Differences Between Spoken & Written English

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A-level English By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: English » A-level English
Last updated: 29/05/2011
Tags: a-level english, did you know?


What are the main differences between spoken English and written English? Are they the same?


In general I believe that spoken and written English are very different, surprisingly so considering that English is one language. Of course, this does not always apply, and there are many instances where spoken and written English are the same, where the one takes over from the other and where functions and purposes are swapped.

Some differences seem obvious, such as different accents in speaking. A person may speak with a strong regional accent but when writing this is no way detectable unless his or her grammar is very much in keeping with the regional dialect. You may have a writer who will deliberately imitate a dialect or regional accent in order to portray a particular type of person.

Frances Hodgson Burnett did this in her famous children’s story, The Secret Garden,  where the little boy, Dickon,  coming from a Yorkshire farmworkers background, says things like (- talking to a robin - ) ...”...Tha’ knew how to build tha’ nest before tha’ came out o’ th’egg. ...” and, “...Us is near bein’ wild things ourselves...” Dickon and his family speak in this way throughout the book, while the other characters and the narrative itself is in standard English. Clearly, this is Hodgson Burnett’s way of showing a different type of character and in 1911, when the book was first published, it may have been unusual. Today it seems rather dated.

George Bernard Shaw had much more fun in his play “Pygmalion”, where he makes hilarious attempts to imitate the cockney way of speech. “Aaaaaaaaaaaah-ow-ooh!”is one of the famous noises that Shaw tried to reproduce phonetically, which Eliza makes and which actresses can have a good time deciding how to enunciate. But Shaw never goes much into “incorrect” spellings, or “incorrect” grammar, as Hodgson Burnett does, and very occasionally in this play does he use phonetic spelling to denote a particular sound. His portrayal of the cockney accent in Eliza and the other cockney characters is done mainly through the kinds of things they say, rather than a phonetic imitation of the accent. I believe this is a more effective way of showing the accent, as he is also able to portray the social gap to audience and reader alike, which of course is equally central to Shaw’s play.

One important aspect of writing as opposed to speech is that the reader can go at his or her own pace. This also means that repetition is unnecessary, as the reader can always go back and re-read the relevant passage. In good writing therefore there is actually very little repetition as such. In fact, a “good” writer will certainly avoid the repetition of words unless he or she is particularly trying to emphasise a point.

By contrast, in speech we make frequent repetitions, sometimes using the same word again and again. That is why playwrights who directly imitate speech can be so funny: they show up what we actually do - how we actually speak.

Thus, speech is, if you like, “designed” for the moment. It is calculated, cultivated in order to have impact while it is being used, at the very moment of speech, and not twenty years later. Speech, by its very nature, must be listened to at the moment of speaking or be forever lost. Unless it is recorded.

Television and radio have brought a whole new side into the so-called ephemerality of speech, and it is clearly one of the areas which strongly overlap into the durability of the written word. That speech, spontaneous, unrehearsed and flippant, may now be recorded for posterity shows us yet more about the similarities and the differences between the written and spoken word. Just as portentous written words may be pompous, high-falutin and valueless in content and therefore ephemeral in nature, so – we can now judge - are there occasions when the spoken word which is in intention flippant, superficial or joking, may now be seen to contain great and eternal truths. With the recording of spontaneous speech (as, perhaps of chat-shows on TV) we can see that the saying, “many a true word is spoken in jest”  is proven to be true.

All the same, if you listen to the speech of teenagers, you can hear transience in operation. Apart from the fact that they change accents according to whom they are talking, teenagers use words that are recognised by their peers to be the newest and most up-to-date way of saying a thing. The word “wicked” was used from around 1989 to mean wonderful, exciting, extraordinary (instead of its usual meaning of “bad”). Now this use of  “wicked” is already dated.

