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The Oral and Beyond

Doing Things with Words in Africa

With her 1976 book Oral Literature in Africa, Ruth Finnegan almost single-handedly created the field of ethnography of language. Now, Finnegan has gathered and updated a selection of her best work on oral literature, performance, and the creative use of language in Africa, along with several new essays that broaden and extend her ideas.

The Oral and Beyond looks simultaneously backwards and forwards, reviewing and critiquing the achievements of scholarship on African oral literature, revisiting issues of perennial contention, and highlighting some of the most interesting new ideas and approaches in the field. Exploring such fundamental questions as how texts and textuality relate to performance, how ideology inflects language, and how traditional forms adapt to modern media and popular culture, Finnegan essentially crafts an intellectual history of her field. At the same time, she propels the ethnography of language forward, bringing the techniques and knowledge developed through her fieldwork in Africa to bear on issues that transcend African studies and reach into the larger world of anthropology and beyond.


"A rich and wide-ranging book, a ’tour-de-force’ as one of the enthusiastic readers on the back cover puts it, and the fruit of forty-odd years’ experience and continuing openness to new ideas. . . . I believe The Oral and Beyond should become a key text for students in different disciplines, not least because of Ruth Finnegan’s ability to synthesise relevant scholarship in a notably easy and jargon-free style and to situate it in time and place."

Elizabeth Tonkin | Oral History

"[The author] explores how humans, not just in Africa but across the globe, use words to talk of their environments and situations, and also to link their past and present, a linkage that shows the interrelatedness of peoples in time and space. . . .The objectivity with which she attacks issues in this work makes it an invaluable resource for linguists, anthropologists, students of comparative literature, and all students of culture."

Abdulai Salifu | Journal of Folklore Research

"This is not an easy work to absorb, but I wholeheartedly recommend it. It is especially valuable to historians for its likely sobering effect, but for others as well it is a state of the art valediction by one of the field’s pre-eminent exponents."

David Henige | African Studies Review


African Studies Association: Melville J. Herskovits Award
Honorable Mention

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