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Analyses of oral literature have for long concentrated on function and form, with little or no attention paid to the aesthetic and linguistic aspects. This work applies linguistic principles to the analysis of oral literature. The purpose is to arrive at an interpretation of the tales, based on the structure, to enable us study some of the lexical and grammatical categories isolated from the tales, and to attempt constructing a tentative theory of the linguistic properties of oral tale. After the introduction, the work is divided into four chapters. Chapter one is an introduction to the text. Chapter two presents a literature review of related works, chapter three is our research method while chapter four analyses a selection from our corpus, while five concludes the thesis. While analyzing lexical and grammatical categories in the tales, this thesis further argues that to understand the meaning of oral literature, one has to understand its distinctive language and style and concludes that narrators use words deliberately to achieve the reaction they desire from the audience.




Traditional Africa was a basically oral society. Our history, science, medicine, technology, philosophy and literary forms were passed through the words of mouth in myths, folktales, legends, proverbs,praise poetry and ritual performances.Our biological ancestors did not cease to be a mere species of animal and become mankind until the capacity for rhythmic language and narration had evolved in them. In myth the world over, these mental powers are said to be god-given and divine. So for long ages the only way any knowledge could survive from one generation to another was through oral literature.

Oral literature began so long ago in prehistoric time that no one can scientifically even guess how or when they originated. It has certain stylistic aspect which is peculiar to it.

It is specific and less ambiguous way of communication, because the speaker reinforces his or her specificity of meaning with gesture, expression, intonation, and so on, and various self-correcting mechanisms of which written literature is incapable of doing. It also ratify the meaning of each word in a succession of concrete situations.

Oral literature is a broad term which may include ritual performance, curative chants, epic poems,ballad and songs, musical genres, folk tales, creation tales, songs, myths, spells, legends, proverbs, riddles, tongue-twisters, word games, recitations, life histories or historical narratives. These forms constitute in a real and significant sense, the literary traditions and achievement of indigenous African societies. They are the manifestations of traditional creative imagination, beliefs and perception of social reality. They are modes which construct and deconstruct the social – cultural milieu of the people. These are the verbal, auditory manifestations of Man’s creative impulse.

Oral Literature refers to any form of verbal art which is transmitted orally or delivered by word of mouth. Jane Nandwa and Austin Bukenya define oral literature as "those utterances, whether spoken, recited or sung, whose composition and performance exhibit to an appreciable degree the artistic character of accurate observation, vivid imagination and ingenious expression”(35)

The language of African oral literature is another area of interest that has raised much controversy among scholars and critics. language is a system of communication in speech and writing that is peculiar to a particular group of people while literature is an art and it is distinguished from other art form  by the fact that it utilizes language as its medium of expression. Like written literature, oral literature depends on  imaginative use of language; the artist uses language to create an artistic impact on the listener.The importance of language to a people cannot be over-emphasized because it is a crucial element in the making of a society. Without a common language, a society cannot evolve.A common culture and history are dependent on language.

Having established these basic frameworks, the major task in this research is to linguistically analyze style and language in oral literature with reference to tales from Igbere. For the purpose of this study a brief background of Igbere will be given below for proper understanding of their tales.

Not much is known about the people of Igbere, as very little research has been done on them. But one thing stands out clear, namely,that Igbere and all the communities around it have linguistic, cultural and historical affinities.

The Igbere are famous for their narratives. Their stories are used to instruct, teach, warn and set qualitative standards in order to encourage good performance. Their stories are usually very entertaining. The variety of Igbere narratives includes myths, tortoise stories, spirits , animal races (especially tortoise cunning). Other stories of the Igbere people deal directly with life of different people: fraudulent people as well as stupid people and truly loving people etc. Their narratives talk about fame or superior qualities that certain individuals are endowed with.Trickster stories based on animals like the hare, the spider, the tortoise and squirrel are common in Igbere. The Igbere myths reflect religion, superstition and traditional beliefs. The myths retell early history, the creation of the world, etc.

In Igbere, the farms were left for women to cultivate while the men only joined the farm work when there was no war to be fought. The people in all they do, were always on the alert because the surrounding communities were also warriors and head hunters. One can simply say that Igbere people are war –like and this accounts for the short nature of most of their tales. According to Anyanta Ogburueke

Our people were  by nature militarily inclined…. Anybody who does not bring home a head was not allowed to marry because might was regarded as right…. We even fought for the Arochukwu people who came to Igbere to buy slaves…. the period of the war has its effect on our people.We could not move about freely for fear of being killed (133).

