The idea of “oral tradition” is not one which is understood in the same way by all scholars. Rosenberg sees this lack of clear interdisciplinary definition to be problematic (Rosenberg 1987, 73). There is evidence of primarily oral societies in which writing is used, as well as, rather clearly, societies in which written communication is very common but in which oral communication is considered perfectly normal. Oral and literate societies, says Rosenberg, are not completely disparate. They are also not indicative of a different level of intelligence (Rosenberg 1987, 74).
Rosenberg suggests that the term “oral literature,” though an oxymoron, could be useful in describing fixed works which are composed, transmitted, or performed orally. This is also a problem because it does not specify a phase in which the oral activity governs the process. Rosenberg has tried a coinage, “Oralature,” but that has also not gained much traction (Rosenberg 1987, 75).
Rosenberg asserts that many of the matters of prime importance to a culture are transmitted orally, in face to face interactions. While they may well be preserved in writing, adoption of values routinely comes about through orality. Rosenberg thinks this is an important feature of a culture. “While literature has made many aspects of culture available to a very great proportion of society’s members, the impersonality of print has also made culture easy to avoid. Print removes a portion of learning from that immediate chain of personal confrontations” (Rosenberg 1987, 76). There are cultural reasons to think oral interactions are superior ways of identifying and preserving truth. Writing, however, is a superior means of disseminating truth broadly and preserving a record of the truth claims.
In contrast to oral accounts, Rosenberg observes that modern industrialized societies are incapable of functioning apart from large amounts of written data - dates, specific records of particular events, timelines, and statistical information. These records are not kept effectively in oral tradition, but are quite easily kept in writing (Rosenberg 1987, 77). Further, oral accounts tend to add or subtract pieces of information which are considered necessary or unnecessary. This is a much more complicated process in written traditions. For this reason, the literate academic distrusts oral traditions, as they are more likely to change details of an account (Rosenberg 1987, 79).
A significant problem in research is the fact that we have very few genuinely non-literate societies in the world. Additionally, to make a true comparison of literacy and orality we would need cultures where the same cultural background exists in a parallel non-literate and literate branch. As this is not possible, Rosenberg notes that research has continued among those who are largely literate. When engaged in oral communication, speakers tend to use the tools of literacy. This may be a result of habitual exposure to reading (Rosenberg 1987, 80).
An additional factor in oral and written traditions is that of memory. Rosenberg cites studies in which participants are found to remember important pieces of information, then fill in the details, rather than remembering a piece of communication verbatim (Rosenberg 1987, 81). Poetry may be recited verbatim, but it is possible that the ability to do this has some relationship to the actual poetic form. A poetic line is roughly parallel to the verbal formula as described by Milman Parry. For this reason, it fits into the category of expressions which can be easily remembered and strung together (Rosenberg 1987, 82). Rosenberg further observes that in nonliterate socieites the mention of a commonly held concept will spark a connection with the whole concept. It is normally not necessary to explain it in detail (Rosenberg 1987, 83).
Rosenberg further notes that in oral performance traditions it is common for audience members to correct the performer, and certainly to provide ongoing feedback. This internal correction process is an aid to memory on the part of both the audience and the performer (Rosenberg 1987, 85). The speech and even thought patterns are therefore more fluid and spontaneouus than those used in written communication.