night – are often used as fitting ‘public’ occasions for hours of storytelling; apart from this, however, the preference for specific narrators and narrating situations varied from one language community to another and from one family to another.

In some Slovak Roma communities in the former Czechoslovakia there were certain storytellers, mostly male, held in high esteem as good narrators and reputable persons, around whom a large audience gathered for a kind of public performance (Hübschmannova 1996). The audience showed their respect for the narrator by maintaining a certain discipline – staying quiet and not interrupting while he or she was speaking.

In the 1980s, the Hungarian Rom Mihály Rostás reported that in his village in northeast Hungary some wakes would last two nights, during which stories were continuously told. Restrictions were placed on the type of story told, however: lewd and droll stories were frowned upon (Grabócz & Kovalcsik 1988). In Rostás’ circle of family and friends, events that were part of the story often sparked heated discussions, in which the listeners became intensely involved – a stark contrast to the aforementioned almost ‘public’ gatherings of Servika Roma, where the storyteller was not to be interrupted.

According to speakers from communities of Serbian Kalderaš, it was common for families to sit together in the evening or through the night and tell stories as a leisure activity, sometimes because they lacked alternatives for spending their free time. Within families there were certain storytellers who were definite favourites and were treasured for their imaginativeness and ingenuity in making up stories. Female storytellers appear to have been rare and mainly to have been responsible for entertaining the children.

In other Roma communities, for instance among some Arlije from Serbia, Macedonia and Kosovo, as well as among Sepečides (basket weavers) in the area around Izmir in Turkey, both men and women acted as narrators, so that the next generation heard the stories from family members of both sexes. Producing their handicrafts at home enabled them to sit together, chat and tell stories while they were working.


The oral storytelling by narrators from Roma communities has been increasingly documented, including by Roma themselves, since the mid-1950s, i.e. since transportable battery-operated tape recorders became available. For example, over a number of decades the poet Károly Bari compiled an extraordinarily large collection of sound documents and published transcripts of some of the material (see Bari 1990; 2013).

No matter how comprehensive the documentation may be, it can never claim to be exhaustive. While the storytellers themselves usually decide what they present to which audience in the respective situation and what is documented permanently, the fact of a performance being recorded may influence the narrator’s decision what to tell in detail. Narrators may, for example, decide against presenting a risqué episode or interjecting a coarse expression.

Recording oral storytelling in writing through dictation or from memory, the common practice prior to the development of suitable recording media, cannot convey the linguistic reality of the live narration. An authentic narrative situation or natural flow of speech are lacking in these cases. To give an accurate representation of how the narration unfolds, the rhythm of the language and the tone of voice, at the very least an audio recording is needed, whereby only a video recording can capture the mimicry and gestures of the narrator.

Only audio recordings in the original language furnish reliable evidence for what has been transcribed and translated in a written edition. One example of this are the extensive recordings of Mozes F. Heinschink held in the phonogram archive of the Austrian Academy of Arts and Sciences; a selection of these recordings has been edited and published in written form by Drava Verlag (Klagenfurt/Celovec).

In contrast, only a few original recordings are available from the multi-volume edition of Roma tales compiled by Mode and Hübschmannová (1983–1985). The collections of tales from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (not published in the original language), for example, those by Heinrich Wlislocki or Walter Aichele and Martin Block, are not even remotely reliable as sources or documentation of oral literature – not to mention the outrageous general remarks and comments by the collectors about the people who told the fairy-tales (Renner 1992: 177ff; Solms 2007: 139f; Krausnick & Strauß 2008: 57,122).

As audio recordings may be of poor technical quality or have interference from the surroundings (wind, background noise), the quality of the recording is a criterion for deciding whether a piece is suitable for presentation. The current recordings can thus offer only a small sample of a cultural heritage that is far richer and far more extensive than can ever be presented.

Rights held by: Petra Cech (text) — Paul Bowman (translation) | Licensed by: Petra Cech (text) — Paul Bowman (translation) | Licensed under: CC-BY-NC 3.0 Germany | Provided by: RomArchive