Spoken language and speech communication

In a normal speech communication situation, a speaker tries to exert an influence on a listener (or a group of listeners) by making him (or them) perceive, understand, feel or do something particular. The speaker guides the listener into doing this by exposing a linguistically structured speech behavour, which operates together with non-verbal signals, various kinds of background knowledge that the speaker and the listener have, the listener’s responses and other characteristics of the physical and social context in which the communicative activities are embedded. The various behavioral and information-processing operations involved in both the production and comprehension of speech are transient events which, in addition, partially overlap and occur at very high rates. There is often a frequent exchange of turns (i.e. speaking vs listening turns) between the communicating parties. All in all, this brings about a very intricate and rapidly evolving social interaction between the parties.

We can briefly state some of the most important features of speech communication in the following points:

1. Speech is a dynamic, ephemeral behavior distributed in time; it proceeds continuously and its inherent dynamics, the changes at various levels, must be subject to on-line monitoring and analysis by both communicating parties; as one goes on, one can no longer observe that which was produced earlier. The products of the speaker’s activities (behavioral movements and sound waves) fade rapidly over a period of time, and the same applies to the listener’s activities. (I disregard here the fact that some types of “products” remain in short-term memory for certain limited periods of time.) This naturally leads to focusing on the dynamic behavior as such rather than on some persistent products (such as those in writing).

2. Speech behavior has many features of continuous movements (rather than a chain of successive states).

3. The whole interaction between speaker and listener is dependent on the situation (context) in many extremely important ways.

First of all, the speaker’s speech behavior is continuously accompanied and supplemented (occasionally contradicted) by various non-verbal signals, which means that the verbal message as such is often much less explicit than in writing; referents may be pointed to, interpretations may be made more precise and complex through gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice etc.

After all, the use of an utterance in a normal situation involving face-to-face interaction is not an isolated speech act; it is part of a comprehensive communicative act which comprises the use of both verbal means (speech) and nonverbal means (gesticulation etc). The message is conveyed, or shown, in several ways simultaneously, and the role played by spoken language cannot be properly understood without taking into consideration the whole communicative act.

Secondly, both speaker and listener are normally physically present at the same place, and they normally have a considerable amount of background knowledge about each other, the things talked about etc. Parts of this knowledge may be shared by both interlocutors.

Thirdly, the listener responds all the time (verbally and, perhaps most importantly, by non-verbal means),and this feedback continuously influences the speaker’s behavior. The speaker must produce his utterances quickly and readily, and the listener must respond just as rapidly, under the pressure of the emotive and social atmosphere of the face-to-face interaction.

In short, these various features imply that dialogues, which are the typical application of speech, must be regarded as a complex social interplay between agents.

4. Communication through speech is a resource available for all normally equipped human beings across different social groups and cultures. It is acquired under rather different conditions than writing. Its ontogenesis is part of the normal individual’s primary socialization, which starts and largely develops in early childhood as an integrated element of habitual activities in everyday culture. To a large extent it then remains a feature of the private sphere of people’s lives. Knowledge of one’s spoken language is an inalienable element of one’s knowledge of everyday culture (cf. Berger & Luckmann 1967).

2.2 Communication by written texts

Unlike speech, written texts are typically not perceived and interpreted at the same times and places as they are produced.The analysis of written language – both by linguists and normal users (readers) – necessarily focuses on the products of the writer’s activities, i.e. on the written texts, whereas the production process itself is non-accessible and unimportant for the normal reader. However, while the processes involved in the production of written texts are usually not directly communicatively significant, the fact that the products persist over time makes various types of intermediary communicative acts available. The written texts can be used in different ways, re-employed, duplicated, distributed to particular persons or groups in new situations, and these activities can be regarded as proper communicative acts in their own right (or as parts of such acts). Note, however, that these acts are normally instigated and performed by other people than the writer (the original sender) himself. While a speaker may exert a considerable social-psychological pressure on the listener and may direct the latter’s thoughts and feelings through his own verbal (and non-verbal) signals, a writer has not at all the same immediate power over the reader(s). If we proceed further in comparing communication by written texts to communication in spoken discourse, we will also note the following characteristics (cf. II.1).

1. A written text and its components parts (letters, words, sentences, paragraphs etc) have the character of objects; they are persistent and static (atemporal) (spatially but not temporally organized). Considerable sections may be scanned (almost) simultaneously or at least repetitively (in principle as many times as required). (I disregard here the fact that the activities involved in reading are also dynamic and distributed in time, something which must have consequences for the resulting comprehension.) Rapid, urgent responses are usually not necessary.

