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On the Concepts of Folklore
Although the word "folklore" is regularly employed in our everyday speech, its precise definition presents a problem. The term is clearly a compound made up of "folk," implying some group of people, who have something called "lore." In his prefatory essay to The Study of Folklore, the eminent folklorist Alan Dundes attempts to simplify the issue for the introductory student: "'Folk' can refer to any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor." The common factor creates a sense of collective identity, so that any population with such a sense could be regarded as a "folk," according to Dundes. This sense of identity can be based upon such salient social factors as ethnicity, occupation, kinship, religious belief, sex, age, or on an almost limitless number of other factors, such as health (e.g., people suffering from heart disease), spatial proximity (e.g., people in the same room), or personal habit (e.g., cigar smokers). Theoretically, the number and kinds of folk groups are limited only by the number and kinds of elements which can serve as the basis for group identities. Since Dundes argues that "folk" can refer to any group based on any factor (rather than a specific group formed on the basis of select factors), it would seem that the term "folk" does not contribute significantly to the definition of "folklore" as a whole (other than suggesting that it characterizes human rather than nonhuman populations). Consequently, the semantic weight of his definition must rest upon the notion of "lore."
Dundes attempts to define "lore" as an itemized list of genres. Even though the list is lengthy, he considers it only a sampling of folklore forms:
Myths, legends, folktales, jokes, proverbs, riddles, chants, charms, blessings, curses, oaths, insults, retorts, taunts, teases, toasts, tongue-twisters, and greeting and leave-taking formulas (e.g., See you later, alligator). It also includes folk costume, folk dance, folk drama (and mime), folk art, folk belief (or superstition), folk medicine, folk instrumental music (e.g., fiddle tunes), folksongs (e.g., lullabies, ballads), folk speech (e.g., slang), folk similies (e.g., as blind as a bat), folk metaphors (e.g., to paint the town red), and names (e.g., nicknames and place names). Folk poetry ranges from oral epics to autograph-book verse, epitaphs, latrinalia (writings on the walls of public bathrooms), limericks, ball-bouncing rhymes, jump-rope rhymes, finger and toe rhymes, dandling rhymes (to bounce the children on the knee), counting-out rhymes (to determine who will be "it" in games), and nursery rhymes. The list of folklore fonns also contains games; gestures; symbols; prayers (e.g., graces); practical jokes; folk etymologies; food recipes; quilt and embroidery designs; house, barn and fence types; street vendors' cries; and even the traditional conventional sounds used to summon animals or to give them commands. There are such minor forms as mnemonic devices (e.g., the name Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the spectrum in order), envelope sealers (e.g., SWAK — Sealed With A Kiss), and the traditional comments made after body emissions (e.g., after burps or sneezes). There are such major forms as festivals and special day (or holiday) customs (e.g., Christmas, Halloween, and birthday).
This list is exceedingly useful in providing the novice with a sense of what folklorists document and study. Included are forms that the beginning student undoubtedly expects to find (e.g., myths, legends, folktales, folksongs, and superstitions), as well as some that perhaps appear as something of a surprise (e.g., fence types, envelope sealers, latrinalia, epitaphs, and practical jokes). In any event, it is important to recognize that this list in no way defines "lore." For a list to do so, the items included must be clearly defined (which they are not) and the list must be complete (which it is not). Dundes himself acknowledges that the terms are not well defined and that his list is not comprehensive. Even if one could define each genre on the list, an incomplete list would still remain unacceptable as a definition. How would we go about deciding whether something not on the list were "lore" or not? For example, is a barn decoration or a football cheer a kind of lore? Barn types and quilt designs are mentioned, but not barn decorations. Taunts, rhymes, and games are mentioned, but a football cheer only accompanies a game, and if it were neither a taunt nor in poetic form, how would we decide?
Perhaps the list is meant only to provide examples of lore, and only a common denominator for the numerous items need be identified to formulate an adequate definition. Then it should be relatively easy to decide whether any particular form (including barn decorations and football cheers) is or is not "lore". In theory. this approach could work; however, it is no easy matter to identify this common factor. Not only must this denominator adequately characterize all the items on the list, but it should not characterize any significant items omitted from the list. For example, it might be argued that all the items on the list are products of human invention and creativity. But so, too, are law, agriculture, marriage, and the parliamentary system. If "products of human invention" is indeed the informing principle of the list, we should certainly expect these items to be given precedence over tongue twisters and practical jokes. So it is not sufficient to find merely a common denominator; it is necessary to find a common denominator which is peculiar to the items on this list and which does not require the admission of glaring omissions or oversights.
