Oral vs Written

Is syntactic segmentation a universal of language? Does it depend on the fact whether a language has or lacks a written fixation/written tradition? Several outsiders in grammatical theory, some of them being outstanding experts in comparative studies or medieval philology (Antoine Meillet, Andreas Heusler, Bohumil Havranek) gave a positive answer. Similar theories arose in the 1980-s; today is has become customary to speak of ‘configurational’ vs ‘non-configurational’ languages. Most proponents of the non-configurationality hypothesis do synchronic studies but few of them (cf. Jan Terje Faarlund or Yuri Kusmenko) discuss the possibility that ancient Indo-European languages, including early Germanic languages, could be non-confugurational, too.
These languages were oral or at least ‘young written’: such a definition implies that many text genres basing on oral transmission rather than on written activity were in full blossom. This is indeed true of Early Germanic culture and for similar cultures. ‘Young written society’ is defined as a society which knows literacy but lacks the notion of a text as a fixed sequence of symbols. But then…what is an ‘oral text’? If it is real, not fake, to what extent could it vary within a successful act of oral transmission? How can we prove that it was one and the same text in the input and in the output? In which way did oral tradition take effect on the speakers ability to segmentate syntactically consistent messages?
These issues are discussed in my program paper ‘In search of the oral text’ (В поисках устного текста), originally written in Atlantica, vol. 3 (1997) and reissued with some revisions in the 2004 collective monograph ‘Historical poetics’ (Историческая поэтика)’: Moscow: Yazyki slavyanskoj kultury. 2004, 11-37.



Some life situations claimed to be real look as construed at first glance. Sometimes it seems that people involved in these situations intentionally or unconsiously construe their behaviour on models and collisions well-known in their culture and described in mythology, epics or fiction.

CASE 1. An anecdotic story about a 59 yrs man from Brazil who reportedly died in an accident: his relatives identified his corps, then the man attended his own funeral in a pretty good condition.



Did you say it reminds you of something? You are completely right. You read a similar story by Jorge Amado: A Morte e a Morte de Quincas Berro D’água ‘The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell‘.

CASE 2. Post-Sovjet Post-Russia. Somebody set fire to the headquarterts of the puppet youth organization ‘Nashi’, supported by the Russian authorities (its members are often called Nashists, i.e. the Nashis). Then some video popped up on the web, referring to some enigmatic enemies of the Nashis. Do you think we remind you of Georgi Dimitrov’s case and the burning of the German Reichstag in the Nazi Germany? Not quite. — The show must go on. Some ironic poster fancies in his blog that the action were a revenge on the Nashis for their persucution of a guy whose name was Podrabinek: this blogger (not Podrabinek himself) coined the term Podrabjata, i.e. the ‘The Kids of Podrabinek‘ alled the enigmatic avengers. Then the journalists of the yellow paper Moskovskij Komsomolec (or some secret informers?) wish to findr some information about the burning and stumble on the blog of that ironic person who had invented the Podrabjatas. The journalists misread the post and took the existence of the Podrabjatas for granted. They published their article immediately: the next day the whole Russia including Podrabinek himself and the Nashis was  discussing their attitude to the tough guys Podrabjatas.


Did you get the literary source? It is Yuri Tynyanov’s story Подпоручик КижеLiuetenant Kije‘) once blamed for its grotesque and unrealistic subject.


Many popular folk songs and romances in Russia are relatively young and date back to the late XIX century or early XX century. That they are often billed as ‘folk songs’ is often due to the fact that people do not want to look for their roots. Sometimes the authors of the songs are being hushed up on censure or ideological reasons, cf. here for Yakov F. Prigozhij’s (1840-1920) songs and arrangements: http://kkre-11.narod.ru/prigozii.htm 

In Russian verse, full rhymes and triple meters are a dead-sure sign for a literary loan, that is for a fake folk character. But the fake can also be assimilated if you like the content or form: in this case, free variation is attested. Some of the later variants of this Nikolay Ogarev text decompose it and to give it a more traditional folk character, whereas some other variants try to  make the sung text more convenient; http://a-pesni.golosa.info/popular20/arestant.htm

To an even greater degree this holds for Dmitry Sadovnikov‘s romance Po posadu gorodskomu. It is a fiction, knocked off from folk tales collected by Sadovnikov – who had both been a poet and a folklorist. Aljona’s name, though not the image, is borrowed from the Stepan Razin’s tradition. http://a-pesni.golosa.info/popular20/poposadu.htm

This is not a battle story, but a love story – very similar to ‘pirate romance’ or ‘viking romance’ from other ages. A step back towards the assumed oral root of a literary fiction, is http://a-pesni.golosa.info/kazaki/semirek/mimosadu.htm. A step forward  to a smooth and naughty city ballad  without bloodshed and manslaughter is the variant sung by the great singer Ivan Skobtsov (1900-1983: here Razin is walking not along the posad (town) but through the sad (gardens), instead of  чу! сквозь сон ‘hark! Through the dream’ the singer is uttering  чуть сквозь сон ‘just through the dream’ and so forth.

Finally, a story from our day. A contemporary bard, Mr. Leonid Sergeev, who accidentally, just as Sadovnikov, is a trained philologist and collector of folk lore wrote a smart retrosong called Колоколенка ‘Bellfry Dear’ about the WWII. The song became popular andpeople who learned it were amazed to learn that it could have a real author of flesh. Try this link with Sergeev‘s own comment on his website: http://www.leonid-sergeev.ru/Pesni/kolokolenka.html

I first heard Bellfry Dear on the radio sung by some actor – the author was of course not mentioned: I discovered that the song is not anonymous only by chance – I wished to check its text and googled колоколенка

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: