Via this Log post by Victor Mair about a 2004 Chinese novel called Yīnggélìshì 英格力士 (the title is a Chinese rendering of “English”; it’s about a guy named Love Liu who grows up in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution, studies English, and “becomes enamored of this new language and attracted to his teacher”), I discovered Bruce Humes’s blog Altaic Storytelling: Tales from Istanbul to Heilongjiang, which is well worth checking out. Humes is now in Istanbul studying Turkish:

The goal would be to get enough modern Turkish under my belt so I could move onto Ottoman Turkish. Eventually, I’d like to be able to carry out research into the history of translation between Turkic languages and Chinese, or even better, re: the current topic of my newly christened blog: Altaic storytelling, particularly the role of itinerant aşık. I don’t know much about it, but it really appeals. The older I get, the more interested I am in oral transmission as opposed to written literature.

A post that particularly intrigued me is about “Evenki Place Names behind the Hànzì” in Chi Zijian’s novel Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸).


  1. marie-lucie says:

    Fascinating blog! Thank you for the reference.

  2. Why more interested in oral?

  3. marie-lucie says:

    The blogger is interested in Altaic storytelling, particularly the role of itinerant aşık.
    Like Homer and medieval poets (minstrels, troubadours), the Altaic storytellers (and their equivalents in many different cultures) are or at least were travelling performers, infrequently heard and eagerly expected. Even if they told basically the same stories, the performances were never exactly the same, as the reciters adapted their delivery and some of the details to the tastes of their audiences as well as to the logistics of performing. Once the texts were written, canonical versions were established, and private reading started to replace public performances. In the process, the face-to-face contact between performer and audience was lost and adaptations had to be made to the text to reflect the new conditions.
    A few days ago I attended a linguistics conference at which one of the papers was about the late medieval rewriting in French of a much earlier (Old) French translation of a Latin text dealing with the life of a particular saint. The rewriting had been commissioned because the language had changed so much in 200-odd years that the text was almost illegible, but the updated translation was not the only interesting feature of the later text: the rewriter had faithfully translated the parts dealing with the historical or legendary narrative of the life in question, but had omitted parts consisting of prayers and praises to God or the Virgin Mary, which contributed little to the development of the story. The presenter commented that the original document followed an oral tradition where the reciter would choose to add such details in order to emphasize crucial moments in the life of the saint, who could have uttered those prayers, etc, but the later reader was left to imagine such emotional details for himself.
    Oral literature still exists in a way in the modern world: it is quite a different experience to silently read the text of a play and to see that play performed by live actors in an actual setting. Many times the live performance does not exactly follow the written text, and it is common for a director to leave out some lines or make other changes to the text. Even if all the lines are used, the actions, gestures, facial expressions, intonations, timing, etc emphasize different aspects of the text, different interpretations of the characters, etc. These are the tools of the oral performer, whether among a cast of actors or as a lone reciter of traditional texts.

  4. I could have sworn I’d written about Ong’s Orality and Literacy, but it seems not. Anyway, anyone interested in the topic should read it.

  5. des von bladet says:

    Some years ago, I saw some scholarly types get into something of a huff when Ong’s book was recommended on a blog. Not because it is bad as such, but because it is after all pushing 50 years old and scholarship has not stood still.
    But is there an accessible and more recent book?

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