Readers are encouraged to search for a principle in Dundes's list, but it is unlikely that they will find one that meets both qualifications for an adequate definition. Either the proposed principle will not characterize all items on the list, or if it does, it will force us to acknowledge glaring omissions. Of course, the possibility always exists that a principle fulfills both conditions but is otherwise trivial. For example, we might define "lore" as those forms of human expression that Alan Dundes so identifies. Such a definition includes everything on the list and probably omits nothing major. (If it did, Dundes probably would have included it.) But this definition is altogether unhelpful because it lacks intersubjectivity. "Folklore is wha t Alan Dundes studies" is a definition to which not even Alan Dundes would subscribe.
The enumeration of forms not only frustrates the successful definition of lore in its own right, but also raises questions about Dundes's previous characterization of "folk" as well. If "folk" really implies "any group of people whatsoever," why should this term be needed as a modifier for some items on the list? Why do the terms folk tale, folk song, folk art, folk drama, folk speech, and folk dance appear while other items on the list — legends, curses, jump-rope rhymes, and mnemonic devices — escape such qualification? Why not simply enumerate tale, song, art, drama, speech, and dance? After all, these forms of expression regularly occur within the context of groups and consequently should not need the modifier "folk." Suspicion should be immediately aroused that not all song, art, or drama expressed in the context of groups is really folklore. In other words, perhaps Dundes really regards folksong or folk dance as song and dance which is characteristic of some special kind of group, rather than just any group, as he first leads us to believe. Otherwise, the unqualified terms "song" and "dance" should have been sufficient for his list.
It would be convenient if the problems that we have identified could be ascribed to the definition of Dundes alone, and be dismissed in favor of the definitions of other authorities. However, Dundes's definition is hardly idiosyncratic; it characterizes (or has conditioned) the perspective of a good number of contemporary folklorists. Rather than dismiss Dundes's formulation, much can be learned from it. If we seek to discover why no single principle seems to emerge from his lengthy list, and if we address the reasons for the reintroduction of the term "folk" after Dundes generalizes it almost to the point of meaninglessness, we may emerge with a greater appreciation, if not a better definition, of folklore. The answers to these questions are not self-evident, however. The problems are more historical than logical. To approach a solution at all, we must attempt to gain a sense of the development of the concept of folklore over time.
A serious study of forms that today are labeled "folklore" took place in Germany at the turn of the eighteenth century. A romantic and nationalistic spirit dominated the times. Romantics bemoaned the rise of civilization which exalted the artifical and intellectual at the expense of the natural and spiritual. They felt that, divorced from nature, man was nothing, his efforts empty and meaningless. Art and poetry could never result from the mere intellectual manipulation and imitation of forms. Poetry was not a deliberate act but an involuntary reaction to the natural and historical environment, a product of feeling and the sensation of a total and natural reality. If civilized man had been cut off from these sensations, more primitive peoples had not. The romantics collected Volkslieder (folksongs) in the belief that they were essential for reinvigorating national literatures and saving these literatures from sterile intellectualism. The creation and perpetuation of folksongs was thought to be a function of a group which had not severed its connections with nature. The folk were once thought to comprise the nation as a whole, but with the development of urban civilization they survived only as an unlettered, uneducated, and marginal stratum of society — the peasantry.
Nationalistic impulses directed the effort to describe and recapture the traditions of the primitive nation. For brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, the publication of Kinder- und Hausmärchen [Children and Household Tales (1812-15)], Deutsche Sagen [German Legends (1816-18)], and Deutsche Mythologie [German Mythology (1835)] was an effort to document the poetic and spiritual character of the Germanic people. The Grimms were concerned with the reconstruction of the ancient Teutonic mythology which had been destroyed by the incursion of Greek, Roman, and Christian civilization. The materials used for this reconstruction were the tales, games, sayings, names, and idiomatic phrases still to be found among the peasantry.
