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Speech in Human Communication

A spoken language is a human language in which the words are uttered through the mouth. Almost all languages are spoken languages.

Computer languages and sign languages are not spoken languages.

Everybody wishes to have a command over communication skills while interacting with people or delivering speech before an audience.

However, the success of any spoken communication activity is based on the simple method of listen, understand, and speak.

The term ‘spoken language’ is often used in contrast to written language; the world's most widely spoken languages all have written forms. The difference between the spoken and written versions of a language can sometimes be quite extreme.

What is Speech?

According to Knowsley (2004), “speech is the universal means of oral communication. It distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Speech (not writing) is considered by linguists as the primary material for study.”

There are many varieties of spoken language, many of which are used even on individual basis.

It may interest you to know that speech is innately acquired – unlike writing, which is a skill which has to be learned. It is also a known fact that speech is used constantly by everyone for a variety of functions, from the passing of information to the sharing of emotions. Furthermore, legal, religious, medical and technical languages are all varieties of spoken occupational jargon.

There are no designated human speech organs, but respiratory and digestive organs are adapted to produce speech.

Indeed, speech and writing are two separate systems and an individual’s linguistic competence depends on the ability to make a clear distinction between the two.

Listed below are some speech-related expressions that are commonly used in the study of language.

Speech community: This is used to describe a group of people with shared language. The group includes all the speakers of a single language or dialect, and they may be widely dispersed geographically.

Speech recognition (understanding of speech by computer): This refers to a system of computer input and control in which the computer can recognize spoken words and transform them into digitized commands or text. With such a system, a computer can be activated and controlled by voice commands or take dictation as input to a word processor or a desktop publishing system.

Speech synthesis (computer’s imitation of speech): This refers to computer – generated audio output that resembles human speech.

Sign Language and Speech

A sign language is a language which uses gestures, motion and expression instead of sound to convey meaning: combinations of hand shapes, movements of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions.

Sign languages are used by people who are deaf or hearing-impaired. Contrary to popular belief, sign language is not international. Wherever communities of deaf people exist, sign languages develop. As with spoken languages, these vary from country to country. They are not based on the spoken language in the country of origin. And like spoken languages, they developed in antiquity: sign languages are not new, and are no more or less amendable than any spoken language.

Factors that can Affect the Quality of Speech

There are several factors that can affect the quality of a person’s speech.

Among these are:

  1. Diseases and disorders of the lungs or the vocal cords, including paralysis, respiratory infections, and cancers of the lungs and throat.
  2. Diseases and disorders of the brain, including alogia, aphasias and speech processing disorders, where impaired perception of the message (as opposed to the actual sound) leads to poor speech production.
  3. Articulatory problems, such as stuttering, lisping, cleft palate, ataxia, or nerve damage leading to problems in articulation. Tourette syndrome and tics can also affect speech.
  4. Problems in the perception of sound and auditory information can affect speech. In addition to aphasias, anomia and certain types of dyslexia can impede the quality of auditory perception, and therefore, expression. Hearing impairments and deafness can be considered to fall into this category.
Thus, it is clear that speech has both expressive and receptive elements.

The purpose of speech can be to convey meaning or to increase social bonds between individuals and/or groups (it is often both). For the latter, shallowness is not a problem. The success of a speech act depends on numerous factors, including the presence or absence of a variety of speech disorders, the ability of the speaker to express the intended message, and the ability and willingness of the audience to play the role of recipient.

An important concept that needs to be mentioned here, which can also affect the quality of one’s speech is Glossophobia.

Glossophobia is used to refer to the fear of public speaking. The term is derived from the Greek ‘glosso’, meaning ‘tongue’, and ‘phobia’, which means ‘fear or dread’. It is believed to be the single most common phobia affecting as much as 75% of all people. Glossophobia is considered a social phobia and may be linked to or sometimes precede a more severe anxiety disorder.

The symptoms include intense anxiety prior to or simply at the thought of having to verbally communicate with any group, avoidance of events which focus the group’s attention on individuals in attendance, and may even include physical distress, nausea, or feeling of panic in such circumstances. Many people have been known to report stress-induced speech disorders which are only present during public speech.

