A major approach to the study of oral tradition and of works with roots in oral tradition
that prescribes a specialized language or idiom as the basis of composition in
performance. Also known as the Parry-Lord theory after its founders, this approach puts a
premium on the utility of patterned phraseology (formulas), typical narrative scenes
(themes), and largescale organization (story-patterns) in providing ready solutions to the
performer’s ongoing challenge of maintaining fluent, intelligible composition. In addition
to applying the theory to living traditions, chiefly poetry, scholars have retrospectively
analyzed ancient and medieval works to determine the extent of their dependence on such
paradigms and, in some cases, their “oral” or “literary” character. With typical structures
demonstrated in more than 130 separate language areas, the most pressing question has
become how to interpret works composed in this specialized idiom.
The oral-formulaic theory began with Milman Parry’s pioneering studies of the
Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which reveal systematic patterning behind the
recurrence of particular phrases, especially noun-epithet expressions like podas ôkus
Achilleus (“swift-footed Achilleus”) and thea glaukôpis Athênê (“goddess bright-eyed
Athena”). Instead of explaining the great epics as either conglomerate editions of smaller
poems (according to the Analyst school) or as the personal and individual achievements
of a single genius (the Unitarian school), Parry argued that a poetic diction as
systematized as the language of the Homeric poems must be the legacy of generations of
bards, who perfected the idiom over centuries. His fundamental insight was thus that the
language of Homer was traditional.
The core of Parry’s theoretical proposal was the formula, which he defined as “an
expression regularly used, under the same metrical conditions, to express an essential
idea” (Parry 1971:13), and which he eventually enlarged beyond the nounepithet phrase
to include any metrically determined unit of Homeric diction. Thus, recurrent expressions
for speech-introduction (such as “And so he/she spoke”), for example, were shown to
combine with recurrent names for mortals or gods to produce predictable—and, in terms
of oral-formulaic theory, useful—hexameter lines.
For Parry, utility in formulaic diction derived from the participation of individual
phrases in larger, generative formu-laic systems, groups of items fitting the same metrical
slot that are also related by common semantic and syntactic features. While this aspect of
the poetic idiom furnished the composing poet a flexibility in line-to-line construction,
the simplicity of the diction was attributed to an overall thrift—”the degree in which [a
formulaic system] is free of phrases which, having the same metrical value and
expressing the same idea, could replace one another” (Parry 1971:276). Formulaic
language was, therefore, understood as serving the poet’s needs not only in providing
ready solutions, but also in productively limiting compositional options.
This approach began as an analytical procedure to prove the traditional nature of
ancient Greek texts. But Parry, under the influence of his mentor, Antoine Meillet, and of
Matija Murko, a Slovenian academic familiar with South Slavic epic poetry from his own fieldwork, soon added the criterion of orality as a necessary implication of the traditional
character of verse making. In order to confirm his hypothesis of an oral tradition from
which the Homeric poems stemmed, Parry and his assistant, Albert Lord, conducted a
large-scale fieldwork expedition to the former Yugoslavia in the period 1933–1935
(continued by Lord in 1950–1951 and later) to study the living phenomenon of the South
Slavic oral traditional epic at first hand. They recorded acoustically or by dictation more
than a half-million lines of epic from preliterate guslari (bards; those who play the gusle
[a single-stringed lute]), now deposited in the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature
at Harvard University; Lord and David Bynum have published selective contents in the
series Serbocroatian Heroic Songs (SCHS, 1953–).
Aside from a few shorter papers, Parry did not live to carry out the comparative
analyses of Homer and South Slavic epic that he had envisioned. After Parry’s death in
1935, Lord assumed responsibility for that planned enterprise and, in fact, moved well
beyond the original analogy to make the oral-formulaic theory a truly multidisciplinary
The most influential of Lord’s writings, in many respects the touchstone for the entire
field, is The Singer of Tales, completed as his dissertation in 1949 and published in 1960.
This book uses the guslar in performance as a model for Homer, and also for AngloSaxon, Old French, and Byzantine Greek narrative poets. In addition to illustrating
formulaic composition in the South Slavic songs, Iliad and Odyssey, Song of Roland,
Beowulf, and Digenis Akritas, he also described narrative units called themes, or “groups
of ideas regularly used in telling a tale in the formulaic style of traditional song” (Lord
1960:68). These included, for example, such typical actions as arming a hero, readying a
horse, summoning guests to a wedding or battle, and so on. He also identified storypattern that were coextensive with the work as a whole, the most familiar example being
the Return Song, essentially the story of the Odyssey, that also appears in Turkish,
Bulgarian, Albanian, Russian, medieval English, and other traditions (Lord 1960:99–
123,242–259). At every level, the key concept is multiformity, the mutability of
phraseological or narrative patterns within limits, as an aid to composition in
Of Lord’s later contributions, Volumes 3–4 (1974) of SCHS and Epic Singers and
Oral Tradition (1991) stand out as exemplary. The first of these consisted of his
translation and Bynum’s edition of The Wedding of Smailagic Meho, a 12,311line oral
epic performed for Parry and Lord in 1935 by the preliterate singer Avdo Medjedovic of
Bijelo Polje in Hercegovina. The latter volume is a collection of some of Lord’s most
wide-ranging and important essays, treating Homer, South Slavic, Finnish, Old English,
Bulgarian, and central Asiatic epic.
