- Understand the importance of language.
- Explain the difference between denotative and connotative meaning.
- Understand the techniques of approprate and effective language use.
Ask any professional speaker or speechwriter, and they will tell you that language matters. In fact, some of the most important and memorable lines in American history came from speeches given by American presidents:
It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time (McClure, 1904).
Speak softly and carry a big stick (Roosevelt, 1901).
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself (Roosevelt, 1933).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country (Kennedy, 1961).
John F. Kennedy
We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not when it’s easy, but when it is hard (Obama, 2009).
You don’t have to be a president or a famous speaker to use language effectively. So in this chapter, we’re going to explore the importance of language. First, we will discuss the difference between oral and written language, then we will talk about some basic guidelines for using language, and lastly, we’ll look at six key elements of language.
Oral versus Written Language
When we use the word “language,” we are referring to the words you choose to use in your speech. Therefore, by definition, our focus is on spoken language. Spoken language has always existed prior to written language. Wrench, McCroskey, and Richmond suggested that if you think about the human history of language as a twelve-inch ruler, written language or recorded language has only existed for the “last quarter of an inch” (Wrench, et al., 2008). Furthermore, of the more than six thousand languages that are spoken around the world today, only a few of them use a written alphabet (Lewis, 2009). To help us understand the importance of language, we will first look at the basic functions of language and then delve into the differences between oral and written language.
Basic Functions of Language
Language is any formal system of gestures, signs, sounds, and symbols used or conceived as a means of communicating thought. As mentioned above, there are over six thousand language schemes currently in use around the world. The language spoken by the greatest number of people on the planet is Mandarin; other widely spoken languages are English, Spanish, and Arabic (Lewis, 2009). Language is ultimately important because it is the primary means through which humans can communicate and interact with one another. Some linguists go so far as to suggest that the acquisition of language skills is the primary advancement that enabled our prehistoric ancestors to flourish and succeed over other hominid species (Mayell, 2003).
Language is any formal system of gestures, signs, sounds, and symbols used or conceived as a means of communicating thought.
In today’s world, effective use of language helps us in our interpersonal relationships at home and work. Using language effectively also will improve your ability to be an effective public speaker. Because language is an important aspect of public speaking that many students don’t spend enough time developing, we encourage you to take advantage of this chapter.
One of the first components necessary for understanding language is to understand how we assign meaning to words. Words consist of sounds (oral) and shapes (written) that have agreed-upon meanings based on concepts, ideas, and memories. When we write the word “blue,” we may be referring to a portion of the visual spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nanometers. You could also say that the color in question is an equal mixture of both red and green light. While both of these are technically correct ways to interpret the word “blue,” we’re pretty sure that neither of these definitions is how you thought about the word. When hearing the word “blue,” you may have thought of your favorite color, the color of the sky on a spring day, or the color of an ugly car you saw in the parking lot. When people think about language, there are two different types of meanings that people must be aware of: denotative and connotative.
Denotative meaning is the specific meaning associated with a word. We sometimes refer to denotative meanings as dictionary definitions. The definitions provided above for the word “blue” are examples of definitions that might be found in a dictionary. The first dictionary was written by Robert Cawdry in 1604 and was called Table Alphabeticall. This dictionary of the English language consisted of three thousand commonly spoken English words. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 200,000 words (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Connotative meaning is the idea suggested by or associated with a word. In addition to the examples above, the word “blue” can evoke many other ideas:
- State of depression (feeling blue)
- An indication of winning (a blue ribbon)
- Side during the Civil War (blues vs. grays)
- Sudden event (out of the blue)
We also associate the color blue with the sky and the ocean. Maybe your school’s colors or those of your archrival include blue. There are also various forms of blue: aquamarine, baby blue, navy blue, royal blue, and so on.
Some miscommunication can occur over denotative meanings of words. For example, one of the authors of this book recently received a flyer for a tennis center open house. The expressed goal was to introduce children to the game of tennis. At the bottom of the flyer, people were encouraged to bring their own racquets if they had them but that “a limited number of racquets will be available.” It turned out that the denotative meaning of the final phrase was interpreted in multiple ways: some parents attending the event perceived it to mean that loaner racquets would be available for use during the open house event, but the people running the open house intended it to say that parents could purchase racquets onsite. The confusion over denotative meaning probably hurt the tennis center, as some parents left the event feeling they had been misled by the flyer.
Although denotatively based misunderstanding such as this one does happen, the majority of communication problems involving language occur because of differing connotative meanings. You may be trying to persuade your audience to support public funding for a new professional football stadium in your city, but if mentioning the team’s or owner’s name creates negative connotations in the minds of audience members, you will not be very persuasive. The potential for misunderstanding based on connotative meaning is an additional reason why audience analysis is critically important. By conducting an effective audience analysis, you can know in advance how your audience might respond to the connotations of the words and ideas you present.
