A Storyteller’s Functions

Every year since I began telling stories I can’t help thinking that the sudden approval that the world has shown for stories can only be short-lived. The fact that a society such as ours can once more be interested in something as humble as stories stems in my opinion from an impossible dream that is nonetheless becoming a reality.

Story : Mullah Nasr Eddin didn’t want to be disturbed so he lauded to his neighbours the marvels of an imaginary feast. But when he saw them run off one after another to go to it, he asked himself if there actually wasn’t some truth in his own lie and ran off himself to check.

This is perhaps my situation.


The anthropologist Marcel Jousse begins his study on speech, «The Oral Style», with a scientific preamble in which he reminds us that all movement and manifestations of living beings are the product of energy. And that this energy is passed on through a long succession of transfers coming from the sun, passing though plants and animals to reach human beings. Then he comes to the fact that our physical or psychological actions, in particular those which produce speech, also are part of a circulation of energy. We could then say that speaking itself transports this energy and by doing so, it itself becomes energy. We storytellers need this energy for ourselves and for others. It’s shared through our stories.


Speech is a wave that travels through the air. If our atmosphere didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to speak. We depend on the air which surrounds us. It goes through us, nourishes us and nourishes everything around us, but to the human beings we are it also brings something else – it connects us together. Without this connection, our words could not go from our mouths to our ears. We can’t speak in a void. Speech needs the atmosphere to move around in and storytellers do as well in order to be able to share stories.
Likewise speech cannot exist if the person speaking doesn’t address himself to anyone or if he doesn’t find someone to speak to. It dies. In order for it to exist there has to be at least two people. As a result, whether we like it or not, speech is owned collectively by at least two speakers, as neither one nor the other could have produced it on their own. A story only exists when there is more than one of us.

The moment

A story only exists on the condition that it not be told in a void, and that it has at hand a storyteller who wishes to tell it with at least one listener who wishes to listen to it. The birth of a story is not automatic. It’s born in difficult conditions. Even if the first two conditions are met, a third one exists which is even riskier.

An oral story only lives in the moment during which it is told. As soon as it’s told, it could very well be forgotten. But why should it be if it’s interesting? Was it told badly? Perhaps it was! Was it badly listened to? That’s also a possibility! The main reason it disappears is because it’s written in time and that everything written in time is inevitably forgotten.


Words can only come out of a storyteller’s mouth one after another in succession. They enter in the same way into the ear of the person listening, one following the other. The moment a word is spoken, it’s swept aside by the one that follows which then is swept aside by all those that follow. The further one moves away from a landscape, the smaller it seems until it disappears on the horizon. Only its memory remains and this too is threatened by time. A story’s main enemy is time. It could very well disappear and consequently the storyteller as well. So they’re fighting the same battle together.


Speech is sound, it’s music, and just like music it can soar. So now the storyteller is the one who might very well disappear. As soon as a story leaves his or her lips, it leaves him or her as well. Anyone can take the story just told and pretend it’s his or hers. It actually is. As soon as a story is told, it no longer belongs to the person who told it. More precisely it’s potentially owned by everyone.


Two women pretend to the mother of the same child. Salomon suggests cutting the child in two and giving half to each woman. One accepts the judgement and the other prefers to give up and leave the child to the first. Salomon thus discovers which woman is the real mother. She gets her child back. This is the same for the storyteller. If he wants the story he loves to remain alive, he must admit that it can be told by someone else.

Invisible Speech

Marcel Jousse suggests that in prehistoric times language through gesture was abandoned for language through sound, as sound could be heard at night. Our ancestors thus invented a language of sound so that they could communicate with each other in the darkness. There is an analogy here that teaches us something. These ephemeral and invisible signs made up of sound which we call words, if pronounced by a storyteller who doesn’t prevent them from being heard by putting him or herself in the way, can then make images visible which are sometimes impossible to see even in daylight.

The Ecology of Speech

Our earth’s atmosphere is breathed in by our bodies. We inhale it and exhale it. It’s our first food together. It’s through this function of breathing that we also produce speech. By doing so we fulfill another need just as vital as food – calling out and communicating with one another.

Our speech is then etched into our atmosphere and this process generates a new kind of atmosphere. Its quality depends on the quality and intensity of our words. We are both responsible for and benefit from this new atmosphere.

This is the ecology of speech.

