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Formulaic creativity: Oral Poetics and CogSci

M. Parry and A.B. Lord showed that oral epic singers compose complex poems not by remembering a fixed text, but by improvising their song as they perform. This technique, known as composition-in-performance, is based on the mastery of formulae, fixed expressions regularly used under certain metrical and discursive conditions (e.g. “swift footed Achilles”), themes, typical scenes that structure the narrative (e.g. the assembly), and story-patterns, basic plots (e.g. the return of the hero). 

The mental feats accomplished by epic singers are very relevant for the study of memory, semantics, pragmatics, and other fields. In fact, usage-based and cognitive linguistics share their methodological and theoretical foundations with Parry-Lord inspired oral poetics. With collaborators, I compare Homer, oral epic poetry in Serbo-Croatian, and other traditions, focusing on:

  • Instance-based learning, in first language acquisition and epic singing, which are both essentially natural, unschooled processes. 
  • Idiomatic-phraseological units. The phraseology and poetics of form-meaning pairs: formulae and grammatical constructions. 
  • Traditional-cognitive episodic structures. Conventionalized sets of encyclopedic knowledge: themes, story-patterns, scripts, and conceptual frames. 
  • Multimodality and performativity. Techniques for guiding the audience's mental imagery as the story unfolds, which rely on our capacities for spatial cognition and mental simulation, and are shared by modern media such as cinema or television: zooming in and out, viewpoint shifts and compressions, foregrounding, and many more.


Antović, M. & Pagán Cánovas, C. ForthcomingNot dictated by metrics: Function words in the speech introductions of South-Slavic oral epic. Language and Communication.

Pagán Cánovas, C. & Antović, M. 2016. Formulaic creativity: Oral poetics and cognitive grammarLanguage and Communication 47. 66-74. 

Pagán Cánovas, C. & Antović, M. 2016. Introduction: Oral poetics and cognitive science. In C. Pagán Cánovas and M. Antović (eds.) Oral Poetics and Cognitive Science. 1-11. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Pagán Cánovas, C. & Antović, M. 2016Construction grammar and oral formulaic theory. In C. Pagán Cánovas and M. Antović (eds.) Oral Poetics and Cognitive Science79-98. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 

Towards a Cognitive Oral Poetics: Traditional Epic and Cognitive Linguistics
 (in collaboration with Professor Mihailo Antović, from the University of Niš, Serbia). Freiburg Institute of Advanced Studies, FRIAS Tandem Fellowship in Linguistics and Literary Studies.

Press report about our project 

We are editing a volume with contributions from speakers at the conference and from other leading researchers in the relevant fields, to be submitted to the FRIAS Linguae & Litterae Series in De Gruyter.