In addition to Ogbureke’s observation, the other effect of the wars was that there was little time for leisure because the people were surrounded by hostile neighbors who were ready to fight, conquer, kill, plunder and destroy the Igbere people. But since the people must recreate, it means that a system of recreation,suitable to the times had to be evolved. Therefore they recreated whatever they could in snatches.

Oral narration in Igbere is regarded as an art and taken seriously. Great orators, most of the time, achieve their desired result through short stories within their rhetoric. A narrative is basically a prose account of peoples events and places that may be factual or fictional. The accounts are principally handed down from person to person and generation to generation through word of mouth. The terms ‘tales’ and ‘folktale’ have been used to denote, the same concept. In Igbere, oral narratives fall into two main categories, real and imaginary narratives. Real narratives tell us something that actually happened as in  the narratives dealing with different diseases, drought that culminated in famine,floods, war and their miseries. These narratives are real for they actuallyhappened. The second category is the imaginative narrative(fiction). These are creative, and deal with imaginary things. Real and fictional narratives communicate messages to man, man’s environment and behaviour. Folktales, which are a people’s popular narratives handed down orally from past generations, express the mind of the people. Themes in folktales are mainly on cultural issues and man’s behaviour.

          There are professional narrators as well as amateur. Although the audience of an Igbere folktale session is usually made up of children and women, the teller could be an adult or a child. Aesthetic verdicts could be delivered by anyone who is sufficiently confident of his or her knowledge of performance criteria. This makes a performance quite risky as any violation of the folktale attracts interruption from the audience, the age of the listeners notwithstanding. This reaction of an African audience to a poor performance has made Helen Nabasuta (45-47) and KwesiYankah (145) regard the performative exercise as risk taking. Story telling generally takes place in the evening after the evening meal, as the family is relaxing before bedtime. Abarry, writing on storytelling among the Gas of Ghana, says nighttime is the choicest time because it “provides a fantasy –inducing aura emanating from the ethereal effulgence of the moon, or the wistful scintillations of the stars: and the dismal glow of the evening log-fire (24)”. Among the Igbere it is an anomaly to narrate folktales in daytime, in fact only orphans are authorized by tradition to tell and listen to to folktales in the day time, presumably to forestall laziness among the children who rather than perform their domestic task, may swap tales.

The beginning and closure of Igbere tales are easily recognizable since they are marked by stock phrases .The narrator begins by drawing the attention of his audience. He calls ‘otii’ to which everybody around answers ‘oyoo’. After this he proceeds with a series of  proverbs which are recited in a form of decanus; the narrator recites the first part of the proverb while the audience replies with the concluding part.

With this opening, the narrator claims expertise of his art, and the audience acknowledges him as an expert. Just as the chicken or fowl wanders into every bush without fear of being pricked by thorns, the ducks swim every river as long as it likes , without drowning  and just as the dog eats up every mound of excreta with no harm coming to it, the narrator wanders into every bush, swims every river, sees everything, hears every sound and participates in every action and comes back unscathed. Of course this audience willingly suspends their disbelief and joins the narrator in its exploits. At the end of the tale, the narrator pronounces “akpaukwa m daa, onye na mparu mparu”( if my breadfruits falls whoever wants to carry should carry).

This closing statement is based on the community’s practice of non- ownership of breadfruit tree whose yields are not plucked but allowed to drop on its own. When it drops whoever finds it first claims ownership. Thus the tale is a breadfruit communally owned , to be told by whoever wishes. It is an invitation for member of the audience to take up the challenge and tell the next tale to keep the night going as a prelude to sleep.

According to Emenajo, a well narrated tale merits the teller the Igbo greeting of nnoo (welcome) because oral narration is regarded as a journey; the successful rendition of a tale is likened to safe arrival from a long journey. As Emenajo puts it, “it is as if the audience is welcoming the narrator from the world of make-believe to which his tale has forced him to travel? And are all folktales not set in worlds of make-believe, the world where men, animal and spirit live together (xiv).  According to Agbada part of the aesthetics of the Igbo tale reside in its stock characterization as well as in the symbolic complexities of a tale (9).  Every character whether human, animal, spirit or plant, behave like a human being – an acceptable phenomenon in the Igbere oral rendition, where reality is highly elusive. The Igbere tale have special attraction for this research because of the skillful merger of their themes and style of  oral narration .This merger produces peculiar linguistic features that have not been fully explored. It is for this reason that this work embarks on the linguistic analysis of these tales


