Spoken language

Spoken language and written language are often referred to as two different modes. Spoken language has a structure that is often different from that of written language. Because we use spoken language in different situations from written language, we can often rely on context, gesture and shared understanding, so many of the grammatical structures and devices that we tend to use in written language aren’t necessary.

One mode is not ‘better’ than another mode, and we should be careful not to describe spoken language as ‘incorrect’ or ‘wrong’.

These are some of the factors that are important to spoken language:

  • It is usually done face to face.
  • There’s often more than one person speaking.
  • Speakers can make reference to things around them that everyone present can see.
  • Speakers can use body language to communicate.
  • Speakers can finish each other's sentences or phrases, or can repeat pieces of sentences or phrases to show understanding.

When do the factors listed above actually apply? Are there exceptions? Some of the exceptions might be:

  • telephone calls where people participate at the same time but not face to face
  • recorded messages left on answerphones
  • monologues in which only one person is speaking – such as a story that someone is telling while others listen

There are probably many others that you will come across as you study spoken language in more detail.

Let's look at some features which are typical of spoken language, illustrated with authentic examples from the ICE-GB corpus.

Note that final punctuation marks (full stops, question marks and so on) are not used in these spoken examples. The notation (.) is used to indicate a short pause (about the length of a syllable of speech), and (1) marks a longer pause.

Consider this example drawn from a recording of natural spoken language:

  • So a real test for England now then (.) [S2A-001 #1]

This example is not a complete sentence. You would probably write the extract above as something like So, it is a real test for England now then. We refer to the phenomenon of missing grammatical elements (words, phrases, whole clauses etc.) as ellipsis, and ellipsis is quite common in spoken language.

Deixis is a word for language that refers, or ‘points’, to something in the context.

  • Well that will go well wide [S2A-001 #7]

In this case, the demonstrative pronoun that is referring to something that the commentator can see, but which might not be understandable to someone who isn’t in the same place as the commentator. In speech, this deixis may be perfectly clear, but in writing, it may not be.

Idiomatic expressions are familiar word combinations whose meanings are often not literal. Consider the following:

  • And at this stage Mason just looking (.) noticeably slower (1) although Lewis isn’t really getting on his bike at all [S2A-009 #29]

Lewis is not actually getting on his bike. There is no bike  – this example is taken from a boxing commentary. The expression to get on your bike means 'to put in some effort', or 'to try hard'. This is informal language, but it might also be difficult to understand in writing.

Speakers often address their listeners, as in the following:

  • Now members of the jury (1) you and I tried this case (.) as a (.) team (1) [S2A-061 #1]

Here the audience is named with a noun phrase, members of the jury, and addressed with a pronoun, you.

Tag questions are short questions tagged on to the end of statements.

  • You can’t blame her for that really, can you [S1A-007 #17]
  • Looks like ours, doesn’t it [S1A-041 #176]
  • You saw the clock, didn’t you [S1A-046 #11]

Speakers often use tag questions to seek confirmation of what they are saying.

Sometimes speakers use other expressions which are not questions in order to seek a reaction, for example you know. These (along with tag questions) are sometimes referred to as monitoring devices because they are used to monitor if others are listening. Here is an example:

  • So anyway (.) then I found out he was going out with a woman that I was going with you know (.) [S1A-052 #111]

Fillers (e.g. uhm, uh) do pretty much what you would expect: they fill gaps in spoken utterances.

  • I mean it’s it’s about uhm (.) sort of ghetto life in uh Los Angeles (.) [S1A-025 #31]

In the above example, uhm is a filler, followed by a pause.

Hedges are sometimes used to suggest an attitude towards what’s being discussed, often a degree of doubt, uncertainty or vagueness. Kind of, sort of, almost, maybe, and perhaps can all be used as hedges.

Hedges are sometimes referred to as modal devices because they change the modality – the degree of certainty being expressed about something.

Speakers often use expressions with vague meaning, including or something or and stuff.

  • It might cause an outcry or something [S1B-011 #165]
  • Oh we’ve had lectures on it and stuff [S1A-035 #85]
  • With regard to (1) the basic safety of you know fire escapes and the electrics and things like that does it fall to you as the head representative to check that out [S1B-067 #43]

In the last example the speaker uses and things like that, rather than continuing to list specific items.

In spoken language we can often draw attention to the main points we want others to listen to by foregrounding something: pushing it to the front or emphasising it in some way.

  • The other thing that’s marvellous I started doing for singing is uhm (.) uh classical ballet technique (.) [S1A-045 #28]

One thing that is quite interesting about the grammatical structure of spoken language is that it can often be manipulated quite flexibly to draw the listener’s attention to an important, or spotlighted, element. In the example above, classical ballet technique is foregrounded. Compare the example above to an alternative example: Classical ballet technique is the other thing that's marvellous I started doing for singing.

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