Q: What is folklore?
A: Folklore is a broad field of study that concerns itself with the ways in which people make meaning in their lives. There are many definitions of folklore; one of the definitions we like here at Mizzou is Dan Ben Amos’s: Folklore is artistic communication in small groups.
A sampling of folklore definitions through the years:
Q: Who are the folk?
A: We are the folk.
Everyone belongs to a folk group; most of us belong to many folk groups.
Q: What is a folk group?
A: According to folklorist Alan Dundes, a folk group is a group made up of two or more people with at least one thing in common. For example, there are religious folk groups, which are made up of people who belong to the same church or share the same beliefs; occupational folk groups are made up of people who do the same kind of work or work at the same place; and regional folk goups, who share an identity that is tied to place.
Q: What do we mean by communication?
A: Communication in small groups happens in many ways. For example, proverbs are a form of communication. We often learn them from those around us, and we use them in our daily life to express complicated ideas in a quick, efficient way. Similarly folk art, furniture-making, for example, is a form of artistic expression, and knowledge of this art is passed down from one person to another.
Q: Why are there so many definitions of folklore?
A: Folklore happens everywhere. Because everyone experiences and lives folklore differently, it is often difficult to confine the diversity and fluidity of folklore into a set, rigid definition. As the study of folklore evolves, so do the definitions.
Q: What do folklorists do?
A: Folklorists do a variety of things; check out the American Folklore Society's brochure on Folklore Studies, the AFS and opportunities for students here. On a basic level, folklorists try to understand the ways people make meaning in their lives. Folklorists do research, and often conduct fieldwork, in order to gain a better understanding of their subject matter. Folklorists teach in public schools, at universities, and in the public sector. They write books, make films, create radio programs, and organize performances. Some folklorists travel to work with folk groups that they are not members of; other folklorists study the folklore of their own folk groups. Some folklorists work in English and Anthropology departments, others work for folk arts programs. Some folklorists work in journalism, other folklorists work at government agencies that promote folklore education. Some folklorists free-lance, other folklorists work in schools and design folklore curriculum for children. Occupations within the field of folklore are as diverse as the field itself.
Q: What are some areas that Mizzou Folklore Program faculty and students specialize in?
A: The faculty and students at Mizzou have a strong interest in theory. The emphasis on critical theory allows faculty and students to explore folklore in a variety of new ways, which makes our program truly interdisciplinary. Mizzou faculty members and graduate students specialize in a many traditional and non-traditional areas, including postcolonial theory, women’s folklore and feminist theory, folklore of the African Diaspora, oral tradition, Indigenous folklore, critical race, gender and queer theory, globalization, humor studies, occupational folklore, proverbs, folklore and film, foodways, religious folklore, folklore and fetish, ethnographic performance, and Medieval folklore.
Q: What are some examples of folklore?
A: Folklore is, according to Alan Dundes, all of these things and more, besides:
Myths, legends, folktales, jokes, proverbs, riddles, chants, charms, blessings, curses, oaths, insults, retorts, taunts, teases, toasts, tongue-twisters, and greeting and leave-taking formulas (e.g., See you later, alligator).
It also includes folk costume, folk dance, folk drama (and mime), folk art, folk belief (or superstition), folk medicine, folk instrumental music (e.g., fiddle tunes), folksongs (e.g., lullabies, ballads), folk speech (e.g., slang), folk similies (e.g., as blind as a bat), folk metaphors (e.g., to paint the town red), and names (e.g., nicknames and place names).
Folk poetry ranges from oral epics to autograph-book verse, epitaphs, latrinalia (writings on the walls of public bathrooms), limericks, ball-bouncing rhymes, jump-rope rhymes, finger and toe rhymes, dandling rhymes (to bounce the children on the knee), counting-out rhymes (to determine who will be "it" in games), and nursery rhymes.
The list of folklore forms also contains games; gestures; symbols; prayers (e.g., graces); practical jokes; folk etymologies; food recipes; quilt and embroidery designs; house, barn and fence types; street vendors' cries; and even the traditional conventional sounds used to summon animals or to give them commands.
There are such minor forms as mnemonic devices (e.g., the name Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the spectrum in order), envelope sealers (e.g., SWAK Sealed With A Kiss), and the traditional comments made after body emissions (e.g., after burps or sneezes). There are such major forms as festivals and special day (or holiday) customs (e.g., Christmas, Halloween, and birthday).
For more information about folklore, please see the following links:The British Columbia Folklore Society | The New York Folklore Society | The American Folklore Society