The folktale in Igbere culture enjoys so much popularity for more than one reason: it has an entertainment value, it serves a didactic mode for child –rearing, and it is a memorable artistic genre. There is no doubt that the Igbere tradition is almost fading out, due in part to the influence of modernization- about which the Igbere have shown much enthusiasm. Equally true is the fact that modernity has to a considerable extent taken education and entertainment away from the family and the folk community and given these functions to such formal social institution as the school and the media. In spite of these prevailing social changes in Igbere, the folktale remains the most performed and enjoyed artistic form. Okpewho explains it as:

The past, painfully aware of its weakling hold but reluctant to let go of them for good: the present mindful to be sure of legacies at its disposal but equally conscious that the changing scene urges are adjustment of means and goals (72).

There has not been much collection of Igbere oral tales. Nkem Okoh shows that little has been done in the collection of Igbo tales, and that the little that has been done is poorly executed(21). Ogbalu and Emenajo states that “not much is known about the igbo, their language their history and their culture (50)” If up till 1995 not much is known about the Igbos then Igbere people are most obscure.

The main objective of this studyis to make a positive contribution to the analysis of African oral literature. It thus states that to understand meaning of oral literature, one has to understand its language and style.


          Having collected the tales, the researcher was faced with a choice of translation technique. Each language has its rules and convention, its grammar and syntactic rules. Rendering Igbere oral tales in English means the thought pattern and the linguistic codes have to be rendered in English. The job then presents the problem of how to translate Igbere language into English without doing any violence to either the source or the target language.

Because of the linguistic concern of this thesis, the researcher has translated only ten tales from the corpus. In the transcription, one had to use the source dialect,because of its peculiarities as a ‘peripheral’ Igbo language.In our translation,  we tried as much as possible to make sure that the texture of the original language was retained. Transliteration was necessary and certain local names were retained where it was thought that doing otherwise will distort the idea or the underlying meaning of the tales. No such translations have been done and not much study of the tales has been done and this research is designed to fill these gaps.


The study of traditional Oral literature of African pre-literate society did not begin out of people curiosity but rather the extensive recording of folktales, myths and stories by scholars came up as part of a debate about the creative abilities of the so called primitive man. Claude Levy-Bruhl in his influential book primitive mentality contended that Primitive man is not capable of logical reasoning or intelligently and rationally ordering his ideas and experience of reality. The primitive man mentality according to him is pre-logical. This view of the nature of the mind and intellectual capacities of the primitive man was unacceptable to many scholars. The need to refute this assertion led so many scholars like Ruth Finnegan, Claude Levy Strauss and many others to travel to various remote non-white societies to study their oral lore. This study paved way for the collection of oral forms and the study of oral literature.

 Oral literature, whether recited, narrated, declaimed or sung has got specific purposes to serve in  society. Often, it is used to educate and entertain members of society. People in traditional Igbere society taught their culture and truth of life through different genres of oral literature according to the occasions.  

Oral literature is not frozen as in the printed word, it allows for self-expression, renewal, innovation and creativity. A country’s oral literature reflects its social, economic and political institutions. It is an expression of the values, perception and aspiration of its people and knowing this helps us gain a better understanding of each other. It also enables us to appreciate the strength of other communities and equally identify with their aspiration and empathize with their problem. In so doing we can develop a true sense of nation hood and national pride. Oral literature plays an important role in understanding how value and traditions are passed on in a certain community .Oral literature helps the people to grow according to societal expectations. Oral literature embodies history, cultural values, philosophy and beliefs of a people. Through this literature, we learn a lot about societies. It is, therefore, safe to state that oral literature is an instrumentof cultural education. This literature teaches what society likes and what it hates.

Little wonder, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o In Decolonizing the Mind discusses the relevance of oral literature to his childhood. He says "

I can vividly recall those evenings of storytelling around the fire side. It was mostly the grownups telling the children but everybody was interested and involved. We children would retell the stories the following day to other children who worked in the fields."The stories main characters were usually animals. Hare being small, weak, but full of innovative wit, was our hero. We identified with him as he struggled against the brutes of prey like lyon, leopard and hyena. His victories were our victories and we learnt that the apparently weak can outwit the strong

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