The Different Powers of Speech

Through its variety of forms, the energy that comes from speaking possesses and gives us several important powers. It gives us the power to call out, to represent, to name, to question, to count, to evaluate, to measure, to subjugate, to organize, to plead, to thank and to celebrate. Speech allows us to leave our mark on time and perhaps to escape time. It allows us to be closer to truth, justice, beauty and what is vitally important. It allows us to tell stories.

The Power of Measurement

Just like writing which followed in its wake and physical gestures which preceded it, speaking allows counting, listing and enumerating, then describing, acquiring and recording one’s property. It’s an act of ownership, a report, a contract, an inventory, a business of words, all of which gave value to one’s given word. Let’s not underestimate it.

The Power To Depict What’s Invisible

Another of its powers is its ability to describe those things which are invisible or more specifically those which cannot be seen or else a person who has passed on or is absent. In this way that which is gone can be present once again. Why speak or describe something if it’s immediately discernible to everyone? One would only need to show it.

The Power to Play

If speech is power, it’s also a game, first of all an interplay of power games and forces. Yet the power of speaking and the games that stem from it are not only applied to the field of tangible forces. They also manifest themselves in the area of questioning and meaning. Like a chess player, man stakes his life with spoken words and these words also play with his life.

The Power of Linking

Speech is an exchange of energy, power, a call to others and a game. It’s also a link. It’s born between two speakers. From person to person, it links one to another, the internal to the external, the similar to the different, the known to the unknown, the familiar to the unfamiliar, one generation to the next, and the dead to the living. It’s an indispensable connection which ensures a society’s existence and is capital to our understanding the reality of the world we live in.

A Tool

Speech is energy, power, a game, a link, has value and lastly is one of humanity’s most ancient and simplest tools. It’s most adapted for use by humans because no other tool is needed besides themselves as it’s completely contained inside.

It’s a tool, yet also nourishment for humans because they can possess it completely, so it replenishes them and participates in their development. It can also be a garment, a suit of armor or a spell.

An Art

If we accept all these attributes of speech, we must also accept the fact that with all its uses, as different as they may be, and when finally brought to the point of perfection, it becomes that which may be called an Art.
And amongst those art forms such as eloquence, theatre, oral poetry and

conversation, there is one more universal than the others because of its simplicity, permanence, power of meaning, as well as by the very fact that it’s the source for all the others, much like the great poets of ancient times were, and this is the Art of Storytelling.

Speech and its relationship to time

The moment

What distinguishes speech from all other objects made by man, and in particular from writing, is that it’s sound and thus an invisible and fleeting object. These qualities differentiate it from those other objects produced by humans which are material, visible, stable and durable.

Speech exists in the moment since it’s simultaneously generated and heard, whereas making a material object distances the person creating it from the person for whom it’s intended. There are advantages and disadvantages in both cases. In the second, the person creating the object has a long time to prepare but is alone and will remain so. In the first, he or she is in the same moment with those listening. They are together in the same time and at the same place, thinking and breathing as one.

Not being in the moment means being separated from others, similar to a writer for example who doesn’t know to whom he is writing nor who will read his work. Most often he or she will never be writing his words in the same moment as the people will be reading them. They will never be together.


That which still distinguishes the one speaking from the one creating his masterpiece ahead of time is that the storyteller is there while the other isn’t yet there, and perhaps will never be. Being present without actually being there is, to say the least, difficult, so being there in person is required. Other kinds of objects created ahead of time, for example a piece of sculpture, are marked by the seal of absence – neither the spectator’s there nor the artist. They’re not participating in the same event. The person who speaks or tells must be there with his or her whole body and give all the attention he or she can. Living words need presence.

Memory vs. memory lapse

Memorization is the only means of remembering important things. The person who speaks to a listener who has no memory nor attention span will realize that his words are inevitably forgotten.

Those civilizations which didn’t have writing knew this well. So they invented a technique of verbal phrasing that could be memorized in an instant — a science of verbal communication. This is what ethnologists today call Orality. Repetition, summary, use of strong images, versification and often setting words to music, as well as respect for causality and chronology, were the main tools used in this science. For the storyteller and listener, this art of memorization remains indispensable. Nothing is more inspiring and more precious than having and keeping, both for oneself and for others, those words which bear a heritage – meaning that they are valuable for everyone. This is why Amadou Hampate Ba, the great African sage said that the death of an African elder was just like a library being burnt. But he also said that if you hear a story, you must retell it. If you don’t retell it, the story will punish you. If you tell it badly, it will punish you as well. So if you wish to live a long time, learn to tell well.

