Differences Between Spoken & Written Languages

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson we'll explore the difference between spoken and written languages. Specifically, we'll highlight their ages, permanence of each, structure, and even the way they are treated with different degrees of prestige.

Speaking and Writing

You likely use the same language, like English, when you are speaking with a friend as you use when you write a paper or a letter. This means you might not have noticed the vast differences between your spoken language and your written language other than the acts you perform to produce them. However, the differences are numerous and fascinating. Let's take a look at some of them!

Time and Space

Invention

Time and space are major factors in the difference between speech and writing for several reasons. First, the ages of these two systems are very different. We have no concrete evidence for when spoken language first began, but there are some ideas.

Theories range from the beginning of complex tool production 1.75 million years ago to the more likely period around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago when humans developed the physical and behavioral characteristics favoring speech. Writing, however, only appeared in 3000 BCE when the Sumerians developed the first writing system called cuneiform (wedge-like marks etched on clay tablets).

Cuneiform tablets are the first known form of writing.
cuneiform tablet

Permanence

Another aspect of time and space is permanence. Written words leave a physical record, allowing the writer to communicate with someone across vast distances and even after centuries.

Speech, however, is an ephemeral phenomenon that leaves no trace but in the memory of the speaker and audience (except when the speech acts are recorded, but that is a recent development). This also means that people can reread and analyze written texts but generally cannot do so with spoken communication.

Written communication leaves a physical record to consult at a later date, rather than the impermanence of speech.
writing

Learning

A final dimension of time and space involves learning. Most humans, regardless of the language, begin to speak by their second birthday. They indirectly learn language from infancy. Reading and writing, however, are not indirectly learned and therefore must be formally taught at a time later in their development, though some people never learn and some languages do not have an associated writing system.

Perception and Sophistication

If you think about how you perceive speech and writing, you likely share similar feelings with others in your society. Often, literate societies view written language as more prestigious. Part of this comes from differences in the subject matter.

Writing is used more for academic information like scientific papers or philosophical works, while speech involves more common-sense communication of a day-to-day nature. However, people may perceive writing to be more impersonal and formal, even cold, when compared to speech that involves dynamic interaction and social connection between participants.

Speech is often perceived as more casual and less sophisticated than writing.
Speaking

Part of these perceptions comes from necessity in each type of communication. As a writer's audience is not present, they must be more precise with their meaning. Speakers have the aid of context to make unspoken references and a variety of gestures, timing, tone and volume to convey content not available to written words.

Speakers also engage in dynamic interplay with listeners or co-speakers that gives them immediate feedback on the other party's reaction via interruptions and questions. Often speech, because of this feedback, contains repetition, incomplete sentences, hesitations, and slang. Writers must use formalized structures, punctuation, headings, and other graphical means to convey the same information.

Written language allows the writer to edit the text before presenting it to others.
eraser

Structure and Standardization

Structure and standardization can also differentiate writing from speech. Starting with structure, spoken language's basic unit is a phoneme, a simple sound that has no meaning. Phonemes are combined to make more complex sounds, called morphemes that do possess meaning. We often think of morphemes as words.

Written language, however, can be structured in a few different ways.

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