Storytelling – is something wrong with this word?

By Limor Shiponi

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.

10 thoughts on “Storytelling – is something wrong with this word?”

  1. Is something wrong with the word ‘storytelling?’ Yes and no.

    I really dislike the word because it conjures up in the mind a picture of someone “Telling” a story. But we know storytelling is a co-created experience — at least those who have been trained in storytelling know this. Seems many branding and marketing folks are either totally ignorant of this, or just catching on.

    I really like the word ‘Magid’ — and wish we had a word in English that speaks to this dynamic. I think I’ll just start using the Hebrew term because it is lovely.

    So I don’t have a substitute word. I just resign myself to sharing my thoughts about this word whenever I talk about my work with business stories, and educating people about storytelling dynamics whenever I get a chance.

    Thanks for tackling this issue Limor and sharing your thoughts.

    1. Hi Karen,
      Interesting notion about the word “telling”. I capture it as a co-creation since if I’m telling – someone is for sure witnessing this action and influencing my telling and the story. Otherwise there is no point for telling and my art does not exist. What I understand here is that the word “telling” carries a one direction meaning for people, like in “I’m going going to tell Mom” or “don’t tell me what to do”. This interpretation carries a sense of authority I can see people reject lately. Don’t be mistaken – the Magid is an authority. It’s just that he uses this authority for leading a co-creation because storytelling is always about ‘us’. Still, a lot depends on his ability to lead, to facilitate, he has knowledge that needs to be acquired – the texts, the ritual, the vocal skills etc.

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  3. I am completely on the periphery of the business, marketing and PR uses of ‘storytelling’ so I’m not going to comment on this. I understand that it has a value and some wonderful storytellers work in this field.

    The aspect which always puzzles me is that even after spending an hour or so in my company while in full storytelling mode I am so often thanked for my “reading”. It isn’t that there has been a misunderstanding over what I do, these people were present, conscious throughout (more than can be said for some of the settings I work in!) and engaged. I don’t know if it is the written word that is considered of value or whether it is just inconceivable that the stories I tell have not come from a book. Sometimes I wonder if they think I have texts secreted about my person, a bit like a child cheating in exams!

    1. Hi Ghislaine,
      I think it has do to with the tools of evaluation they have, what they are familiar with, what they can tap into. Some storytellers including myself meet the reaction “you are such a great actress” which I am not and have never been. I don’t even perform dramatically, but that’s what they know and when they want to thank me they come up and say what they interpret as the right thing to say out of gratitude. I leave it there, I don’t correct them. Through the years I’ve learned to open such sessions with a little conversation about storytelling as I tell the opening story. Some of them get it or have questions – which is great.

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  5. Bringing over comments made on FB:

    Yvonne Healy
    Interesting, indeed! BTW “sean” means “old” in Irish Gaelic. This is not the same as the name “Seán” which means “John.” I’m not sure of the specific meaning of the ending “-chai” but it refers only to those tellers who tell traditional folklore, like the “marchen” of Germany. “Scéali” refers to one who tells contemporary stories and histories. Myths and old histories were the province of the “fílidh” until they were outlawed in 1600’s. I call myself both a seanachai for the tales I have received as a tradition bearer and a scéali for the stories that I write about my family and 19-20the century history. I tell lots of myths, too, but I don’t use the term”fílidh” because the term would confuse most Americans.

    Rafe Martin
    Great piece. Thanks Limor for the thoughtfulness. Here’s an aside — “scop” the Old English for “bard” (if I remember my graduate school days right), literally meant “maker.” Which touched on the co-creative aspect of storytelling to “make” the realities we all live within, perhaps. (Total aside — the word for body meant “bone-house.” The word for “sea” meant “whale’s road.” Good language for storytelling!)

    Limor Shiponi
    Thank you Yvonne Healy and Rafe Martin. This is great. I like the diferentiation Yvonne mentioned, it’s interesting. And the “maker” Rafe, reminded me of another possibility Hebrew. The word “Maasiya” stands for tale. If you devide it, it becomes “Maase Yah” which means – the making of God. This connects to one of the most amazing tales I’ve ever met: “The heart and the spring” out of the tale “The seven beggars” told by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. The character telling the story is presumably a stutterer but he really isn’t. The tale ends with “But know, the time that the man of true grace presents to the heart he receives from me, for I gather the acts of true grace that make up time… The man of true grace has confirmed that I can speak in parabels and songs of all wisdom”.

    Which reminds me that I often use “sculptures in time” to help my students grasp what it is that we do. Obviously not during the first lesson 🙂

  6. Elizabeth Blackwell

    No, there is nothing wrong with the word ‘storytelling’, however your article is wonderful as if it is citing the abuses of the word ‘storytelling, well this reminds me of a new kind of storytelling website called papakali.com where it allows the readers to contribute their own versions of stories that will be added to the already existing stories of the South Sound.

  7. Really excellent post — and a timely reminder about the dangers of a label that’s beginning to stick in places perhaps it shouldn’t. “Teller” is fine by me. The use of “maker” is that it implies originality — whereas authentic storytelling is about channeling the unconscious needs of the audience, very often by reinterpreting myths or archetypal stories that have special relevance today. Where’s the “maker” in that (if we interpret making as an original creation)? The other angle to this is that there is (in English at least) the residual meaning of storytelling linked with infantile, didactic, nursery, make-believe — which in turn gives the impression of “not deep enough for grown-ups.” Thoughtful, provocative post!

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