The word ballad derives from the late Latin and Italian ballare, ‘to dance’. Fundamentally a ballad is a song that tells a story and originally was a musical accompaniment to a dance. We can distinguish certain basic characteristics common to large numbers of ballads: (a) the beginning is often abrupt; (b) the language is simple: (c) the story is told through dialogue and action; (d) the theme is often tragic (though there are a number of comic ballads); (e) there is often a refrain (q.v). To these features we may add: a ballad usually deals with a single episode; the events leading to the crisis are related swiftly; there is minimal detail of surroundings; there is a strong dramatic element; there is considerable intensity and immediacy in the narration; the narrator is impersonal; stock, well-tried epithets are used in the oral tradition of kennings and Homeric epithets ; there is frequently incremental repetition ; the single line of action and the speed of the story preclude much attempt at delineation of character; imagery is sparse and simple.
We may distinguish further between two basic kinds of ballad: the folk or traditional ballad and the literary ballad. The former is anomymous and is transmitted from singer to singer by word of mouth. It thus belongs to oral tradition . In this manner ballads have been passed down from generation to generation over centuries. Inevitably, this has led to many variations of one particular story. The folk ballad has tended to flourish among illiterate or semi-literate people in rural environments, and is still a living tradition in northern Greece, in parts of the Central Balkans (e.g. Bosinia-Hercegovina, Montenegro and Serbia) and in Sicily.