Curriculum Vitae
  Biographical Statement
  Patron's Medal
  Pictures of Fieldwork
Current Projects

Property Systems


Sabah Oral Literature Project

  Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research
  Fund for Urgent Anthropological Research
  Borneo Research Council
Selected Articles
  The Dusun Languages of Northern Borneo

The Health Consequences of Development

  Iban Studies
  Teaching Anthropological Ethics
  Complete Bibliography
  Theoretical Issues in the Study of Cognatic Societies
  Emergent Structuralism and Agency
  The Rungus Momogun of Northern Borneo
  The Bulusu' of East Kalimantan
Research of Family Members
  Laura W. R. Appell
  Laura P. Appell Warren, M.Ed.
  Amity A. Doolittle, M.E.S., Ph.D.
  Charity Appell McNabb


Sabah Oral Literature Project


The Sabah Oral Literature Project was established to collect, preserve, and translate the oral literature of the various peoples of northern Sabah. In 1986 we realized that there was a need for such a project when we were able to return to our study of Rungus culture after a hiatus of 23 years. We were astounded to see how rapidly social change had overtaken the Rungus.

The old addat of marriage had largely disappeared. Where before the Rungus culture stated that extramarital sexual relations were prohibited, one could now find extramarital relations going on and even an occasional case of prostitution. One headman asked if he could see our data on the old addat of marriage and weddings as he could not remember what the traditional rules were.

The Rungus language was also being rapidly eroded and lost as in some families children were now being spoken to in Malay as infants so that they would be prepared for their schooling. Many of the men in the age grade of 20 to 35 just did not know their traditional lexicon.

In the past, when there was a death, friends and neighbors would come and spend the night sitting with the body retelling myths and legends to keep people awake. This had ceased. So that the legends and myths were disappearing.

Religious ceremonies for illness, for infertility, for misfortune, and for lack of success in agricultural activities were one of the major occasions in which oral literature was performed. These were no longer being held.

And the Rungus are perceived as being one of the most traditional groups in Sabah!

It was clear that if something were not done in the next five to ten years, the beautiful oral literature of the people in the Kudat Division would be gone. And there are up to 16 other Dusunic or Paitanic speaking groups in the Kudat Division alone, in addition to the Rungus.

The problem was how to collect this rapidly disappearing oral literature as quickly as possible.

Before we answer that question, let me briefly give you some notion of the scope of this oral literature.

The Oral Literature of the Rungus

The oral literature of the peoples of Sabah contains important knowledge on the environment and its uses. It elucidates the nature of the indigenous perceptions of their environment. It give us insight into the human condition during those times in human history when small communities existed on subsistence agriculture and came into conflict with other such societies. And most importantly, it has great aesthetic value. It is a fully developed, exciting form of art.

First, there are the historical narratives. These tell of the life, the human condition, warfare, and relations between various groups before the arrival of the British. Then there are the historical narratives of the arrival of the British and how they established their rule. These are extraordinarily interesting and important for the history of Sabah. And they include important information and detail about leading figures both before and after the arrival of the British.

Then there are the myths and legends that tell how the world was formed, how it was populated, how it came to be as it is. This includes stories of the flood, how it came about, who survived. These myths and legends also explain how the landscape came into being, and they point out important and symbolically significant topographic features, many with religious connotations. I can remember one old woman pleading with me in 1962 to go to the British and ask them not to destroy some of these features as they built roads in the Kudat District. And of course today, we would acknowledge these as important tourist sights, had they not been destroyed.

Next there are the long prayers that accompany sacrifices to the rice spirits and spirits that can destroy one's fields and plantings. These tell of the work of the various agricultural gods and spirits.

Finally, there are the complex sacred texts that are recited by the bobolizan, the Rungus priestesses and spirit mediums, to cure illness, to sanctify the marriage ceremony, to increase the agricultural success of the domestic family, to prevent epidemics from overtaking the village, to bring back the fertility of the village, and to increase one's success in accumulating items of wealth such as gongs, jars, and brassware.

