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formula | formule | Formel


After the seminal works by Parry (1928) on the oral transmission of the Homeric poems and the formulaic use of epitheta and expressions, a formula can be defined as a phraseme (group of words, phrases or even a whole clause) that is repeated in a structurally identical or almost identical fashion within a poetic work or in a group of poetic compositions that belong to a series or to a specific phase of a given culture. The function of the formulaic repetitions is to facilitate oral tradition and, possibly, the composition of new re-elaborations of the cultural material, especially in contexts in which rhythmical and metrical structures are involved.

This pattern, well exemplified in Homer, emerges in many traditions, that are not necessarily related to one another, including Indo-European - such as the Anglo-Saxon tradition (Magoun 1953) or the Slavic one (on which Parry also worked) - and non Indo-European ones (cf. Wang 1974 on ancient Chinese formulaic poetry). Therefore, it should be regarded to as a trivial universal feature of early literate traditions, rather than a culture specific trait of a group of related literatures.


A famous example are the formulaic expressions in Homer, e.g.:

τὸν δ᾽ ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη - subject

to him answering said …

The expression occurs 38 times in the Iliad and 65 times in the Odyssey. Similar cases exist in the Ancient Near East, e.g. in Hittite:

subject - dative-object ( - appa) - memiškiuwan dāi-

someone to someone began to speak (or: answer)

The formula is attested 100+ times in myths of both Mesopotamian and Hurrian origin, generally at the end of a line (and therefore, possibly, in a specific metrical position), and it is probably a Hittite formula, which would point to existence of some sort of rhythmic or metrical structure.

While the two formulas exemplified here are similar, they are probably accidentally so, but in some cases formulas may migrate by contact, resulting in phraseological borrowing.


F.P. Magoun, The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry, Speculum 28, 1953, pp. 446-467. Milman Parry, L'Épithète traditionnelle dans Homère. Essai sur un problème de style homérique, Paris, 1928 C.H. Wang, The Bell and the Drum: Shih Ching as Formulaic Poetry in an Oral Tradition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 1-3.