Texture, Text and Context: Alan Dundes on Folklore


Folklore, as a discipline, will never be adequately defined unless or until all the various genres or forms of folklore are rigorously described. Attempts to define folklore by means of criteria external to the materials of folklore are doomed to failure. Superstitions, for example, cannot be properly defined on the basis of whether or not an informant believes a particular superstition to be true or valid. If superstition or any other form of folklore is derfined in such a way, the problem arises as to what to call ‘Breaking a mirror is seven years’ bad luck’ when the informant does not himself believe that breaking a mirror has anything to do with bad luck.

Perhaps the most common external criterion used to define folklore is the way in which folklore is transmitted. Folklorists are wont to say that folklore is, or is in, ‘oral tradition’. Yet many forms of folklore are not transmitted orally at all. A boy may learn to play marbles or skip stones by watching other boys play. Nonverbal folklore such as gestures, games, and folkdance cannot be said to be truly in oral tradition. Even the ‘oral’ as opposed to ‘written’ dichotomic criterion, in the final analysis, can be shown empirically to be untenable. There are numerous written forms of folklore. Examples of folklore which are primarily written include: autograph book verse, automobile names, flyleaf rhymes…, latrinalia….” (p.20)

It should be clear that the mode of folklore’s transmission is in no way limited to folkloristic materials and that, consequently, it is of limited aid in defining folklore as distinct from other cultural materials. From this, one could reason say that definitions of folklore which depend completely upon such terms as ‘oral’, ‘tradition’, and ‘transmission’ are of questionable utility in explaining to someone who has no idea what folklore is what folklore is! Yet Utley’s recent attempt to grapple with the problem of definition concludes with his so-called operational definition which consists essentially of the ‘orally trasmitted’ criterion. In another recent study devoted in part to the same bête noir, Maranda maintains that ‘the process of transmission is the key for defining what folklore is.’ However, both of these folklorists are aware that form, in fact, is and in theory should be the decisive criterion for defining folklore. It must be internal, not external criteria which are used to define folklore. There is no harm, of course, in noting that folklore is transmitted like other aspects of culture, but it should be understood that this in no way materially contributes towards a definition of folklore which might differentiate it from other aspects of culture transmitted in the same fashion.

The problem then of defining folklore boils down to the task of defining exhaustively all of the forms of folklore. …However, thus far in the illustrious history of the discipline, not so much as one genre has been completely defined.” (p.21)

Stith Thompson not only confesses that he cannot really answer the question of what exactly a motif is, but he [-p.22] argues that ‘it makes no difference exactly what they are like.’ Thompson’s attitude towards the problem of definition is equally evident in his discussion of his specialty, the folktale. After remarking that ‘no attempt has ever been made to define it exactly,’ Thompson goes on to say in the course of  writing a definition of folktale for a folklore dictionary that this lack of basic definitition is a ‘great convenience… since it avoids the necessity of making decisions and often of entering into long debates as to the exact narrative genre to which a particular story may belong.‘ / this same deplorable situation is found in discussions of other genres.” (pp.21-22)

In an effort to encourage the definition of the various forms of folklore and thus eventually the definition of the field of folklore itself, I would like to propose three levels of analysis, each of which can aid in the task of definition. With respect to any given item of folklore, one may analyze its texture, its text, and its context. It is unlikely that a genre of folklore could be defined on the basis of just one of these. Ideally, a genre should be defined in terms of all three.

In most of the genres (and all those of a verbal nature), the texture is the language, the specific phonemens and morphemes employed. Thus in verbal forms of folklore, textural features are linguistic features. The textural features of proverbs, for example, include rhyme and alliteration. Other common textural features include: stress, pitch, juncture, tone, and onomatopoeia. The more important the textural features are in a given genre of folklore, the more difficult it is to translate an example of that genre into another language.” (p.22)

“Since the study of texture in folklore is basically the study of language (although there are textural analogs in folkdance and folk art), textural studies have been made by linguists rather than by folklorists. Moreover, because of the many theoretical and methodological advances in linguistics, there has been a tendency among some linguists to try to define folklore genres upon the basis of textual characteristics alone. To attempt this is to commit what I would term ‘the linguistic fallacy’, that is, to reduce the analysis of folklore to the analysis of language.” (p.23)

“The text of an item of folklore is essentially a version or a single telling of a tale, a recitation of a proverb, a singing of a folksong. For purposes of analysis, the text may be considered independent of its texture. Whereas texture is, on the whole, untranslatable, text may be translated. The proverb text ‘Coffee boiled is coffee spoiled’ may in theory be translated into any language, but the chances that the textural features of rhyme will survive translation are virtually nil.” (p.23)

The context of an item of folklore is the specific social situation in which that particular item is actually employed. It is necessary to distinguish context and function. Function is essentially an abstraction made on the basis of a number of contexts. Usually, function is an [-p.24] analyst’s statement of what (he thinks) the use or purpose of a given genre of folklore is. Thus one of the functions of myth is to provide a sacred precedent for present action. …This is not the same as the actual social situation in which a particular myth or proverb is used.” (pp.23-24)

“There is nothing wrong with recording an informant’s name and address and the place and date of collection, but one should not delude oneself into thinking that one has thereby recorded context. Such minimal informant data is a beginning, not an end.

Texture, text, and context must all be recorded. It should be noted that texture, text, and context, can each be subjected to structural analysis. Emic and etic units can be distinguished at each level. There are emic slots in contexts which can be filled by etic examples of particular [-p.32] genres. In a given contextual slot, e.g., one involving social protest, a number of different genres may be employed, such as jokes, proverbs, gestures, and folksongs. On the other hand, a given genre, e.g., the riddle, may fill a number of different contextual slots. This is exactly parallel to the sturctural analysis of text. In the case of folktale structure, for example, emic slots in texts can be filled by different etic units, that is, different motifs (allomotifs) may be used in a given motifeme. Moreover the same motif (etic unit) may be used in different motifemes (emic unit). Texture may be analysed in similar fashion.

The interrelationships between the three levels remain to be seen. A change in context can apparently effect a change in texture (e.g., a female narrator or audience may cause the substitution of a euphemisim for a taboo word).” (pp.31-32)

“With regard to the perplexing problem raised initially, that of the definition of folklore, it would seem that the first task of folklorists ought to be the analysis of text. Text is less variable than texture and context. …Once all the genres have been rigorously described in these terms [Texture, text, and Context], it will no longer be necessary to rely upon such vague definitions as those depending upon such external criteria as the means of transmission. Furthermore, the vital relationship between folk and folklore, now virtually ignored by text-oriented folklorists, may finally be given the attention it so richly deserves.” (p.32)

Ref: Alan Dundes Interpreting Folklore Bloomington, University of Indiana press, 1980


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