In this article, Lord discusses some of the characteristics of oral expression which he thinks would be of most interest to those reared in cultures which emphasize writing. These ideas are inspired by Father Ong’s book, Orality and Literacy (1982). Forst, “oral thought and expression are additive whereas the written are subordinative” (Lord 1987, 54). Lord observes that lists of characteristics either with very frequent use of “and” or “then” will show this additive attitude. This does not mean there is no subordination, but addition and parallelism are significant features of orality (Lord 1987, 55).
A second characteristic which Lord draws from Ong is that of “aggregative” thinking. Lord describes this in terms of epithets attached to words or ideas, but not normally with an expectation that the epithet will be questioned. He uses as examples, “The glorious revolution” or “clever Odysseus” (Lord 1987, 56).
A third characteristic of orality is redundancy. Oral works tend to have agreat deal of repetition. Lord suggests a purpose for repetition. “The repetitions . . . do not, in my opinion, arise from the need to remind the audience of what has been said, but from what I would call ‘ritual repetition’; and I would like to suggest that the fullness, the copiousness, comes from ‘ritual elaboration’” (Lord 1987, 52). Lord thinks the repetitions are used to show some sort of ritual importance (Lord 1987, 58). This could explain the fact that much repetition is related to arming a hero, dressing an important character, or otherwise preparing for an important event. Lord gives several examples of just this sort of usage (Lord 1987, 59ff).
Fourth, quoting Ong, Lord says orality is “conservative or traditionalist” (Lord 1987, 62). It typically recognizes and uses the material supplied by earlier artists. Lord specifically states that use of tradition does not indicate inferiority, but may encourage a poet or performer to pursue a very high standard (Lord 1987, 63) The “current” work is drawing from a highly refined body of past expertise.
Lord considers that lyric and ritual songs have many similarities to narrative songs. He finds that many oral compositions have similar core materials and ornamentation (Lord 1987, 64). To analyze the compositions in more detail, it is important to distinguish between memorization and improvisation. One of the difficulties of this project is that we do not know which of several texts might be original .Identifying variants may prove very difficult (Lord 1987, 68). Lord illustrates the difficuulty by means of a South Slavic song with some lives which are debated. It is truly impraticable to identify which versions are original.