Textual Fabrics of Orality

Joseph Cross (Chicago)

My interest in the topic of the oral dimension of written texts stems from my dissertation research on novellas written in Demotic Egyptian from Graeco-Roman Egypt. One such novella, known as the Battle for the Prebend of Amun, survives in an extensive 1st century BCE copy and in several later, quite fragmentary copies from the Roman-period temple library of Tebtunis from the 2nd century CE. They show significant deviation from the earlier copy in ways suggestive of oral transmission, but not to the exclusion of the written. Alongside significant verbatim parallels are found both small-scale variations as well as substantial reworkings of stretches of text (especially character speech) that, nevertheless, keep closely to the story and its dramatic setting. My interest is in explaining this variation in light of the text’s genre of storytelling, which implies specific habits of reading and contexts of performance that exist in parallel with written transmission. I have a hunch that the later copies of the novella demonstrate a (proto-)critical reflection by storyteller-scholars who adjust their performance and record it based on their evolving understandings of plot and character—and that the situation is too complex to allow us to posit a text that is simply committed to memory and incurs variation due to improvisation or memory variants. I am hopeful to discover examples in other textual cultures that can illuminate how concrete contexts of reception spring from, as well as eventuate in, written instantiations.


Natasha Downs (Edinburgh)

This paper shall evaluate the role of orality in classical Japanese chronicles (8th- 9th cent.), assessing how Japanese oral culture influenced written compositions and the constraints of textualising verbal narratives. To illustrate this, I shall utilise the Ongian concept of ‘residual orality’ to analyse relevant extracts from Kojiki 古事記, Nihon Shoki 日本書紀, Shoku Nihongi続日本紀and Kogo Shūi 古語拾遺. First, the unique Japanese-language difficulty of compromising between logographic and phonetic writing will be considered, paying particular attention to the prefatory notes from Kojiki. This passage shows a classical cognisance of the problem of capturing the spoken in a written medium and thusly provides insight into how pre-modern writers overcame this obstacle. Second, I shall discuss transcriptions of edicts and songs, paying heed to writing systems and poetic devices. The salience of these renderings is derived from their emulation of the oral mode, subsequently iterating the primacy of the verbal dimension and providing information about strategies employed by the writers to transcribe spoken discourse. Third, citing textual examples, the long-established tradition of orally transmitted narratives shall be briefly discussed vis-à-vis the dissemination of accounts and the influence of this transference on written formulations. The conglomeration of these approaches shall contribute to academic discussion pertaining to Japanese antiquity in tandem with stimulating cross-disciplinary discussions on orality.