Differences between Speech and Writing

As mentioned in above, speech and writing are two separate systems and an individual’s linguistic competence depends on the ability to make a distinction between the two.

Speech quite normally includes false starts, hesitations, repetitions, and ‘fillers’ with no lexical meaning such as ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, and all sorts of sounds which have no connection with writing as a means of communication. Speech is also normally accompanied by many other non-verbal features which affect communication – such as intonation and stress, facial expressions, physical gestures, and even bodily posture. Interestingly, in the study of language, speech is considered primary and as a system which is entirely separate from writing, especially because humans acquire speech due to their innate programming. Unlike writing which is a skill that must be learnt in the same way as driving, sewing, or cooking.

It may also interest you to know that there still some societies in the world which have no written form of language, but which depend entirely on speech.

Sign language, among the profoundly hearing-impaired (i.e. the deaf and dumb), is a system which can perform all that a spoken language can in terms of communication. In this case, the hands are adapted instead of respiratory and digestive organs in order to communicate.

The organs used in speech are as follows:

Lips, teeth, tongue, palate, glottis, uvula, nose, trachea, lungs, pharynx.

Speech is normally a continuous stream of sound, and is not broken up into separate parts like writing. This is particularly true because people do not speak in sentences or paragraphs, and some of what is said may not even be distinct ‘words’. It has been observed that most people usually make up the content of what they are saying quite spontaneously, without any planning or long deliberation. It is also important to state that speech cannot be revised or edited in the same way as writing, and although most people (unconsciously) employ a wide range of speech varieties in their everyday conversation, their speeches may often be quite inexplicit – because the participants in a conversation can rely on the context for understanding.

Language change takes place far more rapidly in speech than in writing. From our discussion above, we can summarise the characteristics of speech as follows:

  • Speech is time-bound…both participants are usually present.
  • No time-lag between production and reception, and recipient is available for further reaction on the part of the speaker.
  • Intonation and pause divide long utterances into manageable parts, but sentence boundaries are often unclear.
  • Participants can rely on extra linguistic cues as facial expression and gesture to aid meaning.
  • Contraction, slang, obscenities and meaningless vocabulary are much more tolerated.
  • Lengthy co-ordinate sentences are normal and are often of considerable complexity.
  • There is the use of intonation – which includes contrasts of loudness, tempo, rhythm, pause, and other tones that cannot be written down.

How Writing Differs from Speech

The Written Language

A written language is the representation of a language by means of a writing system. Indeed, writing is clearly a system of human intercommunication by means of conventional visible marks.

Written language is an invention, whereas spoken language has evolved along with homo sapiens. Children will instinctively learn or create spoken (or gestural) languages. However, written language must be taught.

Written language always appears as a complement to a specific natural language (English, French, American Sign Language, etc.) and no purely written languages (with the exception of computer languages, which are not natural languages) exist. Nevertheless many extinct languages are in effect purely written, since the written form is all that survives.

Interestingly, written English and spoken English are obviously very different things; Writing consists of marks on paper which make no noise and are taken in by the eye, while speaking is organised, meaningful sound taken in by the ear.

T.S. Eliot once remarked that ‘an identical spoken and written language would be practically intolerable; If we spoke as we write, we would find no one to listen, and if we wrote as we speak, we would find no one to read. The spoken and written language must not be too near together as they must not be too far apart’.

There is no doubt that aspects of written and spoken language are often studied as separate domains and much has been written about how the two mediums differ. Written texts may be neatly classified as planned, organized and transactional while spoken communication is often presented as unplanned, less structured and interactive in nature.

However, features of written language can easily be found in spoken language just as written texts can exhibit aspects of conversation. It is also important to know that Speech is believed to be innately acquired – unlike writing, which is a skill that has to be learned. Furthermore, speech is used constantly by everyone for a variety of functions; from the passing of information to the sharing of emotions.

Writing systems, on the other hand, convey meaning by two means. The first is by the use of symbols which represent sounds and function as surrogates of speech. The second is by the use of symbols that add no phonetic information. These two together are combined in different proportions in different scripts.

It becomes obvious therefore, that speech and writing are two separate systems and your linguistic competence depends on your ability to make a clear distinction between the two.