Connotative meanings can not only differ between individuals interacting at the same time but can also differ greatly across time periods and cultures. Ultimately, speakers should attempt to have a working knowledge of how their audiences could potentially interpret words and ideas to minimize the chance of miscommunication.
Denotative meaning is the specific meaning associated with a word. We sometimes refer to denotative meanings as dictionary definitions.
Connotative meaning is the idea suggested by or associated with a word.
Twelve Ways Oral and Written Language Differ
A second important aspect to understand about language is that oral language (used in public speaking) and written language (used for texts) does not function in the same way. Try a brief experiment. Take a textbook, maybe even this one, and read it out loud. When the text is read aloud, does it sound conversational? Probably not. Public speaking, on the other hand, should sound like a conversation. McCroskey, Wrench, and Richmond highlighted the following twelve differences that exist between oral and written language:
- Oral language has a smaller variety of words.
- Oral language has words with fewer syllables.
- Oral language has shorter sentences.
- Oral language has more self-reference words (I, me, mine).
- Oral language has fewer quantifying terms or precise numerical words.
- Oral language has more pseudoquantifying terms (many, few, some).
- Oral language has more extreme and superlative words (none, all, every, always, never).
- Oral language has more qualifying statements (clauses beginning with unless and except).
- Oral language has more repetition of words and syllables.
- Oral language uses more contractions.
- Oral language has more interjections (“Wow!,” “Really?,” “No!,” “You’re kidding!”).
- Oral language has more colloquial and nonstandard words (McCroskey, et al., 2003).
These differences exist primarily because people listen to and read information differently. First, when you read information, if you don’t grasp content the first time, you have the ability to reread a section. When we are listening to information, we do not have the ability to “rewind” life and relisten to the information. Second, when you read information, if you do not understand a concept, you can look up the concept in a dictionary or online and gain the knowledge. However, oral communication should be simple enough to be easily understood at the moment by a specific audience, without additional study or information.
Using Language Effectively
When considering how to use language effectively in your speech, consider the degree to which the language is appropriate, vivid, inclusive, and familiar. The next sections define each of these aspects of language and discuss why each is important in public speaking.
Use Appropriate Language
As with anything in life, there are positive and negative ways of using language. One of the first concepts a speaker needs to think about when looking at language use is appropriateness. By appropriate, we mean whether the language is suitable or fitting for ourselves, as the speaker, our audience, the speaking context, and the speech itself.
Appropriate for the Speaker
One of the first questions to ask yourself is whether the language you plan on using in a speech fits with your speaking pattern. Not all language choices are appropriate for all speakers. The language you select should be suitable for you, not someone else. If you’re a first-year college student, there’s no need to force yourself to sound like an astrophysicist even if you are giving a speech on new planets. One of the biggest mistakes novice speakers make is thinking that they have to use million-dollar words because it makes them sound smarter. Actually, million-dollar words don’t tend to function well in oral communication, so using them will probably make you uncomfortable as a speaker. Also, it may be difficult for you or the audience to understand the nuances of meaning when you use such words, so using them can increase the risk of denotative or connotative misunderstandings.
Appropriate for the Audience
The second aspect of appropriateness asks whether the language you are choosing is appropriate for your specific audience. Let’s say that you’re an engineering student. If you’re giving a presentation in an engineering class, you can use language that other engineering students will know. On the other hand, if you use that engineering vocabulary in a public speaking class, many audience members will not understand you. As another example, if you are speaking about the Great Depression to an audience of young adults, you can’t assume they will know the meaning of terms like “New Deal” and “WPA,” which would be familiar to an audience of senior citizens. In other chapters of this book, we have explained the importance of audience analysis; once again, audience analysis is a key factor in choosing the language to use in a speech.
Appropriate for the Context
The next question about appropriateness is whether the language you will use is suitable or fitting for the context itself. The language you may employ if you’re addressing a student assembly in a high school auditorium will differ from the language you would use at a business meeting in a hotel ballroom. If you’re giving a speech at an outdoor rally, you cannot use the same language you would use in a classroom. Recall that the speaking context includes the occasion, the time of day, the mood of the audience, and other factors in addition to the physical location. Take the entire speaking context into consideration when you make the language choices for your speech.