These sacred texts, termed rina'it, are incredibly beautiful. They tell of the work of the gods and demigods; they explain the nature of the spirits who if offended can cause illness; they tell tales of wonder. They are poems, with the texts in couplets. The first line is in the standard vocabulary, and the second line is in a ritual lexicon.

But these are more than poems. There are verses that are chanted and there are verses that are sung. They are extraordinarily moving and incredibly beautiful performances.

These sacred texts are a highly developed aesthetically rich oral literature that compares in sophistication, complexity, and importance with the old Norse Sagas, the Greek and Roman literature and the oral literature of pre-Shakespearean England.

It would be an incredible calamity to the world of scholarship and to the history of Sabah if these were lost.

Organizing the Oral Literature Project

The problem to be solved was how to organize a project to collect this important oral literature. My wife and I are no longer young, and we have other obligations so that we recognized that we could not do this ourselves. And even if we had three or four research lives we could not complete this work. It is too vast a body of literature and there are too many groups to collect from.

We realized furthermore that it needed the involvement of local people to succeed. For one of the critical problems is transcribing the tape recordings. We found that only those who actually spoke the language could transcribe the complex sacred texts accurately, and most importantly, relatively quickly.

So we needed the following personnel:

1. An individual to transcribe the texts.

2. A field collector and an associate to accompany him as he visited various villages to tape record the literature.

The first step was to select and train a local Rungus team to determine if such a method could successfully address the problem, and if it could, it would then serve as a model for the development of further teams. We began this while visiting the Rungus in 1986.

In 1987 we brought the now Director of the Kudat Office to our research facilities in the U.S.A. to train him for tape recording oral literature and for transcribing the tapes. He was accompanied by his father and at this time we also started translating this literature, annotating it, and providing cultural commentaries.

However, this individual who was also supposed to do the collecting was unable to get enough free time from his work with the government to do this. Consequently, he has undertaken only to do the transcribing of the tape recordings in his spare time, and to run the Kudat Office.

In 1990 the present Field Collector and his Assistant were added to the team and received initial training when the we visited the Rungus in 1990.

During the following year the Field Collector traveled throughout the Kudat area tape recording the various oral traditions. He was accompanied by an older man who remembered the traditional culture and who had contacts with traditional spirit mediums and those who know the oral histories, folktales, and myths of the Rungus.

It was decided in 1991 that the work of the Field Collector and his Assistant had progressed so well that they were in a position to benefit from further training to expand their work. Consequently, during the first half of 1992 we gave this field team of Rungus collectors additional training at our facilities in the United States. This was to sharpen their skills in locating critical types of oral literature, to enlarge their understanding of what additional data need to be collected to fill out our understanding of the sacred texts, and to train them in the exegesis of the materials. This was done by working on the translations of the oral literature already collected.

Thus, in addition to expanding the body of translated work and its exegesis, this training suggested what gaps there were, what lines of inquiry needed to be followed up on and what questions needed to be asked in collecting additional materials as well as in the further exegesis of materials already collected.

Furthermore, in 1992 we discovered that any particular text for a ceremony was highly variable between various priestesses. That is, for example, the text for one ceremony for illness varied between priestesses; even between teacher and student important variations and elaborations have crept in. Consequently, our goal was to collect several of the same type of texts for comparison purposes.

Previously our field collector had been doing this on his spare time from his work with the government. Consequently we approached him with the proposition of doing it full time after his training in 1992. And he agreed to do this, although it would mean that he would lose many of his benefits.

During our 1994 field session we discovered that our field collector and his assistant were not doing his work. We had to locate and train quickly another person. We had been working for several years with a Rungus bobolizan on the exegesis of the Rungus religious literature, and she offered to help. She had a son who could write both Malay and Rungus, and we formed them as a team to continue the collecting. The bobolizan would locate other priestesses and negotiate with them to record their rina'it in exchange for both beads and money.