Advantages of Spoken Language over Written Language

Language is an ever evolving process on planet Earth varying from culture to culture and place to place depending on the needs of the civilization that existed at that timeline. Written language evolved from hieroglyphs – cave wall art (pictographs) – stone or clay tablets – papyrus – paper of arious and writing implements.

Language is a system of conventional spoken or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, communicate. Language so defined is the peculiar possession of humans. Other animals interact by means of sounds and body movements, and some can learn to interpret human speech to an extremely limited extent. But no other species of being has conventionalized its cries and utterances so that they constitute a systematic symbolism in the way that language does. In these terms, then, humans may be described as the ‘talking animals’.

Language has a structure or a series of structures and this structuring can be analysed and systematically presented. When language is spoken, a complex series of events takes place. These events are on many planes of experience: physical (the sound waves); chemical (the body chemistry); physiological (the movements of nerve impulses and of muscles); psychological (the reaction to stimuli); general cultural (the situation of the speaker in respect to the cultural system of his society); linguistic (the language being spoken); and semantic (its meaning).

The spoken word is intimate, tied to the very breath and health of the speaker. The written word makes possible the autonomous survival of knowledge - with an oral tradition, it disappears when the oralists have all been killed; but, as people have noted for a long time, writing is impersonal, does not carry emotional intonations as well as speech, and lacks the identifying characteristics (pitch, tone, timbre, rate, etc.) that links speech to a speaker. Certainly, writing displays styles - some people insist they can recognise any particular writer's writing - but it is also not as idiosyncratic as speech. Even on the phone, we immediately know the voices of our loved ones. They are distinctive and unique.

Writing is a form of human communication by means of a set of visible marks that are related, by convention, to some particular structural level of language. This definition highlights the fact that writing is in principle the representation of language rather than a direct representation of thought and the fact that spoken language has a number of levels of structure, including sentences, words, syllables, and phonemes (the smallest units of speech used to distinguish one word or morpheme from another), any one of which a writing system can "map onto" or represent.

Indeed, the history of writing is in part a matter of the discovery and representation of these structural levels of spoken language in the attempt to construct an efficient, general, and economical writing system capable of serving a range of socially valuable functions. Literacy is a matter of competence with a writing system and with the specialised functions that written language serves in a particular society.

Let me re-emphasise that languages are systems of symbols; writing is a system for symbolising these symbols. A writing system may be defined as any conventional system of marks or signs that represents the utterances of a language. Writing renders language visible; while speech is ephemeral, writing is concrete and, by comparison, permanent.

Both speaking and writing depend upon the underlying structures of language. Consequently, writing cannot ordinarily, be read by someone not familiar with the linguistic structure underlying the oral form of the language. Yet writing is not merely the transcription of speech; writing frequently involves the use of special forms of language, such as those involved in literary and scientific works, which would not be produced orally. In any linguistic community the written language is a distinct and special dialect; usually there is more than one written dialect. Scholars account for these facts by suggesting that writing is related directly to language but not necessarily directly to speech. Consequently, spoken and written language may evolve somewhat distinctive forms and functions.

Notwithstanding the foregoing discussions, most contemporary linguists work under the assumption that spoken language is more fundamental, and thus more important to study than written language. Reasons for this perspective include:

  • Speech appears to be a human universal, whereas there have been many cultures and speech communities that lack written communication;
  • People learn to speak and process spoken languages more easily and much earlier than writing;
  • A number of cognitive scientists argue that the brain has an innate "language module", knowledge of which is thought to come more from studying speech than writing, particularly since language as speech is held to be an evolutionary adaptation, whereas writing is a comparatively recent invention.
Of course, linguists agree that the study of written language can be worthwhile and valuable. For linguistic research that uses the methods of corpus linguistics and computational linguistics, written language is often much more convenient for processing large amounts of linguistic data. Large corpora of spoken language are difficult to create and hard to find, and are typically transcribed and written. The study of writing systems themselves is in any case considered a branch of linguistics.


Human communication can be realised at two levels; speech and writing. In speech, humans articulate sounds and pronounce meaningful words through the mouth. Speech is considered primary because every normal human being possesses the natural ability to speak, unlike writing which is a more deliberate skill that has to be systematically taught and learned.

The importance of speech as the primary medium of human interaction in different communication situations can therefore, not be overemphasised.

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