I got into a small discussion with Hamlet (site mod), over this answer of mine. In the comments Hamlet said:

Oral literature counts as literature. Just because people don't write things down doesn't make their literature less important.

But I'm not sure on that. I made the point (and the community seems to agree) that the definition of literature is 'written works'. The OED has this definition for it:

Written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.

I just want to have this cleared up, I don't think it would be good for a mod to think one thing and the community to think something else, so

Does Oral Literature count as Literature for the purpose of this site?

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    For all practical purposes, it's going to be awfully difficult for us to talk about any oral works that haven't been written down. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 19:06
  • @Emrakul that is another good point, especially as the question in this case was to find the earliest record. It is hard to count oral literature if it wasn't written down as well as being a long time ago – Beastly Gerbil Mar 21 '17 at 19:08
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    True. Still, talking about the written copy of an oral work has a tendency to put the focus on the person who wrote it down rather than the culture & people from which it came. If we only permit discussion about the work as written, we're effectively ignoring the actual source. So there's definitely still an open question here. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 19:11
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    What types of non-fiction are on-topic?. Also: What kinds of mythological questions are on-topic? <- we have a consensus there that non-written (i.e. non-documented) works should be off-topic. – Gallifreyan Mar 21 '17 at 19:42
  • @Gallifreyan aah thats helpful. However, Hamlet is saying in his answer it should be on-topic, so we have a debate on our hands... – Beastly Gerbil Mar 21 '17 at 19:59
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    The voting on this question and its answers bemuses me. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 20:52
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    @Emrakul I'm confused on who wants what to happen when and why :P The only thing I do know is the where: Lit SE – Beastly Gerbil Mar 21 '17 at 20:53
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    @Emrakul No offence, but the voting on your answer bemuses me. It's a framing challenge and not really an answer to either the question of whether oral tradition should count as literature or the question of whether oral tradition should be on-topic for this site. Hamlet's answer is the only really good one here, IMO. – Rand al'Thor Mar 30 '17 at 1:21
  • @Randal'Thor Okay. – user80 Mar 30 '17 at 2:36

The question "is oral tradition literature?" is intrinsically unanswerable. We've taken two nebulous ideas, "literature" and "oral tradition," tried to determine if one is a subset of the other, and are for some reason surprised and frustrated that we've gotten a nebulous answer back. Trying to cram that answer into a neat little "yes" or "no" box is ultimately going to be a fruitless effort.

We're running face-first into a problem with the name of the site. Unlike on other Stack sites, where "is this about code?" or "is this about pets?" could be used to determine topicality, we aren't in a position to use "is this about literature?" as a litmus test to determine whether something should be on topic. Thinking about whether something counts as "literature" is chimerically misleading, and simply isn't a good test.

So how do we tell if something is on topic? We have a couple options: we can stick strictly to the written word, or we can pick a definition that revolves around some attribute of the work being discussed. Its cultural and social significance are viable candidates.

This isn't a full answer; it's just the start of one. But I wanted to say it anyway, because it's a framing challenge to the way this question is being asked and discussed.

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    @amaranth I'd caution against that line of thinking. If we go into discussion on the topic a priori excluding any definition that includes non-traditional "literature," or topics that don't sit well with us... we could very easily miss what actually underpins the issue we're discussing just because we don't like its implications, and the discussion would get nowhere. If that's the conclusion we come to, then we can both describe literature as including movies and say movies aren't on topic here, and that's totally fine. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 21:22
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    I simply don't understand this answer. "we aren't in a position to use "is this about literature?" as a litmus test to determine whether something should be on topic" - why not? – Rand al'Thor Mar 21 '17 at 22:27
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    @Rand It's far, far too nebulous. Define "literature," first. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 22:35
  • Well, many sites have topics which are nebulous and hard to define. For example, what constitutes "science fiction" or "fantasy"? That's something SFF has never managed to pin down and never will, but we can still meaningfully ask "is this about science fiction or fantasy?" and get sensible answers that people can agree on. – Rand al'Thor Mar 21 '17 at 22:40
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    @Rand There's a lot of concrete evidence that that isn't happening in Literature's meta discussion, though. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 22:56
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    Eh, it's early days yet. SFF has had a lot more time for its meta discussion to settle down, and there were some bumpy rides near the start. I think "is this about literature?" is the question we should be asking, even if it takes us a while to hammer out answers, and even if "what is literature?" isn't something we can answer in general. – Rand al'Thor Mar 21 '17 at 23:00
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    @Rand Fair enough. I'm open to the idea, I look forward to seeing how it works long-term. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 23:06