The Rungus Collecting Experience and Expanding the Collection of Oral Literature to the Other 16 Groups in the Kudat Division

By the end of 1996 we expected to have collected about 90% of the Rungus literature. We have also been able to record the tunes that the sacred texts are sung to. We found that recording the songs interfered with the transcription and comprehension of the texts. It is extraordinarily difficult to understand some of the phrases when sung. So we focused first on the texts and then on recording the tunes that went with them.

But by early 1992 we were concerned over the slow pace of the collection of oral literature, for there were still the other 16 groups in the Kudat division that needed to have their oral literature collected and preserved. The original team was also prepared to begin collecting the oral literature of these other indigenous groups. It is critical that work begin on their oral traditions as soon as possible for it is generally perceived that the Rungus have maintained their cultural traditions longer than the other groups. Thus, in work among these other ethnic groups, the collecting team would have been dealing with much older informants and religious specialists than among the Rungus. The Rungus collecting team was also trained to locate personnel in these other ethnic groups who have an interest in this work and to train them on how to start their own collecting teams. Unfortunately this did not work out.

The new team of field collectors organized in 1994 has been working only among the Rungus. We have also been unable to get them to start collecting among the other ethnolinguistic groups in the Kudat District, which could lead to a major loss of oral literature from the ethnic groups in the Kudat District.

Philosophy of Project

The philosophy behind all of this work has been thus to encourage and train local personnel to collect and preserve the oral traditions of their own ethnic group.

Exegesis and the Rungus Cultural Dictionary

However, the tape recording and transcriptions of these texts is only half the story. Certainly this preserves this important literature. But unless it is translated, commented upon, and interpreted, and explained, the work is only half done.

Without this exegesis, this interpretation, annotation, and explanation, and commentary these texts lose much of their beauty and power. For example, certain plants are found in the sacred texts, and without further inquiry there would be little understanding of these. But they are indicators of fertile land. A particularly beautiful maiden is described in terms of being so beautiful and translucent that you can see her intestines. Thus, we need the exegesis of metaphors by those who know them to unravel them and explain them so that we can understand their true depth of meaning. And it is important to note that this effort is not just for those strangers to the society. Its own younger generation also does not understand many of these metaphors, so that in the future, unless we make an exegesis, the next generation will find such texts opaque and inexplicable with a loss of beauty and power.

For example, we have working with us a 55 year old man who had experienced traditional Rungus culture. Yet with certain texts he does not understand the metaphor, he does not understand what is going on or being said, and even some of the words are an anachronism to him.

Thus, time is running out!

Let me give you an example. A young warrior on his way to go out to meet the champion of another village dashes down the longhouse ladder, and knocks head over heels a young maiden, who is at first angry with him but then praises him for his bravery and offers to marry him. The critical aspect of this text which we do not understand is that when she is knocked head over heels the text states that you can see her ceramic bowl. Her piningan. What this means, what this is a metaphor for, no one knows; one can only imagine, and probably wrongly.

In order to do a proper translation and bring in a full understanding of the metaphorical language, we have been working over the years on a Rungus Cultural Dictionary. This started out as a simple dictionary, but it is now more than that. It includes explanations for words that put them in their cultural context. It will explain briefly beliefs, the uses of tools, the nature of gods and spirits, the rituals that are required for ceremonies, and so forth. I say will, as this work is still far from complete. We are adding to it each year from the oral literature material we have been collecting.

Additional Purposes of This Project

This project was designed to test procedures for the rapid collection and preservation of the oral literature of Sabah. When we began we did not know whether this method would work or not. But if it did, and it has, it was our hope that this field collection method would develop into a good working model for other such projects.

It is thus hoped that this project will encourage the development of similar projects in other regions of Sabah and Borneo and demonstrate to local people how they can rapidly move to collect and preserve their oral heritages before they are lost.

We are willing to help train anyone or any group of people who would like to start their own oral literature collection.