The Story

The art of speaking contains some of the most elaborate forms of language. It’s an art of sound and meaning. Although literature, it expresses itself through Orality. It’s oral literature. This literature takes on many forms: works of poetry, drama, or rhetoric, but what it especially offers are narrative works like stories and tales, which can also be found in many various forms.

This dominance of narration in popular oral literature is first explained by an observation of common sense. A human being, at whatever age in life, loves and has always loved listening to stories. He or she recognizes him or herself in them, is recognized by them and is represented by them. Listening to stories is a way of defining oneself and identifying oneself. It’s an expression of one’s desire to escape from time, or at least, to measure the temporal and qualitative reality of its existence. The Story’s Thread

The mnemonic performance of ancient narration and its dissemination in the art of Orality is also explained by the particular language in which it expresses itself. Orality is linear. We cannot speak and listen simultaneously, yet conversely we can synoptically see an entire image of a painting all at once. In oral narration there’s a beginning, an end, a cause, a consequence, a crux, and an outcome. The meaning of a narrative message develops through the flow created as a sequence of words circulates. It’s a journey.

Narration is governed by time: first by the time it took for the story to reach us, then by the time of its own duration, and finally by the time of the story it represents. It’s an architecture of time.

The Question

This thread, made up of a long chain of causes and repercussions (as seen in what we call a cumulative-repetitive tale), is a series of questions and answers skillfully refined until it reaches a final conclusion. This conclusion only makes complete sense once a narration’s last syllable is said. Its meaning is only expressed and understood when all has been heard. Thus we could say that a story’s beginning is a question or a riddle, and that a story’s end is an answer. What will become of the carefree little girl who’s going to her grandmother’s house? She’ll be eaten by the wolf!

A story is a series of riddles, of beginnings and endings, of questions and temporary responses, until it reaches a final conclusion.


There are some situations when a storyteller must display his or her capacity to adapt a story while telling. This kind of situation isn’t necessarily a handicap. The act of changing a story’s shape isn’t a flaw and it could even be a necessity. Neither is it contradictory with being faithful to a story that’s been received, but instead responds to the circumstances of the moment.
This quality of adapting an oral message leads a storyteller and his or her public to producing different ‘versions’ of a same story. The first version is inside themselves, followed by another which adapts to the time period, the circumstances and the place. This partially explains the universality and diversity of stories that we come across in different parts of the world.

Speech and its relationship to truth

If we’re willing to accept the possible qualities and powers of speech that I’ve just described and also admit that we’re not the first to take an interest in them – actually more likely the last– we must also admit that these qualities and powers were cultivated by many other people who lived before us.

We’ve just seen that stories are very fragile when they come into being, that they can’t be born into emptiness, that they need a storyteller along with a listener, that they shouldn’t be badly told nor forgotten, that they’ve been crafted to be easily memorized, but also that they shouldn’t pretend to tell the truth or else we will accuse them of lying.

Fiction and «Lies»

The narrative literature expressed in Orality can be found deliberately and almost completely within what is intangible: the imagination. This is why a traditional storyteller presents his words as being fictitious, fictional and amusing. By telling a story he humbly admits he’s unable to tell the truth.

In doing so he establishes his words and those of his community’s as a type of game. This prevents them from being exploited and becoming political rhetoric, one-sided arguments, apparently objective speeches or so-called real facts. Every story is imaginary because it itself isn’t action. The only truth is the moment during which a story is being told and listened to.

Intentional Polysemics

In traditional societies the need to bring together the whole community as often as possible is considered fundamental. This is why the words spoken on such occasions must be accessible to everyone. These words are intentionally polysemic, or in other words, having several intentional meanings. The same story can seem fictitious or fictional to some people and true to others, or entertaining to some and instructive to others. This depends on the understanding we have.

Over one’s lifetime each person can check for and by oneself the polysemic nature of a story. Little by little, other aspects, other images, and other meanings will be revealed that have escaped one’s attention. The way one listens and sees changes over time. Just like an onion, a story has many layers.

Here is what Amadou Hampate Ba, the well-known African sage, says at the beginning of his epic story Kaidara:

« Story told, story to be told, will you be truthful?

– For children playing at night in the moonlight, the story I tell is a supernatural tale. When the nights of the cold season draw out and grow long, at the late hour when the spinners are weary, my story is a pleasant tale to listen to. For those with hairy chins and rough heels this is a true story which teaches. Hence I am useless, useful and educational. Let the story unfold and come forth…

Metaphor, analogy, symbol and fiction or «miroirs du Merveilleux»
The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm adds these few words about the importance of fiction, symbol and analogy:

Symbolic language is a language with its own distinct qualities. It is the only universal language forged by the human race in its essence, so our aim should be to understand it more than interpret it (…); I believe that this kind of understanding is (…) important for whomever wishes to attain self-knowledge, not only for the psychotherapist whose task it is to treat mental disorders (…)

Forgotten Language, Erich Fromm.

