“Once upon a time…” In every culture, throughout the history of human-kind, knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material has been received, preserved and transmitted orally from one generation to another. This oral tradition or oral lore is human communication handed down over time in the form of speech or song as myth, folktales, prose, adages, ballads, chants, or verse. And voice acting, in the truest sense of the word, has been a core element of the human oral tradition since the start of time.
Oral traditions make it possible for us as a society to pass knowledge across generations without writing. We use them to help people make sense of the world, teach children and adults about important aspects of culture and preserve social values and collective memory. They are essential for keeping cultures alive.
Oral Traditions Regularly Influence Our Daily Lives
Although the telling of Beowulf, Aesop’s fables, Sassquatch and urban legends are what we often associate with the oral tradition, it isn’t all myth and folklore. Oral traditions regularly influence how we live our daily lives. These sayings and practices underlie many of our belief systems and you can find them everywhere:
Blowing out candles at birthday celebrations
Taking a gift when invited to someone’s house for dinner
Tip a waiter or waitress for good service
Greetings like a nod, bow, smile, handshake or verbal greeting
Removing shoes before entering a home
Find a penny, pick it up and all day long, you’ll have good luck
A black cat crossing your path will bring bad luck
Break a wishbone and the person with the bigger portion will have good luck
Knock on wood for good luck
Step on a crack, break your mother’s back
Finding a horseshoe brings good luck
Blow out all of the candles on your birthday cake with one breath and your wish will come true
Make a wish upon a falling star and it will come true
And we all know these adages, don’t we?
A watched pot never boils
Actions speak louder than words
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you
Don’t judge a book by its cover
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill
A penny saved is a penny earned
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
Good things come to those who wait
There’s Something About the Human Voice
It is challenging to describe its power, but we all are wired from birth to understand there’s something about the human voice. As a primary mode of self-expression, how we chose to use (or limit) this instrument says alot about who we feel we are as people. The richness and power of the human voice reveals much about our perceived strengths and weaknesses, engenders empathy, understanding and connection.
Often we talk about it in musical terms of tempo, tone and pitch. Even in isolation, these elements of vocal production can have a sophisticated influence on an audience. Take tempo for example. Without varying the pitch, or tone of voice, adjusting the tempo can send clear messages about urgency, or excitement, intensity or mood. Add in tone of voice and now you have an entire palate of emotions with which to color the message from concern to happiness to sarcasm to elation and everything in-between.
Pitch has a rather interesting impact on the human psyche. It has even been shown to have a direct impact on who we choose as leaders. According to the American Scientist, though a voice’s pitch, the perceived “highness” or “lowness” of a voice, is fundamentally is an expression of physiology, reflecting the fundamental frequency at which the vocal folds are vibrating, “males with lower-pitched voices tend to be perceived as more attractive, physically stronger, and more ‘dominant’ (a term offered by the experimenter to mean, loosely, ‘respected,’ ‘commanding,’ ‘more likely to be followed,’ or something along those lines). For females, the standard is dichotomous: Women with higher-pitched voices tend to be considered more attractive, whereas those with lower-pitched voices are perceived as more dominant.”
Voice Acting Safeguards Oral Traditions by Maintaining Their Every Day Role in Society
There is a great article on UNESCO’s Intangible Public Heritage site that addresses, in part, the challenges of maintaining oral traditions. And this is where voice acting is vital. The article notes that “like other forms of intangible cultural heritage, oral traditions are threatened by rapid urbanisation, large-scale migration, industrialisation and environmental change.” In order to preserve oral traditions and expressions, opportunities for stories to be passed from person to person are essential. Voice acting does just that. By voicing stories, VO pros safeguard oral traditions by maintaining their every day role in society.
And thanks to the advances in gadgets and platforms, oral traditions are not only being preserved, but enhanced. Communities may use technology to help safeguard the full range and richness of their oral traditions, including differences in text and styles of performance. Recorded media and other communication technologies can be used to preserve and even strengthen oral traditions and expressions with a much wider reach, broadcasting recorded performances both to their original communities and to a more global audience. What was once only available in a live performance, elements such as uniquely expressive features including the tempo, tone and pitch voice actors master, can now be recorded as audio or video, as can interactions between performers and audiences and non-verbal story elements including gestures and mimicry.
Audiobooks and Podcasting Are Now Dominating Our Storytelling
So does the video content consuming a lot of our attention these days mean that we are losing our solely oral traditions? I’d say no. With markets in 2020 projected to be $3.5 billion and $1.1 billion respectively, audiobooks and podcasting are now dominating our storytelling.
In much the same way radio has done, phone-friendly popular audio items build on an important feature for passing on stories – intimacy. They tap our deep human need for the voices of others. Writing for Counterpunch, B. Nimri Aziz, a New York based anthropologist and journalist, notes “It’s often a very private experience, attested by the ubiquity of slinky earbuds and chunky wireless headphones that envelope each wearer in his and her personal world.”
History is built on stories. Legends like Atlantis, Big Foot, Hercules and Robin Hood and others through prose/literature, riddles, ghost stories, creation stories and more remain popular thanks to story-tellers. As UNESCO notes, in many societies, performing oral traditions is a highly specialized occupation and the community holds professional performers in the highest regard as guardians of collective memory. I, for one, am happy to keep that tradition going.