Malagasy verbal arts: an introduction to oral traditions.

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Madagascar’s cultural wealth sets the country apart from its African neighbors located only 260 miles away. These differences are found in its traditions and customs, its language, and form of communication. Historically, Madagascar had one and only form of communication and the history of its language stood impressive since it was influenced by various cultures from different places.

Historians relate that Malagasy used to communicate between themselves only in a verbal way, which is usually known as “oral tradition”, or “Malagasy oral literature”. A variety of patterned speeches, highly common and valued in Madagascar, underpins the uniqueness of the Malagasy oral literature. It is important to note that Malagasy language was formerly transcribed from the Sorabe – an alphabet based on Arabic writing dating back to the 15th century. Researchers maintain that the Malagasy society was illiterate before the mid- 19th. Except for a minute collection of magic texts in Arabic script – the Sorabe, the only written documents before then came from Europeans (Alan D. Rogers, 1985). Even the well-established kingdom of the central plateau commonly referred to as Imerina kingdom, had no written records and the history of its founding kings was preserved in formal discourses and folk literature spoken with allusive forms. Some of them include Riddle or Ankamantatra which is generically considered the smallest and simplest dialogue in Malagasy oral literature; Hainteny (art of the word or courting poems), Kabary – a formal public speech – and Ohabolana or Proverbs that all belong to the larger dialogues.

Ankamantatra, which literally means "what is to be found out", is the Malagasy riddle language is a form of dialogue – the smallest one – with a question and an answer. It can also be called “fampanononana”. The question usually starts with the words “Inona ary izany?”, or “What is it?” in English. Here are some examples of riddle:

What is it? You do not see it with open but with closed eyes. ............. Sleep or dream.
What is it? A bald man who makes noise. …………. A drum.
What is it? A leper on his throne. ………… A pineapple.

Hainteny. It can be defined as a traditional form of discourse and poetry, which involves heavy use of metaphor and allusion. A Hainteny portrays dialogue and often encompasses many ohabolana or proverbs and kabary (public discourse). A Hainteny may be performed by one or two people.

Ohabolana or Malagasy proverbs are basically monologic. Yet, they are internally dialogic in a way that they realize a limited number of two-sided structures, Which they share with the riddle and the folktale (Lee Haring, 1992). One speaker seeks to exert authority over others by means of ohabolana.The sayings are in this case monologic because the speaker imposes an authoritative interpretation in a single voice. Proverbs are often used to embellish ceremonial public speeches by the mpikabary. Here are some examples of hainteny and ohabolana:

“Ny alina mitondra fisainana.”           Night brings wisdom.

“Tondro tokana tsy mahao hao.”           You cannot catch a louse with one finger.

Tongolo manga faka           Blue-rooted onion,
fary manga vololona           Blue-leaved sugar cane.
ny tandindon-dambany aza manitra           Even the shadow of her lamba is perfumed,
ka mainka ny lamba tinafiny           How much more, then, the lamba she wears. (An excerpt of the collection of Hainteny with Malagasy text, along with English translation and commentary by Leonard Fox.)

“Aza asesiky ny fitia tanteraka, ka tsy mahalala ny ranonorana ho avy.”
Do not be too much in love that you cannot tell when the rain is coming.

“Aleo enjehin’ny omby masiaka toy izay enjehin’ny eritreritra.”
It is better to have a fierce bull running after you than being haunted by your thoughts.

Sources: “Verbal Arts in Madagascar”, Lee Haring, 1992 / “Human Prudence and Implied Divine Sanctions in Malagasy Proverbial Wisdom”, Alan D.Rogers, 1985 / “Hainteny: The Traditional Poetry of Madagascar”, Leonard Fox, 1990.

Read 148 times Last modified on Friday, 13 August 2021 16:55
Login to post comments

An initiative by

Initiate by


Funding provided by

Supported by


AmCham sponsors



This website was funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.