We’ve just seen that fictitious speaking is the way shared speech is protected. Fiction, metaphor, analogy and symbol enable one to represent ideas or non-transferable truth in another way. They’re also used to pass on and protect knowledge without the knowledge being forbidden.

Now the storyteller is informed about the qualities of speech.
A world opens up for him or her, maybe even a labyrinth, but in any case a promise of success if what’s been discovered is taken into account. Now what remains is choosing what one wishes to say.

What will he or she do?

We storytellers wish to serve a purpose, to be of service to someone. But to whom? And who wants to listen to us? We don’t know yet. We’d like to have at our disposal a certain quality in the way we speak, but what kind? Why? And how much time do we have to do so? We don’t know yet, but it’ll certainly be a long process!
So what’s the purpose of telling stories?
Is it to please?
Yes its purpose could be to please, flatter, often deceive, even deceive oneself, but also please others, please oneself and be accepted.

To convey?

Yes it’s used to convey, meaning to carry and pass on stories which have educated so many human beings before us and which we in turn have received.

Story: You most likely remember the story of a young man who was looking for work and met someone who offered him a job — he had to carry a letter to the Great Unknown. He has every earthly difficulty in finding him. When he finally does, he realizes that this Great Unknown is precisely the one who gave him the letter. But instead of taking it, the Great Unknown leaves it with him and says, «The letter was for you».

Is the purpose to bring people together?

Yes storytelling does bring people together and moreover does that first and foremost. Speech only exists when shared. It’s an invitation to come together and make visible all the relationships that things and people have with one another.

To educate?

Yes storytelling helps teach a great deal. Africans think that teaching is an obligation for all members of society, that each moment and event of daily life is a chance to teach by telling.

To testify?

Yes storytelling means being a witness whether we wish to or not. It’s about telling what we’ve seen, what we see and what another doesn’t see or doesn’t want to see. Storytelling is a witness account experienced in the moment, even a personal secret that the storyteller lets us in on because, as Flaubert says, «He’s only speaking about himself».

Is it meant to represent?

Yes storytelling means representing. It represents those who have disappeared, are absent, have been forgotten about or despised or who are disdainful of others. It does

so by successively taking their places. For the storyteller this means effacing oneself in order to be an emissary for them. It also means using one’s eyes, body and voice to show what wasn’t there previously.

To entertain?

Oh yes storytelling is certainly entertainment and if storytelling doesn’t entertain, it means that the story hasn’t been well told. It’s important to entertain. Entertaining erases fears and anxieties. It takes people elsewhere, makes them escape, and helps them heal. The best thing for a storyteller to do is to make people laugh, but only at himself instead of at others. This way it doesn’t hurt anyone’s feelings and does the storyteller some good.

To put to sleep?

Storytelling can also facilitate sleep very, very often, sometimes too much so. A storyteller’s challenge however is to not fall asleep him or herself while trying to help others sleep.
Does it help grow?

Oh yes storytelling helps grow and if storytelling doesn’t help one grow – in other words to make larger one’s soul, heart, bravery, cunning and determination by simply growing and helping others grow – one must quickly stop storytelling.

Storytelling is the milk of speech. This is rather obvious, at least it is for mothers who almost simultaneously nourish their newborns with milk and affectionate words. They know that milk and words help grow. And getting others to grow helps ourselves grow as well.

Does storytelling help storytell?

Oh yes storytelling helps storytell! If storytelling did not help storytell, if storytelling did not give others the desire to tell in turn, this means that we storytellers are telling very badly.

But storytelling has a still larger function than helping to tell, which is that it encourages one to be silent, especially when one has finished telling. But this only lasts a short time. For a storyteller it’s particularly difficult to be quiet for a while. Yet shutting one’s mouth leads to listening and listening is essential to learning how to tell.

This is what the purpose of stories is – they help us and they help us to help.

Roles and functions of storytellers

Artists of spoken words and more specifically storytellers have a particular responsibility. They have a place to fill. Their role is different than a mother’s, teacher’s, youth leader’s, or amateur storyteller’s. They must have a certain level of skill, ethical standards, know-how and experience so that they make others understand that their work is important for all.