Appropriate for the Topic
The fourth and final question about the appropriateness of language involves whether the language is appropriate for your specific topic. If you are speaking about the early years of The Walt Disney Company, would you want to refer to Walt Disney as a “thaumaturgic” individual (i.e., one who works wonders or miracles)? While the word “thaumaturgic” may be accurate, is it the most appropriate for the topic at hand? As another example, if your speech topic is the dual residence model of string theory, it makes sense to expect that you will use more sophisticated language than if your topic was a basic introduction to the physics.
Appropriate language is when the language is suitable or fitting for ourselves, as the speaker, our audience, the speaking context, and the speech itself.
Use Vivid Language
After appropriateness, the second main guideline for using language is to use vivid language. Vivid language helps your listeners create strong, distinct, clear, and memorable mental images. Good vivid language usage helps an audience member truly understand and imagine what a speaker is saying. Two common ways to make your speaking more vivid are through the use of imagery and rhythm.
Vivid language helps your listeners create strong, distinct, clear, and memorable mental images.
Imagery is the use of language to represent objects, actions, or ideas. The goal of imagery is to help an audience member create a mental picture of what a speaker is saying. A speaker who uses imagery successfully will tap into one or more of the audience’s five basic senses (hearing, taste, touch, smell, and sight). Two common tools of imagery are concreteness and metaphor.
When we use language that is concrete, we attempt to help our audiences see specific realities or actual instances instead of abstract theories and ideas. The goal of concreteness is to help you, as a speaker, show your audience something instead of just telling them. Imagine you’ve decided to give a speech on the importance of freedom. You could easily stand up and talk about the philosophical work of Rudolf Steiner, who divided the ideas of freedom into freedom of thought and freedom of action. If you’re like us, even reading that sentence can make you want to go to sleep.
Instead of defining what those terms mean and discussing the philosophical merits of Steiner, you could use real examples where people’s freedom to think or freedom to behave has been stifled. For example, you could talk about how Afghani women under Taliban rule have been denied access to education, and how those seeking education have risked public flogging and even execution (Iacopino & Rasekh, 1998). You could further illustrate how Afghani women under the Taliban are forced to adhere to rigid interpretations of Islamic law that functionally limit their behavior. As illustrations of the two freedoms discussed by Steiner, these examples make things more concrete for audience members and thus easier to remember. Ultimately, the goal of concreteness is to show an audience something instead of talking about it abstractly.
The other commonly used form of imagery is the metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech where a term or phrase is applied to something in a nonliteral way to suggest a resemblance. In the case of a metaphor, one of the comparison items is said to be the other (even though this is realistically not possible). Let’s look at a few examples:
- Love is a battlefield.
- Upon hearing the charges, the accused clammed up and refused to speak without a lawyer.
- Every year a new crop of activists are born.
In these examples, the comparison word has been italicized. In the second example, the accused “clams up,” which means that the accused refused to talk in the same way a clam’s shell closes. In the third example, we refer to activists as “crops” that arise anew with each growing season, and we use “born” figuratively to indicate that they come into being. We say this metaphor even though it is understood that people are not newborn infants at the time when they become activists.
To use a metaphor effectively, first determine what you are trying to describe. For example, maybe you are talking about a college catalog that offers a wide variety of courses. Second, identify what it is that you want to say about the object you are trying to describe. Depending on whether you want your audience to think of the catalog as good or bad, you’ll use different words to describe it. Lastly, identify the other object you want to compare the first one to, which should mirror the intentions in the second step. Let’s look at two possible metaphors:
- Students groped their way through the maze of courses in the catalog.
- Students feasted on the abundance of courses in the catalog.
While both of these examples evoke comparisons with the course catalog, the first example is more negative and the second is more positive.
One mistake people often make in using metaphors is to create two incompatible comparisons in the same sentence or line of thought. Here is an example:
- “That’s awfully thin gruel for the right wing to hang their hats on” (Nordquist, 2009).
This is known as a mixed metaphor, and it often has an incongruous or even hilarious effect. Unless you are aiming to entertain your audience with a fractured use of language, be careful to avoid mixed metaphors.
Our second guideline for vivid language use in a speech is to use rhythm. When most people think of rhythm, they immediately think about music. What they may not realize is that language is inherently musical. Rhythm refers to the patterned, recurring variance of elements of sound or speech. Whether someone is striking a drum with a stick or standing in front of a group speaking, rhythm is an important aspect of human communication. Think about your favorite public speaker. If you analyze their speaking pattern, you’ll notice that there is a certain cadence to the speech. While much of this cadence is a result of the nonverbal components of speaking, some of the cadence comes from the language that is chosen as well. Let’s examine four types of rhythmic language: parallelism, repetition, alliteration, and assonance.
