Once upon a time I was jealous of English speaking storytellers for having the word ‘storytelling’ to describe their art – a single word which is both a noun and a verb, concise with movement and flair, elegant. In Hebrew we had a combination of two words – ‘Sipur Sipurim’ – meaning telling stories or telling of stories. I though this had to be changed, so I wrote a letter to The Academy of the Hebrew Language asking them to look into the issue. After a while I got a reply. It was long, orderly and well argued but at the end it left me and my curious colleagues with ‘Sipur Sipurim’. At the time I felt a disappointment.
Years passed. Carrying the cumbersome ‘Sipur Sipurim’ became a frustration, especially while the single word version was soaring into the limitless sky. About five years ago though I started feeling something was going wrong. The word ‘storytelling’ started to appear in very different contexts and various forces were pulling it their way – far away from its true meaning. I reacted by separating the words ‘Story’ and ‘Telling’ in my business company’s name – ‘The Story Telling Company Inc’. “Back to cumbersome” I thought but somehow it felt closer to the truth of the art.
Through the last two years I’m witnessing (don’t know about you though) a massive abuse of ‘storytelling’. Not only the word – the entire concept. Somehow it seems people miss the
part of the word or interpret it as a primitive channel for distributing stories. There is no bigger mistake you could have about storytelling than such a thought but if you wish to stay with it – so be it for you.
Interesting to notice though – Hebrew speaking storytellers do not suffer the feeling of abuse by other disciplines. In fact, most of them are not even aware of all the nonsense that is flying around. We do suffer an abuse within the spoken-arts domains lately flooded with all kinds of people using the title ‘storyteller’ while performing shallow-entertainment, but that problem isn’t unique to this place.
Over here, when you say you are a ‘Mesaper Sipurim’ people know it is about ‘Telling’. So the guys from the academy were right and by not giving in to the modern tendency to link conciseness with elegance, they left us with a true name to our art; a name that differentiates what we do and protects our feeling of clear identity.
Storytellers – can you help here?
I’m wondering how the issue of identity is solved in other cultures. Ok, the Irish tricked us all cleverly carrying the unbeatable and lovely title ‘Seanchaí’ (curious to know its full meaning). What about other cultures?
I’m unraveling the various titles in Hebrew, hoping to inspire other storytellers to contribute. I’m by no means an academic scholar in the fields of Philology and Linguistics; just bringing here the more common uses of words and how they are captured by the general public. Please feel comfortable to share what you know and let’s see what we can come up with.
Story Telling in Hebrew
One of the better known applications of telling stories as a means of carrying tradition is the Jewish ‘Hagada’. It is a short book told through Passover eve during the ‘Seder’. It’s a book so the original texts will be preserved but the texts are only a basis for feelings of communality – the point is to have a telling event with one person leading the ritual and others taking part, including children. You can have as many ‘asides’ as you like as long as the audience is not getting too hungry and the telling continues well after an unbelievable meal; it can continue far into the late night with songs and personal stories and sometimes blends into learning and debating – just like some of the characters in the text of the ‘Hagada’.
So if ‘Hagada’ is ‘a telling’, the person who performs the lead is ‘Magid’ – ‘teller’. There is an important distinction here
‘Magid’ is still used in religious contexts and years ago the art of story-telling was coined the art of ‘Heged’ by scholars. Today, it is not in use outside of the academic context.
The most fabulous idea (to my humble opinion) which also sketches out the problematic change in the perception of the art, is encapsulated is the word ‘Sipur’. If you’ll ask a Hebrew speaker what it means you’ll immediately get ‘Story’. Story is a noun and it describes a body of text. But… ‘Sipur’ is also a verb which most people don’t remember anymore, meaning – telling a story and also storying (equivalent to envisioning). The written culture has run over its dynamic predecessor and turned it into print on page.
What the academy did is draw back into the word’s true verbal nature while knowing very well people might get confused. Therefore they decided to use an association ‘Sipur Sipurim’ – telling of stories.
If you have a couple of moments and something to share, please contribute. I’m dead curious to read your input on this issue.