Oral literature: what is it, how does it develop, characteristics and types


What is oral literature?

Also known as oral tradition literature or simply oral tradition, it compiles all kinds of texts that are transmitted through the voice within a group of people or a specific community, which are kept in the memory of their communicators and listeners.

What is oral literature

One of the most important aspects of this type of literature is that it has very specific functions that, in fact, reinforce its diffusion throughout time and space. Among these, we find that it serves to remember, entertain, heal, celebrate, expose, teach, among others. On the other hand, it is transmitted mainly according to a system of knowledge, beliefs, values and norms that are shared by the same community.

How does oral literature develop?

The first time the term was used was approximately around 1881 when Paul Sébillot made a compilation of stories in which he included legends, tales and other related texts, although he was talking about texts that first had their place within the oral tradition and would later be recorded.

Towards the twentieth century, the term -oral literature- began to be used to refer to texts of an aesthetic nature that are transmitted through the voice, since it is more efficient when grouping together characteristics already distinguished from it. However, this is a discussion that has been maintained over the years where many experts have decided to add other names to refer to it.

However, the origin of the first stories of the oral tradition dates back to the first human societies and therefore, before the existence of writing. There, stories that were used mainly for entertainment and/or teaching began to be passed down through the generations, either within families or by entertainers who went from village to village telling the stories.

Main characteristics of oral literature

It is time to review the most important characteristics that allow us to identify this type of works and distinguish them from others, in this case from works that are part of written literature. Thus, its most important features are:

Reflection of a community

Another of the most distinctive features of this literature is related to the fact that it is generally a literature that reflects aspects such as values, important issues and even the identity of a community of which it is a part. When it is a literature that moves away from this type of elements with which people do not feel identified, they are not welcomed and therefore, they are not transmitted or disseminated, this taking into account precisely their initial use mainly.

Manifestations varied to writing

One of the most important characteristics of this type of literature has to do precisely with the variety of manifestations that have been developed throughout its history, given that many of these have soon been recorded in written literature. In its beginnings and mainly we have the legends, traditional or popular tales, riddles, myths, among others.

Variety of themes

Another important matter to consider about oral literature is that since most of the world’s cultures have oral literary manifestations, we can say that there are as many of them as there are cultures. That is why it is possible to identify a great variety of themes, characters, situations, purposes, etc., which can even be repeated in some aspects within regions, especially when there are similar elements of a geographical space, for example.

Anonymous author

If we go back to their origin and the first stories we heard either from our grandparents or parents, transmitted in turn by their relatives and which in most occasions come from rural or native areas, we have that many of these stories lack a recognized author. This is fundamentally due to the trajectory of the oral story and the lack of registration of this, since it remains in the memory of the generations after long periods of time that fail to connect with the moment in which it is transmitted for the first time.

Form of recitation

A key element, given that oral stories had to be memorized and then transmitted through the voice, has to do with the fact that these forms of recitation often included specific metrics that contributed to memorization. However, within these same stories it was also possible to manage various forms of recitation.

Alterations and changes

When we speak of oral literature we must consider that it is an immediate performance in which it comes into direct contact with the receiver, so that it implies an interaction with the listener. That is why this aspect can generate the variability of the stories that are transmitted with respect to the audience and the speaker, even in the process of adaptation to the regions alterations that modify the content at different levels begin to gestate.

Types of oral literature

In addition to this, as it is transmitted in different cultures, the version may vary and in this process it undergoes even more modifications in its content, connecting this time with the culture of the society it reaches.

Types of oral literature

In view of the above, we will now look at all the types of oral literature that have been identified throughout the history and evolution of this artistic field. Many of these continue to evidence a predominance of orality, although many have also moved fully into the written field. These are:


It is an expression that is fundamentally composed of a riddle within its enunciation. It is often a short expression in which an object is described in an indirect way, whose answer or corresponding title consists in the solution of the riddle. It is constructed based on the particularities of the object, which configures a series of clues through which the receiver discovers the correct answer.

Folk tale

It is a type of oral literature in which a narrative is developed that undergoes modifications in its adaptation in new regions and languages. This type of relatively short narrative is composed of a series of elements that are part of the culture and identity of a given region, which is why the function may vary. Most folktales are oriented to education, moral teaching or reinforcement of an important value.


It consists of an oral expression in which it seeks the manifestation of a pleasant feeling with respect to someone. In this way, the toast highlights congratulations, messages of pride or any other similar expression that is accompanied by a practice in the company of an alcoholic beverage. It implies the participation of several attendees for its development.


It is a short composition, although many have defined it as a type of poem in which a series of emotions are present in which most of the themes are related to the feeling of love. It is made up of a series of elements so that the lyrics it expresses can be sung in the company of a melody. It is one of the oral expressions with the greatest evolutionary change until today.


It is an expression characterized by generating comicality and humor in the receiver. It is a short expression created to provoke laughter. It is composed of a narrative element, enriched by a series of resources such as sarcasm, irony, among others. In addition, it usually incorporates stereotypes that allude to various aspects such as region, ethnicity, gender, professional occupation, social status, among others.