But it is important to make one thing clear. Tape recording this literature is only half the story. While important and critical, just as important is to have someone knowledgeable in the culture from which the oral literature comes to provide the exegesis of it, to build a cultural dictionary for that group. The Rungus in this sense are lucky to have had this done for them by my wife and myself. Where will other such ethnographers come from to do cultural dictionaries? There seems to be little interest in this problem. However, something is better than nothing. So we are going to continue to support our Rungus field team to expand their activities into the other linguistic groups in the Kudat Division. There are approximately 16 other groups. And to collect this literature will take years of work. Perhaps we can train the Rungus team to pick up some of the cultural contexts in which this literature is performed and some of its complex metaphors and references. Perhaps they will discover local individuals in other groups who would also like to take on this work for their society.

But it should be realized that exegesis must be done from outside the culture, by those who are trained to ask the critical questions to elicit the proper explanation and provide a full understanding of this literature.

Payment for Tape Recording

We do not pay individuals for recording any of the myths, stories, legends, or oral histories. Nor do we pay for recording the agricultural rituals that are done by men. However, to record the hymns, chants, and songs of the Rungus priestesses, we have to make a payment. This is because anyone who wants to learn these texts has to pay the priestesses a considerable sum for the training. Thus, these texts are valuable and a form of income for the priestesses. We pay for these in both beads and money.

Equipment and Procedures

We have been using a Sony Pro Walkman Portable Cassette tape recorder for recording in the field. A duplicate of each tape is then made to be used for transcribing the material into Rungus. To transcribe the texts, a Sony transcribing machine is used.

All original tape recordings are presently archived in fireproof filing cabinets at our home office.

Progress to Date

1.0 Cultural Dictionary: Manuscript to date includes 1723 pages and approximately 18,000 entries.

2.0 Oral Literature Tape Recorded and Transcribed

2.1 Tape recordings to date: 225 hours

2.2 Number of pages transcribed to date: 6916

2.3 Percentage of tape recordings transcribed: 60%

3.0 Translation: In first draft approximately 10% of corpus.

Funding of the Project

We are now trying to find the funds from various foundations to support this effort, but if we are not successful, we have assured the team that we will use our own limited resources to fund this project, which requires a commitment of 15 to 20 years. Up to this point the work has been supported by grants from the Wenner-Gren Anthropological Foundation, the Borneo Research Council, The Halcyon Fund, and by my wife and myself.

Let me say that we do not perceive that this project will be completely successful with just the involvement of local people in the collection of this oral literature. We perceive that it will have reached its full potential when the costs of the project are also funded locally in Sabah rather than externally.

Some Theoretical Issues

In some cases we have collected the same text from the same individual at two different points in time. This is to ascertain how fluid or set in stone the texts may be. We have also collected texts from a teacher and her student, to see how accurate the oral transmittal and commitment to memory of these texts can be. And we have found variation in both instances. This illustrates several important theoretical aspects of the oral literature.

First, the origin of sacred texts are attributed to dreams. But then in the repetition of them and in their transmittal, there is very creative embellishment and modification of the texts by the performer.

Second, while some of these modifications represent true creative genius, not all are inspired creative acts. There are creative annotations in which verses from one text are added to another, or standard embellishments of the behavior of the gods are added in at places where they were not before.

Third, these materials have major implications with regard to the interpretation of oral literature, particularly with regard to the concept of what is called the formula. The idea of the formulaic character of the diction in oral literature originated with Milman Parry in his study of Yugoslavian oral epic poetry. He compared the forms of formulaic diction found in these texts to those found in the Homeric Epics. He concluded that the Homeric Epics arose originally as oral literature and were not composed as written texts, by which we know them today. This conclusion was developed and refined by Albert Lord in his study of oral literature. In essence the formula is a "group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea" (Stolz and Shannon 1976:ix). Examples of these are: "Achilles swift of foot," or "Hector of the flashing helmet," but there are other forms as well, such as the repetition of phrases and whole sequences of lines (Lloyd-Jones 1992:52).

