Folklore & Folklife
When I tell people that I am a folklorist they often think that what I do is collect old songs, old stories, and stuff that isn’t true like superstitions. And yes, that is valid, I am into all these things. But as a folklorist what I really like to look at is process, the driving force behind all human activity. I strive to create ethnography, or understanding of vernacular artistic behavior within different cultural contexts as in, Where did my Grandmother hear that story? Or Hey, that Breton song sounds a bit like an Irish one but it's a little weird... I wonder why? even, That’s a weird idea, where did she get it? And how is it connected to this weird idea?
It turns out that the word folklore was coined in 1846 by William John Thoms as a way to describe the study of “popular antiquities,” a subject in vogue in courtly and intellectual circles at the time. These indeed, were old songs, old stories, old sayings, old recipes, old bits of architecture dotting the landscape. It’s a good coinage: folk comes from the Anglo-Saxon volk, meaning people; lore means learning, or knowing. That -ing part of the words learn and know, is important. This particular form of the word, the gerund, converts the verbs to know and to learn, to nouns, to objects; actions become things in our mind. Thus we have an abstract body of learning, or knowing, created by the process reflected in their respective verbs. As a result, folklore is people learning, or people knowing. What’s going on here (a favorite question of folklorists) is process, the way people learn what they learn and how they know what they know.
Take, for example, the nursery song Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. We all know that song.. We’ve known it all our lives, and probably don’t even remember a time when we didn’t know that song. You can find both tune and lyrics in lots of song books, but we certainly didn’t learn it from a book – when we were babies the older people in our lives sang it to us. We heard it so many times it stayed in our brains until we began singing it with the people who sang to us, and we in turn sang it to others. We learned it by ear, by repetition, by process, which is the way we learn much in our lives. We use this same process that we teach it to others, pass it along the road of oral tradition. Nobody thinks much about it (except for folklorists), we just do it. Folklore, and the process folklorists study, is really the glue that holds our culture together. It’s the mortar that connects the metaphorical stones of art, language, sport, government, belief, food, time, the universe, and everything else together.
Folklore, our attempts to communicate with each other on an artistic basis, is one of the things that makes us human.