I’ve heard it said that “oral tradition and history is the most accurate history known to mankind”.
The sheer stupidity of this idea is almost beyond comprehension. Anyone who has paid attention to human nature or participated in the old game of telephone will understand this. (Chinese whispers (Commonwealth English) or telephone (American English) is an internationally popular children’s game in which players form a line, and the first player comes up with a message and whispers it to the ear of the second person in the line. The second player repeats the message to the third player, and so on. When the last player is reached, they announce the message they heard to the entire group. The first person then compares the original message with the final version. Although the objective is to pass around the message without it becoming garbled along the way, part of the enjoyment is that, regardless, this usually ends up happening. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player, usually with amusing or humorous effect. Reasons for changes include anxiousness or impatience, erroneous corrections, the difficult-to-understand mechanism of whispering, …..(1)
The varying abilities of human listening, understanding and comprehension skills is one of the biggest factors in the unreliability of oral history and tradition. Everyone hears and understands the spoken word through a filter. This filter comes from our parents, our siblings, our environment, education, life experiences, trials and tribulations, even our grasp of the language being spoken.
The ancient Romans had a Proverb – vox audita perit littera scripta manet ~ “A heard voice perishes, but the written letter remains.” (2)
The English equivalent of the Latin sentence ‘Littera scripta manet’ is the following: ‘The letter once written remains’. The sentence is part of a proverb from the ancient, classical Latin language. The first part of the proverb is as follows: ‘Vox audita perit’, which means ‘The voice once heard perishes’. Some Latin proverbs preserve sayings from the earlier, ancient, classical Greek. Such may be the case here, because a version exists from the Greek also. (3)
It is amazing to me that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew the importance of written history and the utter fallibility of oral history and traditions and yet, some modern scholars think just the opposite. This is especially so when they try to validate the oral history of native Americans whether from North or South America.
Now, no one should infer that I am dismissing oral history and tradition outright. What I am dismissing is the mistaken belief that this type of historical record is flawless and superior to the written documents of contemporaries of the story tellers.
Listen to the stories, read the books, search out the personal diaries and journals, study the newspapers and other contemporary publications, then you can build an accurate picture of the past incidents, people, animals, life styles and material culture where your interest lies.