In the wake of the publication of The Singer of Tales, the Parry-Lord theory underwent
vigorous translation to Old English (Olsen 1986–1988), Middle English (Parks 1986),
Old French (Duggan 1973), Hispanic (Webber 1986), American folk preaching
(Rosenberg 1970), Biblical studies (Culley 1986), and scores of other areas; it also
continued to expand in ancient Greek (Edwards 1986–1992). A history of the
comparative methodology is available in John Miles Foley’s The Theory of Oral
Composition (1988); an annotated bibliography, in his Oral-Formulaic Theory and
Research (1985), with updates in the journal Oral Tradition.
With formulas, themes, and story-patterns identified in traditions worldwide, new
questions began to arise about the implications of oral-formulaic theory for interpretation,
especially in relation to texts with extensive prior critical histories, such as the Homeric
poems. One of the central tenets of the approach as originally stated held that a certain
percentage of formulas and formulaic systems constituted proof of the ultimately oral
provenance of a given text, independent of any supporting testimony for that claim. The
reasoning proceeded from the criterion of utility: If a poet had regular recourse to readymade diction and narrative patterns, then he or she was composing traditionally, and thus
orally. Quantitative measurement of this sort did not take into account the inevitable
differences among languages, traditions, or genres, nor did it consider the persistence of
the formulaic idiom after the introduction of writing.
Indeed, as the oral-formulaic theory has expanded to more and more traditions, many
of them still living, it has become increasingly apparent diat an absolute dichotomy of
oral versus written does not fit the evidence. Manuscript works that presumably represent
freestanding compositions by individual authors still show extensive use of the formulaic
language, and different rules govern the structure and texture of formulas and themes
from one language to another, or even from one genre to another. Additionally, the issue
of performance and all that it entails has come to the fore: Oral tradition presents many
channels for communication (linguistic, paralinguistic, and nonlinguistic), only a limited
number of which are reflected in what we conventionally reduce to a transcribed text.
Another area in which the theory has been modified is in response to the charge of
mechanism—that is, the perception that formulas and themes imprison a verbal artist,
restricting originality and diluting expressivity. Although based primarily on literary
criteria, not all of them applicable to oral tradition, this objection has stimulated a
reexamination of what is meant by the “essential ideas” of formulas and the “typical”
content of themes. One proposed answer to the quandary consists of understanding the
oral-formulaic idiom as a highly focused species of communication, one that encodes
complex information in simple forms within the enabling event of performance and by
institutionalized reference to the immanent tradition. By employing this special register
of language, in other words, performer and audience (and later writer and reader, if
properly prepared) communicate with greatly enhanced economy. Of course, the
traditional language cannot accomplish all of the quotidian tasks normally assigned to a
much more generalized register, but, as long as audience and reader are fluent in the
traditional tongue, its dedicated function promotes a unique economy of expression and
John Miles Foley
Culley, Robert C. 1986. Oral Tradition and Biblical Studies. Oral Tradition 1:30–65.
Duggan, Joseph J. 1973. The Song of Roland: Formulaic Style and Poetic Craft. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Edwards, Mark W. 1986–1992. Homer and the Oral Tradition. Oral Tradition 1:171–230, 3:11–60,
Foley, John Miles. 1985. Oral-Formulaic Theory and Research: An Introduction and Annotated
Bibliography. New York: Garland.
——. 1988. The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology. Bloomington: Indiana
——. 1990. Traditional Oral Epic: The Odyssey, Beowulf and the Serbo-Croatian Return Song.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
——. 1991. Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaningin Traditional Oral Epic. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press.
——. 1994. Word: Power, Performance, and Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Lord, Albert B. 1960. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Olsen, Alexandra Hennessey. 1986–1988. Oral-Formulaic Research in Old English Studies. Oral
Parks, Ward. 1986. The Oral-Formulaic Theory in Middle English Studies. Oral Tradition 1:636–
Parry, Milman. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, ed.
Adam Parry. Oxford: Clarendon.
Rosenberg, BruceA. 1970. The Art of the American Folk Preacher. New York: Oxford University
Webber, Ruth H. 1986. Hispanic Oral Literature: Accomplishments and Perspectives. Oral