Newspapers have a life of their own as far as the written word is concerned. They seem to be akin to speech and intended to have a very immediate appeal. Tabloids, as far as I can tell, try to invent as many new words as possible, mainly for purposes of sensationalism. The “quality” newspapers have a less sensationalist attitude towards language, and the better the newspaper, the more standard the English will be. However, throughout all journalism there is some jargon used (journalese), even if only as far as the headlines are concerned – and the jargon might even be incorporated later into standard English.

We all understand a headline like: “Generals on alert as Baghdad shows signs of war jitters” from the Independent. To put this into standard English would require adding an article and a verb at the very least; and yet we don’t doubt that the newspaper column itself will be written in standard English. Headlines are therefore a form of jargon, but a jargon which the general public understands. It is certainly not one that is spoken - except possibly by the journalists themselves.

Variety”is a well-known American weekly newspaper which is written, printed and circulated for show business. It is written carefully in a jargon that nobody but the initiated show business person can understand. (I doubt the paper has a direct appeal to many actors, for example). The paper is there in order to impart information, review and discuss (show) business between those who can understand what amounts almost to a written dialect. Amazingly, it is one of the USA’s most popular weeklies. However to the lay-person, both the headlines and articles alike are almost incomprehensible.

Jargon is, however, an important form of writing. It applies to different professions such as the medical profession, scientists, stockbrokers or psychoanalysts. All professions, businesses even, have their own particular jargon simply because they have interests and knowledge based on one particular subject; and this jargon is more often written rather than spoken.

The law profession, a law unto itself in this respect, has its own written jargon – but intended for lay people. It is a jargon which lay people struggle with and which has been built up over centuries, some say in order to preclude an understanding of it! Lawyers say though, that the legal jargon written into documents has to have a particular form in order to be legally binding and secure. The document has to be specific so as not to be taken two ways and the method of achieving this can be roundabout. Another thing is that effectively no commas, colons or semi-colons may be used in legal documents, only full-stops with their capitals after, and new paragraphs. This is, they say, to avoid mistakes. The language in a legal document has to have so precise a meaning that with or without punctuation (excepting full-stops) it must remain exact and not be in any way open to interpretation. Therefore if a typist or copier (or indeed a dissembler) leaves out some punctuation mark by “mistake”, the meaning should remain intact.

Another obvious aspect of the written word as opposed to speech is that language is on the whole more formal when written than when spoken. We do not normally have colloquialism, or the same quantity of abbreviation in writing as we do in speech. Conversely, sometimes words that are used acceptably in writing are words that would never be used in spoken language, except perhaps as a joke. John Le Carré has a sentence in his “The Russia House” : “... Both attested to his high spirits and relaxed manner.”  Le Carré is here indicating the character of the narrator who, while being a little stuffy, is also possibly saying this tongue-in-cheek. The author also shows, with the word “attested”, an example of a verb that would almost never be spoken; a verb that could be more easily used in the past, at arms length, because of its formal and antiquated nature. “I attest to his high spirits”, would be a laughable phrase if spoken, and would probably only be spoken as a joke.

Another reason for the formality in writing as opposed to speech may be due largely to the fact that it is to be read  -  slowly or quickly - at the reader’s pace; to be mulled over if necessary and, at times pored over and studied. This tends to create a need in the writer to ensure that any momentary, “fashionable” word, or anything that could give offence if viewed over the long term, is removed. People are generally much more offended by the written word that says things they don’t like, than by the controversial spoken word. The permanence of the written word gives it greater durability and therefore a greater long-term strength. A criticism, or a telling-off is always much harder to cope with if written rather than spoken. And for this reason writing tends to be more thought out, more formal, less spontaneous; the reactions to it are also slower, more calculated, less ephemeral.

Also, although writing addresses a potentially worldwide audience, it is an audience which is anonymous in character. Speech, on the other hand is intended on the whole for people whom one knows: the listener has been taken into account before the speaker speaks. But it can be alarming to notice that one can speak to one person in one particular way, and to another person in quite a different manner. With writing this can never be. The author is stuck with the particular aspect of his or her personality that he or she has chosen to portray to the readers, whoever they may be.

