Oral Transmission and “Rida Rida Ranka”

I would like to use an example. I am a 3rd generation American of Swedish ancestry. When I was young, my father would say a Swedish nursery rhyme to me. He could not speak Swedish, although he knew more Swedish than myself. He learned it from his father who knew Swedish somewhat but not fluently, he learned it from his parents who spoke Swedish fluently. The nursery rhyme was part of a game. I would sit on my father’s knees and he would bounce me up and down while singing the song rhythmically. He would then slow down with the sound of a dog barking, and on the third bark he would move his legs and I would drop to the ground. My maternal grandfather (also of Swedish descent although he knew no Swedish) also knew the rhyme and would do it at times and would sound a little different… but similar.  This is how it sounded to me:

Reeder Reeder runkin

hester hetta blunkin

var skovin needer

ten eeken peeguer

mumpha laga latta

tsokol oat fatta

nar vee kom down

bowr inga hemma

shucka hunna

kneppa pa ben

voof. Voof! VOOF!!

 I was told that this was approximately what it meant.

ride ride runkin

horse’s name is blunkin

were shall we ride her?

To a little maid

stocky and fat.

When we got there

No one was home

‘Cept an old dog

gnawing on a bone.

Woof! Woof! Woof!

I wanted to find out how it is supposed to sound and what it is supposed to mean so I looked it up on the Web and found that I was not alone in the confusion. One version:

A rita, rita, runkin
Demile hans hoose,
Devoon yemoon
Kot on a moose
On little wahoon
Syin on a bankin
Slick upon a slick a sow
Woof! Woof! Woof!

Despite the “Woof” sound at the end, he understood the poem being about a boy and an alligator, where the reptile SNAPS on the final “Woof!”  Some other ones that popped up:

Rhea rhea ronka, hester sue ? blanca, ? ? ? ,
Rhea rhea rhea. Cluck Cluck Cluck.

Rita Rita Ronka
permellidin heuse
enging ona yemmin
en liten catapeuse

Rhea Rhea Runkin
Has a nitter Blunkin
Hos cot a Rhea
Studa Studa Fria
Hunsen go
Woof woof woof woof

I found several versions rough and smooth at http://www.mamalisa.com/blog/question-about-a-danish-rhyme-rhea-rhea-runkin/

I found a version that comes somewhat close to the version I learned:

Rida, rida ranka
Hasten heter Blanka.
Vart ska vi rida?
Rida sta och fria
Till en liten piga.
Vad ska hon heta?
Jungfru Margareta
Den tjocka och feta.
Nar vi kom till hennes gard
Sa var dar ingen hemma,
Bara en gammal gumma
Larde sin dotter spinna.

Ride, ride on my knee
The horse’s name is Blanka.
Where are we riding?
Riding away to woo a little girl.
What will be her name?
Maiden Margareta
The fat and chubby.
When we came to her house
No one was at home
But an old woman
Who taught her daughter to spin.


Of course, part way, things change direction… it focuses on an old woman while the version I learned talks about a dog barking. But I have seen versions that have a dog barking. But when I compare, I see some interesting things. For example, the phrase I learned “mumpha laga latta” and I had understood as translated as “to a little maiden” really was “Jungfru Margareta” (Maiden Margareta). Even with the differences, there is still things that I can learn to recreate the oral stream that I heard.

There are, in fact, many verses to Rida Rida Ranka. It seems as if they get added and modified. The poem appears to have gone through several changes.

  1. There was an original poem.
  2. There was a process of adding, subtracting, and modifying of text
  3. As the poem crossed into other Scandanavian countires, there was translation of the poem (retaining its poetic qualities) into the other Scandanavian languages.
  4. When the poem crossed into the United States (and as proficiency in Scandanavian languages dropped) there was a division of sound and meaning. The sound and rhythm was retained in a form that was vaguely reminiscent of the poem in its Scandanavian roots. And then there was the English “translation” which lost its poetic form but was used simply to provide meaning for the phonetic rhyme.

I find the story of this nursery rhyme interesting from a missions standpoint for several reasons:

  • The poem may have had a written form, but it was designed to be passed on orally. The rhythm and rhyme and structure was tied to a physical action (bouncing on the knee). It was linked to the “surprise” (or actually the running joke) of dropping on the last Woof. The verses had a recurring theme.
  • The oral transmission was repeated normally without help of written text. The child as the hearer, over time, became the transmitter of the poem to the next generation.
  • There was an obvious point of time when form and meaning divided. In truth, form of a text is always different than its meaning. This sentence has a form, but the meaning is in no way the same thing as the form/structure of the sentence. However, in the transmission of the poem to the US, the form (phonetic sounds with a discernible rhythm and rhyme) clearly was different than the English language description of its meaning.

What sort of lessons might one gather from this?

A. We live in a world of oral transmission. In developed countries, the majority of oral transmissions is carried out by literate people. We often think that because we have books and electronic files of information that oral transmission is gone. That is far from true. People prefer to hear a story and/or see a story. Even if a person reads a story, it is quite likely it is read only once. Then it becomes a matter of memory and orality.

B. Since we live in a world of oral transmission, we should learn and embrace these rules. The Shema (in Deuteronomy 6) follows the pattern of oral transmission and even guides adults in how to instruct orally the next generation. Large parts of the Bible are structured for oral transmission (both narrative stories and aphorisms). Some argue that means that the Bible has roots in generations of oral tradition. That may or may not be true. But what is true is that the Bible was written to a large extent in such a way that it can be transmitted orally.

C. The meaning lies behind the form/structure, and should be considered separately in some ways. While many churches like people to read the same translation of the Bible, and share the message using certain prescribed formats, the form/structure should be seen more as a specific way to to convey the meaning more effectively. In certain settings and in different people, the form/structure needs to change to effectively convey meaning.

Now, before I end this, you might say “This is ridiculous! You are saying that the poetic structure and other qualities helped it to be retained and transmitted. But look how poorly it was retained. All sorts of both form and meaning got messed up. I have to agree on that. However, very little Swedish culture, language, and traditions were passed onto me in my family (except Swedish peasant foods). About the only thing beyond food that was passed onto me was this rhyme. As messed up as it was, it was something and the general message did survive. And there were enough markers in the messed up poem that I could grab onto and return to literary sources to restore it across an ocean, several generations, and a language change or two. That’s not bad.