Yes, of course oral literature is on-topic. We've taken a very permissive approach to defining literature for the purposes of this site's scope, and I don't see why that should change here.

As Emrakul notes in the comments, given that we communicate on this site through written text, it will be hard to discuss oral literature that isn't recorded somewhere. But I would say that a question that is based on, for example, a YouTube recording of oral literature would absolutely be on-topic.

Although this hasn't come up often in answers, how a text is performed absolutely affects its meaning. For example, I would hope that answers to a question about MLK's "I have a Dream" speech would talk about King's delivery as well as the words he used.

The thing about defining literature as written down is that it discriminates against cultures who don't have writing systems. Stories are stories regardless of whether they're written down. Saying that only written stories count as literature devalues perfectly good stories from places that don't have writing. It's the same kind of snobbery that we explicitly set out to prevent on this site.

In case you're wondering, there are currently three questions on this site, and they seem reasonably well received.

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    I disagree. And when you say 'based on, for example, a youtube recording of oral literature would absolutely be on-topic.', unless it is really recent oral literature, then the only way it can be read is if it was written down a long time ago. Also, no-one would remember the whole 'I have a Dream' speech, unless it was written down. And the same for the oddyssey – Beastly Gerbil Mar 21 '17 at 19:24
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    @BeastlyGerbil Also, no-one would remember the whole 'I have a Dream' speech, unless it was written down. I'm sorry, but that sentence flies in the face of both common sense and even the most basic understanding of how history works. To give a very basic counterexample, a television recording of the speech would allow someone to "remember the whole 'I have a Dream' speech. To give a more complicated example, oral literature has been observed to preserve historical detail for several generations. – user111 Mar 21 '17 at 19:30
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    @BeastlyGerbil Except we have evidence that people did just remember The Odyssey. – Benjamin Mar 21 '17 at 19:42
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    @Benjamin wow, that's impressive! But while that may be true here, it won't be true for every piece of oral literature from round those times – Beastly Gerbil Mar 21 '17 at 19:58
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    @amaranth Incidentally, though somewhat tangentially, dictionary-writers have arguments over discrimination and snobbery constantly. First paragraph here (and/or the first section). And it happens worldwide, too. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 20:12
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    @BeastlyGerbil Yes, well, most pieces of oral literature from two thousand years ago haven't lasted to the present day. I'm sorry, but your claim that "no-one would remember [oral literature] unless it was written down" is really quite mind-boggling, and suggests you know very very little about oral tradition. – Rand al'Thor Mar 21 '17 at 20:22
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    That fourth paragraph is really really important. How can we pretend to be culturally inclusive if we don't allow any literature from places and periods when there was no written language? – Rand al'Thor Mar 30 '17 at 1:20
  • @Randal'Thor I think a bigger problem is that most of the authors we ask questions about are white men, but yes, you are completely right. – user111 Mar 30 '17 at 1:22

Here is another option:

We leave this as on-topic for now, not because I think it should be, but because no conclusion can be reached yet

The community is torn, the mods are saying different things and both answers are currently on 0 after having several upvotes downvotes.

Until a conclusion is reached, we do nothing. When most people agree on one thing, we do something. We don't have any questions about it yet, except for one posted by Emrakul, so until more are posted and we can gauge the quality of the questions we can't decide yet.

