Thursday, March 6, 2014
Understanding the Oral Tradition of Rhetoric
As you may be able to tell, the study of communication was based in the oral tradition. The oral tradition refers to the vocal transmission of information between people from generation to generation. History, law, tradition, culture—all were passed along by orally for centuries prior to the creation of the written word. Even after the written word was invented, the “oral tradition” remained intact due to the prevalence of illiteracy. Even today there are still traces of the power of the “oral tradition.” For example, some nursery rhymes, such as Humpty Dumpty, date back to 16th century England. Did you ever sing it as a child? Well, you many not know it refers to a cannon used in the English Civil War which fell from its perch atop a church wall when, in 1648, it was hit by enemy fire. It can be hard to believe, given that we live in a mass and computermediated society, that at one time the spoken word was the primary medium of communication, even over the written word.
The oral tradition of public speaking is most closely tied to the study of rhetoric. Rhetoric is generally known as the art of using discourse to persuade people. Most often, rhetoric is used to persuade individuals to take up or reject a belief, assign meaning to a person, event or object, or even perform an action. Rhetoric is actually one of the oldest disciplines studied in the Western world; its origins date about to around 476 B.C.! (Murphy, 1983) Rhetorical scholarship originally focused on both the creation of and analysis of public speaking since it has historically been the main vehicle of persuasion. Political assemblies and campaigns are still prototypical contexts of rhetorical, public speech. Ironically, rhetorical theory emerged from written classical texts from the ancient Western civilizations of Greece and Rome.
Historically, the study of rhetoric has been based in Western thought (specifically Greek and Roman), which solely reflects European culture and beliefs and promotes a western perspective from which rhetorical analysis is practiced. However, rhetoric and the practice of rhetorical speech were not exclusive to the West. Ancient African, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Latino cultures all have rich oral traditions which have largely been left out of the history of rhetorical study. Today, scholars are increasingly turning to the works of rhetors in regions such as China, Iraq and Egypt, to aid in the development of an evolving multicultural tradition of rhetoric rather than its static and unnecessarily narrow western one. For instance, an analysis of the rhetorical style of Mencius (371 – 289 BCE), a Confucian social philosopher from Ancient China, found that he used the common theme of water to help persuade people of his political belief that “the benevolent has no enemy” (Ma, 2000). Also, did you know that Enheduanna (2300-2225 BCE), a high priestess in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur (currently known as Southern Iraq), was the first author in recorded history and is largely considered a feminist?