Oral Culture

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

God's Global Household
IN ONE OF MY CONVERSATIONS with one of the Bikol writers over a cup of coffee and pastries, I shared my opinion on language, particularly on Bikol language.  I must admit that I am not in a position to speak authoritatively about Bikol language and culture.  Nevertheless, I can always give my opinion based on my perception and I am open to accept contrary opinions.

When I was growing up in sitio Binoyoan in the 70s, I observed that people narrated stories almost everyday.  There were stories about life, death and mysteries.  Before I could write anything correctly with grammatical precision, I could remember with clarity all the stories narrated to me by my grandparents as well as by people in the neighborhood.  Magical trees, living spirits, hideous creatures, witches and taboos inhabited my world.  I lived in the womb of an oral culture that nourished my imagination and empowered me to discover a new horizon of existence beyond what is written and articulated.  My first attempt to write something intelligible was an adventure since I could hardly put all the images in my mind in a written form.

A language is always a product of culture and thus it is a vehicle of expression that captures a people’s worldview, history and existence.  There is no pure language. All languages are multicultural, that is, they are a product of a long intercultural communication and dynamic encounter with new historical forces and changing contexts.  However, there is a constant core structure that sustains the development of language through generations.  In the case of Filipinos and specifically Bikolanos, the core structure of Bikol language is oral culture and not a written language.  An oral culture lies in the collective memory of a people whose guardians are not writers or artists themselves but the people who speak a language in order to give meaning to the order of their existence.   Thus it is important to remember that writers are not the experts of language but they are humble servants of a people by the way they faithfully and creatively transmit existential symbols—through written or artistic forms—a people’s way of life.  At the heart of an oral culture is a vision of life that selects and highlights a people’s journey through images that are often transmitted through stories, rituals, legends and myths.  The written literature comes as one of the expressions of a fecund cultural matrix, that is, of a living process at the heart of peoples’ history and culture.

I believe that oral culture is like a deep water that can give life to different artistic and linguistic expressions.  However, the depth surfaces through humanity.  Thus the bearer of an oral culture is actually the depth of humanity that strives to answer its existential questions in a manner that cannot fully exhaust the endless possibility of a human’s search for meaning and the divine even in the profanity and limitations of history, culture and language.

Five years ago (2002), one of the theaters in Broadway, New York, staged a play titled Metamorphosis.  At the middle of the stage was a pool of water.  Actors were in the water and transformed themselves into different creatures and characters.  Out of the water new forms were born.  Actors communicated not with words but with a variety of body expressions and subliminal language.  I found the play a journey into the primeval realm of humanity where creatures were engaged in a constant battle of primacy over depth and surface.

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