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    Not to be snarky, but what do you do if you determine that they are off-topic? Close all the questions on those topics retroactively? I do, however, see your point that it is difficult to judge the quality of these questions since there aren't many around yet. – anonymous2 Mar 22 '17 at 19:39
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    @anonymous2 Yes, that's exactly what happens. RPG.SE spent years on an experiment to see if we could make recommendation questions work, and when we determined it wasn't worth the effort/effect ratios we closed everything tagged [game-recommendation] and [tool-recommendation]--nearly 500 question altogether. – BESW Mar 22 '17 at 21:11

My opinion, and also for the sake of having an alternative to vote for:

No, it should not considered on-topic here

There are several issues with oral literature being considered as literature:

  • We usually don't have records of 'oral literature' from before voice recordings, unless it was written down.

If we want to analyse an old piece of text, say Euclid's Elements, there is usually no way we could do so if the text hadn't been written down. There are very few times where literature has survived that long without being written down, and the majority is now extinct.

  • Most things that started as oral literature, had to become literature to survive (see above point)

So if we were to analyse something, I doubt we would do it from memory, we would probably look at text. Even analysing a song, we probably wouldn't listen to it, we would search up the lyrics because that is easier

  • We have had literally no questions that I can find which is based on oral literature

Quoting @yannis:

A question about a written work that was originally transmitted orally is not a question about oral traditions. And of course, if we decide that "oral literature" is off topic, that does not mean that works that were originally transmitted orally are off topic.

No, I am not saying everything in the last 2 months is off-topic, of course not Rand. I am saying, that the fact out of all the posts, submitted so far, none have been about oral literature suggests that there are very few questions, that are about that and if there are they probably aren't very good.

  • How do we even know if it was transmitted orally first, if that was written down?

If it was transmitted orally, and wasn't written down, then over time people will forget. Granted some work has survived, but the majority has died out.

  • And good oral work would have been written down to preserve it

So there is not much point trying to expertly analyse something that didn't make it onto paper, we won't be able to do so.

Welcome to more suggestions why.

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    "There is no way it could have survived as exactly as it was for this entire time, if it was just oral literature." - sure, it might not be word-for-word identical, but the exact words of a piece of literature aren't always important. We could still get interesting questions about a work's themes or inspiration without having a single agreed-upon form of every word of it. – Rand al'Thor Mar 21 '17 at 20:27
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    "Even things that started as oral literature, had to become literature to survive" - this is totally wrong. Many stories lasted in purely oral form for hundreds or thousands of years. I suggest you do some research and actually find out something about oral traditions. – Rand al'Thor Mar 21 '17 at 20:28
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    "Even things that started as oral literature, had to become literature to survive" - pure oral tradition lives on to this day in many cultures across the world. Even if written copies exist, many cultures don't teach them from written copies, and especially not from English ones. – user80 Mar 21 '17 at 20:29
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    "We have had literally no questions that I can find which is based on oral literature" - so what? Do you think everything that hasn't been asked about in the first 2 months of the site should be off-topic? – Rand al'Thor Mar 21 '17 at 20:29
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    "If it was transmitted orally, and wasn't written down, then over time people will forget. And good oral work would have been written down to preserve it" - again, do some research. In many cultures, oral traditions have lasted in more or less the same form for centuries without being written down. – Rand al'Thor Mar 21 '17 at 20:30
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    I'm really sorry, but I can't understand why people would upvote this answer. If I try really hard, I can understand agreeing with the conclusion "oral literature should be off-topic on this site". But this answer argues for the conclusion on the basis of completely inaccurate information, and lacks even a basic understanding of what oral literature is or how it works. If you believe that oral literature is off-topic, fine, but at least take the time to understand what oral literature is, and at least find an argument for your views that isn't grounded in complete misinformation. – user111 Mar 22 '17 at 3:59

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