Certain types of Rungus sacred texts, those which are poems and are chanted and sung, exhibit this formula. They are composed of couplets, with the first line in the standard language and the second line, amplifying the first in an esoteric, ritual lexicon, which is only used in these texts and in songs. This is similar to what has been reported for the Berawan in Sarawak by Metcalf (1989) and what is found in Sulawasi and Eastern Indonesia (see Fox 1988).

The interesting aspect of the ritual lexicon is that it contains lexemes that are part of the standard lexicon of other languages in Borneo. For example, the longhouse apartment in Rungus is ongkob. In the Rungus ritual language is it lamin, which is the standard term for longhouse apartment among the Bulusu', who live up river from Tarakan in Kalimantan Timur and whom we worked with in 1980-81. Other ritual terms that we found part of the standard lexicon of the Bulusu' are:

English Rungus Std. Rungus Ritual Bulusu' Std.

soul hatod lingu lingu

water vaig timog timog

rice parai bilod bilod

maiden modsuni samandak samandak

But not all the sacred texts are in poetic form using these couplets. There is a significant body of oral literature that is in prose and has none of the characteristics of the formulaic style.


When this project is finished there will be a tremendous, unique, archive of tape recordings and transcriptions. It will be not only of inestimable scholarly value, but it will be a major gift to the people of Sabah itself.

Just as in the United Kingdom, where students read, study, and enjoy the magnificent Beowulf, the old Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Sagas; just as in Norway where people read the old Norse Sagas to find out their history and where they came from; just as in Iceland where Icelanders read, enjoy, and discuss the Saga of Burnt Njal; just as in Greece where Greeks read and study their Homeric Epics to inform them of their history and to define their identity; just as in India where the Ramayana and Mahabhartra are read to provide understanding to life; it is my hope that some day here in Sabah students will read in their schools some of the great oral literature we are collecting and find out more about their roots, more about their history, and more about those times that their ancestors lived in. And it is also my hope that these epic poems, stories, myths, and legends will be read by educated people everywhere not only for their great aesthetic merit but to understand the human condition as it was lived once upon a time in Sabah.

Appendix I

Patron, Personnel, and Sponsoring Committee


The Right Honorable Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Chief Minister of Sabah, Malaysia.


G. N. Appell, Ph.D., Director; L. W. R. Appell, Co-Director; Win Malanjun, Director of the Kudat Office.

Sponsoring Committee

Professor Vinson H. Sutlive, Jr. (Executive Director, Borneo Research Council, College of William and Mary), Dr. Jacqueline Pugh-Kitingan (Sabah Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sports), Ms. Joanna Kissey (Deputy Director, Department of Sabah Museum and State Archives), Mr. Jude Kissey, Professor Victor T. King (Director, Centre for South-East Asian Studies, Hull University), Dr. Clifford A. Sather (Department of Anthropology, University of Oregon).


Appell, G. N.

1990 Guide to the Varieties of Oral Literature Found in Borneo. Borneo Research Bulletin Vol. 22:98-113.

Appell, G. N. and Laura W. R. Appell

1993 To Converse with the Gods: The Rungus Bobolizan-- Spirit Medium and Priestess. In The Seen and the Unseen: Shamanism, Mediumship and Possession in Borneo, Robert Winzeler, ed. Borneo Research Council Monograph Series Volume 2. Williamsburg: Borneo Research Council.

Fox, James J. (ed.)

1988 To Speak in Pairs: Essays on the Ritual Languages of Eastern Indonesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lloyd-Jones, Hugh

1992 Becoming Homer. The New York Review of Books (March 5):52-55.

Metcalf, Peter

1989 Where Are You/Spirits. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Riggsby, Andrew M. et al.

1992 'Becoming Homer': An Exchange. The New York Review of Books (May 14) :51-52.

Stolz, Benjamin A. and Richard S. Shannon (eds.)

1976 Oral Literature and the Formula. Ann Arbor: Center for the Coördination of Ancient and Modern Studies, The University of Michigan.