Storytellers simultaneously use different styles of speech, those coming from theater, music and song, poetry, eloquence and rhetoric, and also from physical gesture. Homer was a splendid example of this. In his image — relatively speaking – storytellers emulate or can emulate him. They have a whole range of tools and skills that these various styles offer. They are narrators who fulfill many types of functions:

They’re men and women who build relationships…

This is obviously the first title given to storytellers. They connect with the people to whom they are telling, they connect their listeners with each other, and they connect them with the stories told. They serve as catalysts who initiate connections. They’re men and women of words…

In the same way we speak about writers when we describe them as «people of letters», storytellers are «people of words». They are also «people of a word». They give their word and once given, they keep it.
They’re narrators…
Obviously because they are storytellers. They have this quality because a story is one of the most effective uses of language amongst the various styles of speech. Storytellers are poets…
Or hope to become so. Even before they find a way to express it or recognize its specificity, storytellers hear the music of their voices and their languages. They comply with the rules of Orality, those of story and oral literature, but also with those more subtle rules belonging to fiction, analogy and symbolism. Little by little they become blacksmiths who forge their own words.

They’re orators…

As lawyers who defend a cause. First of all, their own cause (and this is sometimes not an easy task!) By defending their own position, they’re also defending the place of their peers, as well as that of the communities to whom they are speaking. Above and beyond all, their cause consists of defending words.

They’re men and women of the theater…

They’re performing and directing the show as well. They perform almost like actors and actresses do, but also take on, one after another, all the stories’ multiple human roles, plus those of animals, objects, places, storms, forests and ants… They are in constant metamorphosis. Yet what they perform first and foremost is the story.

They are historians…

They know the history of their people, the legends associated with them, their myths and religions. They’ve traveled or lived fully or describe trips or events that have been told to them or dramatic situations which have happened, and relate all of this using their tools of fiction and performance.

They are also linguists…

In their own way, they’re also keepers and witnesses of a spoken language, both today and in the past. They initiate words, language and thinking, and help these flow smoothly from one to another.

Finally they are also shamans…

Just like our far-off ancestors who traveled around imaginary and symbolic spaces of the universe in order to plead the cause of the ill or unhappy, the storyteller can refer him or herself –relatively speaking–to the shamans of yesteryear. Whether they wish to or not, storytellers fulfill a magical function.

A storytellers’ qualities

Eno Belinga, the great ethno-musicologist from Cameroon, describes for us the skills that he ascribes to griots (African traditional storytellers) and these skills are, all things considered, universally desirable for all storytellers today. Although reproduced here in too short a version, this is what he says:

(The griots) appear to be craftsmen of speech…they constantly draw upon their ability to readapt, recreate, and even create (words)…they display two fundamental skills: imagination and emotion…

In to order to attain their «expression» or performance, three other skills are necessary for them:

The first is wit, constantly alive and alert, which applies itself to forming connections. Its effects are witticisms, a sense of repartee, and the ability to adapt what is being said to one’s surroundings.

Eno Belinga continues on to say: Their second aptitude is intelligence. This intelligence understands relationships high above, deeply below and widely across… its roots are in a legacy that goes back thousands of years.

The third is memory, keeper of an acquired knowledge: epic themes, singing and the use of accompanying instruments, genealogical lists, and so on… (…)
in order to make their «expression» tangible…they must also call upon their will and conscience. This will defies prejudice and puts their creative skills into action. For the griots, their main criteria of reference and discernment remains their conscience. (Eno Belinga, Popular Literature and Music in Black Africa, 1966, Cujas)

Obligatory conclusion

Over the last few decades a «storytelling revival» has appeared and we’ve perhaps participated in it without realizing that we’ve been participating in an adventure which has gone far beyond the initial reason we signed up.
We, the lovers of speech and narration, have thus found ourselves defending for all of society a field which was abandoned a long time ago, but which has now become an art form to be reinvented.

This effort is asked of us, we who for the most part have no knowledge of the depths of semantics, linguistics, phonetics, history, grammar, etymology, ‘narrology’, musicology, compared literature, ethnology, philosophy and many other such sciences… The only knowledge and studies that we can boast about come from our practice of narration. There is only one certainty: that we have this chance.

We can see how precious it is.
So with no more discussion, let’s return to it without delay.

Bruno de la Salle, author – Copyright 2016 Theresa Amoon, translator – Copyright 2016

Photo : Jan Von Holleben, Dreams of Flying (2002)