2. The written text is made up of discrete symbols, i.e. letters (at least in print) and (graphic) words, and these are organized in certain regular spatial patterns (according to syntactic rules as well as various conventions of punctuation and paragraph division). (These symbols are the approximate counterparts of only some of the structural (i.e. segmental-phonological, grammatical, lexical) features of spoken language; the prosodic features and the non-verbal signals of the communicative acts in speech situations have almost no correspondence in writing).

3. Unlike spoken utterances, a written text lacks an immediate context. Though it is true that a reader must, in order to properly understand a written text “place it in a wider context” (using various kinds of background knowledge, e.g. knowledge about the topics of the text, assumptions regarding the writer’s intentions), a written text is – as a rule and in comparison with spoken utterances – relatively explicit (the absence of an immediate context must be compensated for, i.e., referents must be more fully described, arguments must be represented more extensively) and relatively autonomous or context-free (the text stands on its own feet to a much greater extent than spoken utterances in a dialogue, for which the sender’s and the receiver’s behavior, expectations, intentions etc are normally immediately relevant for the interpretation). In principle a written text can be decoded at any place, and the decoding can often be performed by a great number of different people.

Furthermore, the medium of writing is adapted for a monologic function. Normally, the sender, the writing individual, works alone, and the same applies to the receiver.

4. The acquisition of the ability to read and write is quite different from learning to speak and understand speech. Normally, a considerable amount of explicit instruction is needed, and the more skilled and erudite writers have usually gone through many years of rather intense training. Thus, the acquisition of written language belongs to the so-called secondary socialization, in which school and other cultural institutions play a very important instrumental part. Schooling and education are unevenly distributed in most (all?) societies. Thus, while spoken language is largely every man’s property, written language is the belonging of only rather few people. This circumstance forms the basis of the function of written language in social stratification (III.3). Written language is mainly used in the non-private life sphere, and, again unlike spoken language, it is not integrated with everyday knowledge and culture but is associated mostly with various kinds of abstract knowledge separate from the world of direct experience.

When writing is taught, a number of more or less explicit norms or rules are referred to, and these norms will therefore be partly conscious to the language users. This in turn is related to still other important properties of written language:

written language is more constrained by rules and conventions than spoken language, especially as regards its form.
b) in general, there is less variation (i.e., less dialectal and idiolectal variation) and more invariance in written language, except perhaps in advanced literacy uses, especially poetry.

c) the conditions under which written language is generally taught have promoted the quite common belief that (some variants of) written language represent(s) the grammatical” correct language, whereas many variants of spoken language are incorrect, defective, incoherent, ugly and/or rude.

It must be admitted, of course, that the differences between spoken and written language are not always and everywhere very clear-cut. There are spoken genres, in which language is used very much as in certain written styles, and, conversely, writing can sometimes be deliberately used for mirroring certain speech styles. Moreover, historically, there must have existed transitory forms; how else could we explain the invention and development of written languages in cultures that were originally entirely oral in nature?

More specifically, if we consider the fourth point of above, there are of course variations in normativity and ritualization in spoken language too. In particular, there are often certain bound forms of speech, which are more conventionally constrained in form and content than normal spoken discourse. Such varieties are often used for the recital of orally downtraded myths, laws, proverbs, epic poems etc, and they seem to occur also in cultures which totally lack writing (e.g., certain Polynesian cultures). On the other hand, these varieties are among those which are liable to be written down at an early stage in those cultures where writing systems are indeed developed.

Thus, we can say that certain features which we ascribe to written language have their natural counterparts in certain spoken genres. But I would still maintain that writing as such has had a profound influence on our thinking, since it always transforms the structure of language and gives prominence to certain features. This then creates a special type of background for the development of linguistic theory; a theory of written language cannot, and should not, be entirely identical with a corresponding theory of spoken language. (1)



1. I abstain here from discussing the conditions under which communication by means of spoken language takes place when modern technical equipment (e.g. sound and/or video tapes) and mass media (e.g. radio and television) are involved. Obviously, some of the features that I listed earlier as typical of speech communication present then. Furthermore, a fair amount of the speech broadcast through the media (and in other non-primitive situations) is heavily dependent on written texts; often, people simply read their typescripts aloud.