Tracing The History of Storytelling

I was seated in my grandfather’s living room. At 92 years old, his voice was still strong and warm. “Have I told you about the mud fights my brothers and I used to have on the farm when we were growing up?” He never waited for me to answer, just continued on, chuckling to himself at the memory. “We’d finish our day of work and then hop in the pond to cool off, but pretty soon we’d be slinging red clay at each other. Mamma would get so mad when she saw us comin’ up the hill all covered in mud.” He had told me that story more times than I could remember. But it never lost its magic in the retelling.

We talk a lot about storytelling on the Ethos3 blog. There’s a reason for that. We believe stories are one of the universal threads connecting humanity. A well-told story can break down about any barrier: time, distance, culture, or conflict. So they are worth studying. Today we are exploring the history of storytelling which can be traced in three main movements.

The Spoken Word

The first way humans used stories was through the spoken word. This is called orality. It’s extremely hard for us to imagine a life that is purely oral because we are literate; we have been exposed to writing. For us, words are letters on a page or letters in our brain that work together to form meaning. For oral cultures, everything was about sound and performance and memory. Stories were memorized and then performed. That’s how they passed from one storyteller to the next, from one generation to the next.

Although it’s hard to imagine what communication was like before writing, we can’t forget how vast our oral history is. In his book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Walter J. Ong writes, “language is so overwhelming oral that of all of the many thousands of languages—possibly tens of thousands—spoken in the course of human history only around 106 have ever been committed to writing.” A large majority of the human communicative experience has been oral. And it’s from this rich oral foundation that we move into literacy.

The Written Word

In the second movement, called literacy, the spoken word became record with the introduction of writing. Before this phase, communication was tied to sound. Now, however, it is tied to both sight and space, in form of written or printed words. Writing now allows us to create “texts.” It allows us to take a performance of story, which changes slightly with every telling and every teller, and make it concrete and constant. Storytelling gets a script.

The written word also opens up new possibilities in human achievement. Ong says, “without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials, cannot produce other beautiful and powerful creations . . . Literacy is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.” In other words, literacy lets us use our brains in a different way. It allows us to take the internal process of memorization and make it external by writing things down to preserve them on paper. We are no longer primarily focused on learning and rehearsing and performing old stories. We now have increased time and potential to create and share new ones.

The Relational Word

We haven’t agreed on a term for the third movement which we are in now. Some experts like Ong and Erik Havelock call it second orality. One of the modern experts is University of Florida professor Gregory Ulmer who uses the term electracy to explain our movement from an oral and literate past to an electronic, multi-media future.

I like to think of this third movement as relational because it connects us to our spoken and written past. It also closely mirrors what we now know about communication via developments in neuroscience. Scientists tell us that thought isn’t exclusively oral or textual or pictorial or aural, and it’s not isolated to just one or two brain regions. Communication is the result of large spread brain activity that is relational in nature. The human brain has the incredible capacity to think along patterned lines, like ruts, as well as forming new connections, like bridges. The storytelling of today mimics our brains in this way, using multiple channels to communicate and connect.

So while our love for stories won’t ever change, the way that we tell them will. Author Frank Rose says, “Every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative.” On Friday, I’ll answer the question, “What does this new form of narrative look like?” as we explore storytelling in the 21st century.

In the meantime, let us know how our dedicated team can help you create compelling narratives and stunning visuals for your next presentation.


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