The incantation is a type of oral literature that contains a magical formula that is mentioned with the intention of a specific objective. Most of the incantations that are performed are oriented to invoke a divinity or a supernatural force through which the intervention in a specific situation or the protection to dissipate any type of danger is requested. There are incantations associated with different religious manifestations.

Oral history

It is a spoken testimony in which an explanation is sought from the experience or memory of a past event and which is used as a source for the reconstruction of a specific fact. Oral history generates the appearance of other types of manifestations of oral literature through which different themes have been reconstructed, such as legends. To this day, oral history is one of the most important resources in different fields.


This expression consists of a prayer used for the application of alternative medicine remedies. The ensalmo is attributed with magical powers with which the healing of a specific illness is sought, which is why it has been associated with an esoteric practice that is used by healers or sages during the performance of this practice.


Prayer as a concrete oral expression is a composition in which a sacred figure or a divinity is invoked in order to praise him, request a favor, give thanks for a situation or simply ask for his intervention in a complex process. It is developed within the framework of religious beliefs, which is why there are several ways of expressing it and with it, several types of prayers.

Children’s play

It is mainly known as a type of oral literature due to the verbal implication that exists and that gives way to the realization of a specific physical activity. In this way, we speak of an expression for the entertainment of children in which indications are given for the practice of a playful activity, which has given rise to different types of children’s games where the structure and ways of orientation may vary.


This type of expression consists of sayings that are frequently mentioned in different circumstances in different regions, given that their content, usually of a moral nature, applies to different ways of life in different areas of the world. However, in addition to the moral sense, it is possible to identify sayings with an instructive, reflective or teaching message that is passed from generation to generation, indicated mainly to the children of a community, family, etc.


It is an act of promulgation containing a message of interest to the public. The proclamation is announced by the town crier, who, accompanied by music or not, manages to capture the attention of people in places such as squares, main streets, parks with affluence, etc. As for its objectives, the intention can vary, because while some share general information, others can be developed in the sale of a product or service, for example.

Tongue twister

It is a short expression that is constructed from a series of words whose structure and sound is similar, which causes a certain degree of difficulty in its pronunciation or quick reading. In fact, this difficulty of pronunciation constitutes one of the main features of tongue twisters, which, it is believed, were used for educational purposes. Throughout history, different benefits of the practice of reading tongue twisters have been identified, which has led to their continued presence to this day.


Myth is known as any story or initially oral construction that seeks to explain different phenomena and that make up the set of beliefs of a specific community. They are texts dedicated to the narration of events that usually include supernatural beings, reason why it is also known as wonderful narration. This type of social constructions explain facts and allow to answer the great questions of the human being and his relation with the world.


The legend is a type of narration that also has its beginnings in orality, so it is transmitted throughout generations. It is characterized because it narrates an event that would take place in remote times, in such a way that it links in its construction elements and themes that can be part of religion and history as main focuses. Thus, the content of the legend can combine elements of history and fantasy, generating the visibility of a popular tradition proper to the social context from which it emerges.


It consists of a literary expression composed of a structure in which a succession of aspects take place, thus following an established order. It can also be composed of word games in which there is a repetition of words or sounds. They are characterized by being constructed from different literary resources or rhetorical figures and are mainly aimed at entertaining the public or the reader of the retahíla.


It is a type of oral expression with European influence that developed after the Spanish invasion in Mexico and the southern United States. It is characterized for dealing with themes related to the Mexican Revolution, initially, although it soon begins to include several themes linked to the communicative and informative intention that emerges in the towns. It is popularly known as “Mexican corrido”, although it also had a great expansion that led it to settle in other countries of the American continent.


It is one of the oldest manifestations of oral literature. It consists of a type of considerably short enunciation through which it transmits to the reader or listener, a message that can be oriented as advice or reflection. This type of expression has two main fields of function, since on the one hand we find the intention with moral character and on the other hand, the intellectual paremia. It is possible to find a great variety of paremias according to the field in which they are used, despite the fact that in recent years their use in common speech has been significantly reduced.


It is an expression of oral literature characterized mainly by its instructive and pedagogical function. It has been one of the few manifestations that has been traced throughout history, this is because its moral character has allowed it to be installed in different traditions, including religion, through which it has remained in different compilations of texts made in different times and areas of the world.


It corresponds to a type of sententious statement that arises from experience, which is why it evidences the degree of knowledge of a particular author. It is an expression that states a declaration or the closest thing to a truth and that intends to leave no room for doubt. A great part of the aphorisms are attributed to different historical or fictitious personalities, although at present it is a type of oral literature that continues to develop.


This type of manifestation contains elements of oral and written discourse, although mainly of the former by conveying a judgment in relation to a given situation. Although there are several types of opinions depending on the field in which it is applied, it is characterized by referring to a statement or assessment made in relation to a situation, fact, person or object through which a process of analysis or previous knowledge is built.

Remember that to learn more about each of the types of oral literature, you can enter each of them to go deeper. We also have a section dedicated to literature in which you can continue learning through different periods, manifestations of written literature, movements and much more.