KOLEC Lesson 09: Genres of Oral Literature - Part 3

KOLEC Lesson 09: Genres of Oral Literature - Part 3



In this lesson 09, we will be discussing the following forms of oral literature:

  • Ballad
  • Riddle 
  • Saying
  • Proverb 
  • Idiom 
  • Other forms of oral traditions 



(11) Ballad

A ballad is a short story in the form of a poem or song in which two or more people are speaking in turn. It is a dramatic type of poem as it is presented like drama. Ballads were also passed down by the word of mouth for generations before being written down. The purpose of a ballad is to tell a story, so all elements of a story like plot, characters, narrator, dialogue, setting, drama, and so on are included. 

Ballads are made up of stanzas of four lines, with the second and fourth lines rhyming. A typical rhyme scheme is 'aba ab.' Like songs, ballads also repeat important phrases throughout. 

Examples of ballads:- 

Ø Ballad of the Landlord - by Langston Hughes 

Ø Ballad of John Henry  


(12) Riddle

A riddle is a question that is deliberately very confusing and has a humorous or a clever answer. Most riddles are questions or statements that test the human skills in finding answers or meanings. Every culture has its riddles which are passed down orally from one generation to the next. 

Some examples of riddles: 

There is one famous Greek riddle from the tragic play, 'Oedipus the King' where the Sphinx poses the following riddle to King Oedipus: 

Riddle: "What has one voice and becomes four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?"

Solution: King Oedipus answers: "Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on the two legs, and finally needs a cane in old age."  

Other examples of riddles are: 

Riddle: I have three hands, but just one face. I'll link arms with you as I run my race. 

The answer is a wristwatch. 

Riddle: I wear my jacket all the time. I stand with my back to you, showing my spine. 

The answer is a book. 

Riddle: I'm all over the place, but I know where I am at. My life goes in circles, but I never feel flat. 

The answer is a globe. 

In Kiswahili, riddles are called 'Vitendawili.' So, it is common that we possess one, two or more riddles.  


(13) Saying

A saying is a well-known short statement that expresses an idea that most people believe is true and wise. Sayings are also handed down from one generation to another. Sayings include proverbs and idioms.  


(14) Proverb

Proverb is a phrase that contains wisdom, truth, morals, experience, lessons, and advice concerning life and which has been handed down from generation to another. Proverbs are short well-known sayings that state a general truth or give advice. 

Apart from teaching us lessons, proverbs  help us perfect our spoken and written English skills. 

Some common examples of proverbs:

  • You can't judge a book by its cover.  
  • Don't run before you can walk.  
  • Don't teach old dogs new tricks.  
  • Beggars cannot be choosers. 
  • As you sow, so you shall reap.  
  • A shortcut is often a wrong cut.  
  • Rome wasn't built in one day.  


(15) Idiom

An idiom is a group of words that has a special meaning which is different from the ordinary meaning of each separate word. It is a phrase or sentence that is not clear from the meaning of its words but the whole expression has a meaning other than its separate words. 

For example, the idiom 'Kick the bucket' means 'die', but the separate words may have different meaning. So, we get the meaning of the whole idiom, not meanings from separate words. 

Common examples of idioms: 

  • On the fence=undecided/dilemma.  
  • Hold your horses=be patient.  
  • Bite your tongue=avoid talking.    
  • Don't drink like a fish=drink heavily.  
  • Tie the knot=get married.  

Note that most Idioms are found in dictionaries. 

(16) Other forms of oral traditions/literature 

There are also other forms of oral traditions. These include customs and beliefs, superstitions and witchcraft, folk songs and dances, folk heroes, as well as folk holidays of a particular society or culture.


Many of the things we now call literature began to live without being written at all. A long time ago before we can read the printed forms of literature, some narrators told oral stories. Even today we have folk or local songs and verses passing from person to person by word of mouth. Thus, in literature, there are ballads, old songs, legends, folk stories, or folk tales which are handed down from mouth to mouth because people had not known how to write. 


[1] Define Oral Literature 

[2] Differentiate the following literary terms:  

(a) Folktale and fable  

(b) Fairy tale and trickster tale  

(c) A trickster hero and a fairy 

(d) Epic and tall tale 

(e) Parable and myth  

[3] Match the following:  

List A  

A. Ballad  

B. Proverb  

C. Sundiata 

D. Idiom  

E. Riddle  

F. Legend  

List B 

(1) An example of an African epic about an Old Mali Empire 

(2) I wear my jacket all the time. I stand with my back to you, showing my spine 

(3) On the fence 

(4) An old and well-known story that tells about a brave person, people, adventures, or magical events.  

(5) A short story in the form of a poem or song in which two or more people are speaking in turn. 

(6) Rome wasn't built in one day. 

[4] List five riddles in Kiswahili and compose the other five riddles in English by just looking at the objects around you. 

[5] Collect various proverbs and idioms, and then learn them by heart.


This course is prepared and offered by: 


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Emmanuel Kachele

Emmanuel Kachele is a founder and Blogger of KACHELE ONLINE Blog, an educational blog where 'O' Level English - 'OLE', 'A' Level English (ALE) and other related teaching and life skills are shared extensively. This is an online center for all Tanzanian Secondary School English Language students and teachers (Forms I-VI) and all interested English Language learners and teachers worldwide.

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