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:

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

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:

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.

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:

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:

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.

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:

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

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.

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.

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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Spoken language: Dialect and slang

[Amended from Dan Clayton's Teaching English Grammar in Schools blog]

The history of grammar teaching has often been associated with prescriptive models in which the "correction" of perceived faults in language has been paramount. While linguists are careful these days to talk about what is 'grammatical' or 'ungrammatical' and 'standard' or 'non-standard', rather than what is 'right' or 'wrong', there is still a tension at the heart of the teaching of English.

The British actress Emma Thompson hinted at this when she was widely reported in the media as having criticised the language of young people at her old school (the Camden School For Girls) for its supposed reliance on likes, innits and off ofs. While she was fairly careful to couch her criticisms in a liberal language of acceptance of slang in its context and awareness of the need for two languages, at the heart of her attack lies a prescriptive view that some forms of language are just bad and that they make the user of them look bad too.

The grammatical arguments about the terms she chose to pick up on are quite interesting. Innit has been studied in the last few years, and has been identified as an invariant tag question (a tag that doesn't change to agree with the subject of the statement it follows: so it's innit at the end of she’s nice, I am pleased, we are going there and they are bad, etc.). Grammatically, it has become something new. Like Emma Thompson you may dislike it, but it's got its uses and it is quite a powerful device. Another use, and probably a more recent one, is as a response to its tag question form. So, younger speakers often employ it in a conversation to show agreement to it being used as an affective tag.

Also, with like we have a word that has often been used as a filler, but that has now become something else as well. In its quotative usage, we can see that it is used to perhaps dramatise and emphasise elements of reported/direct speech in storytelling. For example:

Again, whether you like it or not, it's now got a new way of being used, reflecting the flexibility of our evolving language.

But it's not just slang that causes upset to a prescriptivist mindset: dialect is a threat too. In the Daily Mail, a short report told us that teaching assistants in Portsmouth (two of them - close to a national scandal) had been criticised by OFSTED for their use of local dialect. The example quoted in the story, "I likes football", sounds like a fairly typical example of south coast dialect to my ears.

Why is it a problem? Well, if you read the comments that follow the article (never a good idea if you're trying to stay balanced and the right side of happy on a dreary Monday morning) you'll see a splenetic outpouring of disgust. Teachers are illiterate! Education, education, schmeducation! Country bumpkins shouldn't be allowed near our kids!

That's fairly typical for the Daily Mail's message boards, and among the vitriol and badly spelled attacks on immigrants and left-wing teachers who use street slang is an undercurrent of dismay that the grammar of Standard English is at risk. And here is the tension referred to earlier.

The common perception of regional dialects among many English speakers is that they belong to the lower social orders, that they are inferior forms, but the reality is that many of us use regional forms without being particularly conscious of them. Whether it's the Cockney we was or the Reading he done it, regional dialect is still alive and well, and it has a grammar of its own. The tension comes in establishing its place in relation the grammar of Standard English in the education system.

If one of the key aims of teaching Standard English is to establish a shared, mutually intelligible form of the language for everyone educated in the UK then does having a teaching assistant who uses a local dialect damage the educational opportunities of young people? Probably not. I think an argument that might be effective here is that if we properly study the grammar of both Standard English and regional varieties (and sociolects like slang varieties too) we will learn a great deal more about not just grammar as a system, but also about the history of the language, feelings we have for our own varieties of language and the connections we have to our own communities of practice and social backgrounds.

So, I think it should be argued that neither slang nor dialect should be seen as a threat to the education of young people, but as legitimate and rewarding areas of language study, both of which can help students enrich their understanding of language in all its varieties.


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