Ever since the third grade, when an assistant principal generously offered to teach him and two classmates French, John Miles Foley has been curious about how languages work. Starting with the early epiphany that language is always embedded in culture, Foley followed this line of thinking until it led to oral tradition, which the MU Professor of Classical Studies and English has now been researching for over three decades. It will surely be a lifelong journey, for the field far outstrips written literature in size, diversity, and social function. In fact, all the written literature we have, Foley is fond of saying, “is dwarfed by oral traditions.”
Since about 1975, field reports have revealed the tremendous size and diversity of oral tradition as a cultural phenomenon. In fact, Foley notes, “written literature is dwarfed by oral traditions.” Despite our “ideological fixation on texts and print, the communications technology we call oral tradition” has been with us for most of homo sapiens’ existence, whereas writing was introduced only relatively recently.