An important aspect of speech is that we are always abbreviating words, making them follow on, end to end. Instead of saying “we are”, we say “we’re”. Instead of “you will”, “you’ll”. Sometimes you find gross grammatical errors in speech which, even if not acceptable, are comprehensible. The words, “...I am beginning to see something...” could, in speech be followed by the totally incorrect phrase of  “...that’s more than I am.” – and be perfectly understood. Written, it however presents a glaring lapse in syntax, if not grammar!

There are several “effects” in speech that are not in any way present in the written word unless, as with plays, they are specifically asked for. These are the gaps and pauses occurring between sentences, phrases and even words which are normal in speech. When we speak we don’t always think very carefully as to how we say a thing. (The more thoughtful a person is the more careful he or she will be as to how a thing is said.) Therefore speech is on the whole a spontaneous activity. Because of this we may also be unprepared not only for what the response may be, but also for what we ourselves are saying. The gaps come because of this unpreparedness. Pauses can also occur because of a lack of anything to say, which of course would never present itself in writing!

Another important aspect of speech is the way in which one says a thing. A great deal can be understood from inflection, intonation and hand gestures. A sentence reading “Last night my grandfather’s false teeth were stolen” gains a different meaning when the stress is changed on each word in turn (ie: Last night my grandfather’s false teeth were stolen; last night my grandfather’s... ; last night my grandfather’s false.. etc. etc..). These different meanings can only be shown in speech and disappear in writing. This illustrates one of the limitations of writing which can only partially be made up for by punctuation, underlinings, italics and so on.

However, the fact that one sentence may be understood in many different ways is also illustrative of the power of the written word: its flexibility of meaning.

One of the great joys of reading a book that one has read many years before, can be that one’s understanding of the book not only seems greater, but is also different. In other words, the differing interpretations of what is written down by great writers is an integral part of the greatness of their writing.

I once saw the actor Michael Bryant recite a Shakespeare sonnet. Afterwards there was a talk about the period of history and later the same sonnet was read again by the same actor. Each time he recited the poem, Bryant gave it a different meaning. Naturally the meanings cannot have been opposing, but the reading was so strikingly changed the second time around as to make it seem almost a different sonnet  - and yet the words were the same! Because of his inflection, intonation and gestures even, the actor had been able to turn the meaning around. This was great writing transformed into the spoken word.

A world-renowned playwright was known to have said to an actor who had taken the main part in one of his plays that he (the playwright) had had no idea that the character contained such depths until he had seen this actor play the part. Even the writer had not been aware what his own words contained until they were spoken and given the inflections, stresses, gestures and enunciations that particular actor had chosen to bring out.

P.Trudgill says in his book “Sociolinguistics”, that “language is not simply a means of communicating information... It is also a very important means of establishing and maintaining relationships with other people.”  He is talking here about spoken language, although letter-writing can be another obvious way of maintaining a personal relationship through the written word.

Often, when I go up my road, I see a neighbour and we talk about the weather. I actually know little about this neighbour, but the fact that we frequently exchange a word or two about the weather means that we have some kind of a “relationship”. The words themselves are of little or no consequence. It is the speaking of the words that in this case is important.

In the main, therefore, spoken language is used in order to maintain relationships of one kind or another - communicating to that purpose. Written language on the other hand, is used to present ideas. This is not to say that spoken language does not present ideas, or that written language does not further relationships; only that those are their main functions. One could also argue that the furtherance of ideas is also the furtherance of relationships, that the two are inextricably linked. I would agree, but then I believe that both the written and spoken language, with all the differences and similarities, are both part of a whole communication within society, between the various members, a communication which is there, ideally, to produce both better ideas and better relationships inside itself and out, towards other societies.

Susan Brandt Dyslexia Tutor (North West London)

About The Author

As a highly qualified Dyslexia specialist, with over 20 years tutoring literacy, motivation difficulties, dyslexia, dyspraxia, aspergers and mild autism, I have had successes at all levels! Students gain confidence to find that learning can be fun.

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