These early scholarly and artistic interests betray a particular set of assumptions about the materials which we have since labeled "folklore." First, the unlettered peasants, uncorrupted by civilization, were the remnants and spiritual heirs of a native heathen nation. Second, their distinctive tales, songs, speech forms, and customs reflected the past, they were the fragments of the philosophy and way of life of an ancient people. Third, the material and spiritual life of these ancient peoples could be reconstructed through the judicious analysis and comparison of contemporary peasant tales and customs. What seems crucial for our purposes is the recognition that the serious scholarly and scientific study of these kinds of materials was based upon a belief that peasants were the remnant of that ancient people who once lived upon the land, and that peasant tales, songs, sayings, and customs echoed the life and spirit of these ancestral folk.
The work of the Grimms proved enormously influential. In England, a long tradition of antiquarian scholarship existed, focusing upon anything old: old buildings, old legal documents, old artifacts, old tales, old songs, old customs. These latter forms were often labeled "popular antiquities" to designate their preservation among the people, i.e., the peasantry and other common classes. In 1846 William John Thoms proposed that these popular antiquities be described by the term "Folk-Lore." He modeled his suggested program for the study of folklore directly upon the work of the Grimms. Thus the term "folklore" came into being to designate materials believed to survive primarily among the rural peasantry and to reflect life in the distant past. Although the term "folklore" would be redefined and qualified many times over, these associations would never be eradicated entirely.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, English folklore research was further influenced by the development of cultural anthropology and the evolutionary perspective of Edward B. Tylor and his disciples. Tylor felt that the history of mankind reflected a development from simple "savage" stages through "barbarism" to "civilization." ("Savage" and "barbarian" did not quite have the same pejorative connotations as they do today.) The proof of this evolutionary progression was demonstrated by survivals, "those processes, customs and opinions, and so forth, which have been carried on by force of habit into a new state of society different from that in which they had their original home." Survivals did not quite "make sense" in more advanced stages of society and thus betrayed their savage origins. For example, a Scottish legend told how Saint Columba buried Saint Cran beneath the foundation of his monastery in order to propitiate the spirits of the soil who were demolishing at night what was built by day. Tylor demonstrated that this legend was rooted in the practice of foundation sacrifice, a practice widespread among primitive peoples, but which survived in Europe only in legends.
Although such survivals abounded in peasant society, they could also be found in industrial urban society; Tylor articulated, for example, the relationship between primitive incantations to keep the soul from leaving the body and contemporary sneezing formulas, (e.g., God bless you!). Tylor's evolutionism provided a new and more encompassing theoretical framework for the kind of folklore studies initiated by the Grimms. The study of folklore came to be defined as a historical science concerned with "the comparison and identification of the survivals of archaic beliefs and customs in the traditions of modern ages." Unlike the Grimms, Tylor's researches were neither romantic nor nationalistic in their orientation. Instead, they were concerned with the history and development of humankind as a whole, not just one particular nation or race. The mythological beliefs and attitudes of the primitive past were regarded as something to escape, not something to cherish. Folklore was not a relic of the national spirit, but rather a relic of systems of primitive thought and belief. In fact, the evolutionists envisioned their science as a "reformer's science," promoting greater rationality, morality, and societal progress through the identification and elimination of remnants of these mistaken beliefs.
It is important to emphasize that the identity between folklore forms and the past was not a matter of fact but established by definition. Though survivals of past custom and belief may be embedded in the various genres of lore, not every song, custom, riddle, or tale existing in peasant society necessarily needs to be a primitive survival. Not every peasant tale containing a supernatural motif requires linkage with primitive principles of animism and magic. When W. J. Thoms coined the term "folklore," he had in mind the "manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, and proverbs, etc." which would throw light upon the British past. But proverbs, customs, and belief as expressive forms — as genres — are not de facto carryovers from the primitive past. We can imagine examples of such genres as completely contemporary and novel creations with no privileged connections to the ancient past. But nineteenth-century folklorists did not entertain this perspective. Folklore had been defined as a survival and therefore, the study of folklore necessitated the description and analysis of these primitive connections. Questions concerning the relation of these forms to the people from whom they were collected — the peasants who continued to tell and express them — were almost irrelevant since these forms had been defined as relics with no meaningful relations to the present.
Excerpted from Folk Groups and Folklore Genres by Elliott Oring. Copyright © 1986 Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission of Utah State University Press.
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