When listing items in a sequence, audiences will respond more strongly when those ideas are presented in a grammatically parallel fashion, which is referred to as parallelism. For example, look at the following two examples and determine which one sounds better to you:
- “Give me liberty, or I’d rather die.”
- “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Technically, you’re saying the same thing in both, but the second one has better rhythm, and this rhythm comes from the parallel construction of “give me.” The lack of parallelism in the first example makes the sentence sound disjointed and ineffective.
As we mentioned earlier in this chapter, one of the major differences between oral and written language is the use of repetition. Because speeches are communicated orally, audience members need to hear the core of the message repeated consistently. Repetition as a linguistic device is designed to help audiences become familiar with a short piece of the speech as they hear it over and over again. By repeating a phrase during a speech, you create a specific rhythm. Probably the most famous and memorable use of repetition within a speech is Martin Luther King Jr.’s use of “I have a dream” in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. In that speech, Martin Luther King Jr. repeated the phrase “I have a dream” eight times to significant effect.
Another type of rhythmic language is alliteration. Alliteration is repeating two or more words in a series that begin with the same consonant. In the Harry Potter novel series, the author uses alliteration to name the four wizards who founded Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry: Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Salazar Slytherin. There are two basic types of alliteration: immediate juxtaposition and nonimmediate juxtaposition. Immediate juxtaposition occurs when the consonants clearly follow one after the other—as we see in the Harry Potter example. Nonimmediate juxtaposition occurs when the consonants are repeated in nonadjacent words (e.g., “It is the poison that we must purge from our politics, the wall that we must tear down before the hour grows too late”) (Obama, 2008). Sometimes you can use examples of both immediate and nonimmediate juxtaposition within a single speech. The following example is from Bill Clinton’s acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention: “Somewhere at this very moment, a child is being born in America. Let it be our cause to give that child a happy home, a healthy family, and a hopeful future” (Clinton, 2005).
Assonance is similar to alliteration, but instead of relying on consonants, assonance gets its rhythm from repeating the same vowel sounds with different consonants in the stressed syllables. The phrase “how now brown cow,” which elocution students traditionally used to learn to pronounce rounded vowel sounds, is an example of assonance. While rhymes like “free as a breeze,” “mad as a hatter,” and “no pain, no gain” are examples of assonance, speakers should be wary of relying on assonance because when it is overused, it can quickly turn into bad poetry.
Imagery is the use of language to represent objects, actions, or ideas.
Concrete language is language we use to help our audiences see specific realities or actual instances instead of abstract theories and ideas.
A metaphor is a figure of speech where a term or phrase is applied to something in a nonliteral way to suggest a resemblance.
Rhythm refers to the patterned, recurring variance of elements of sound or speech.
Parallelism is used when a speaker is listing items in a sequence using a grammatically parallel fashion.
Repetition is designed to help audiences become familiar with a short piece of the speech as they hear it over and over again.
Alliteration is repeating two or more words in a series that begin with the same consonant.
Assonance gets its rhythm from repeating the same vowel sounds with different consonants in the stressed syllables.
Use Inclusive Language
Language can either inspire your listeners or turn them off very quickly. One of the fastest ways to alienate an audience is through the use of noninclusive language. Inclusive language is language that avoids placing any one group of people above or below other groups while speaking.
Inclusive language is language that avoids placing any one group of people above or below other groups while speaking.
Let’s look at some common problem areas related to language about gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disabilities.
The first common form of noninclusive language is language that privileges one of the sexes over the other. There are three common problem areas that speakers run into while speaking: using “he” as generic, using “man” to mean all humans, and gender-typing jobs.
The generic “he” happens when a speaker labels all people within a group as “he” when in reality there is a mixed-sex group involved. Consider the statement, “Every morning when an officer of the law puts on his badge, he risks his life to serve and protect his fellow citizens.” In this case, we have a police officer that is labeled as male four different times in one sentence. However, both male and female police officers risk their lives when they put on their badges. A better way to word the sentence would be, “Every morning when officers of the law put on their badges, they risk their lives to serve and protect their fellow citizens.” Notice that in the better sentence, we made the subject plural (“officers”) and used neutral pronouns (“they” and “their”) to avoid the generic “he.”
Use of “Man”
Traditionally, speakers of English have used terms like “man,” “mankind,” and (in casual contexts) “guys” when referring to both females and males. In the second half of the twentieth century, as society became more aware of gender bias in language, organizations like the National Council of Teachers of English developed guidelines for nonsexist language (National Council of Teachers of English, 2002). For example, instead of using the word “man,” you could refer to the “human race.” Instead of saying, “hey, guys,” you could say, “OK, everyone.” By using gender-fair language, you will be able to convey your meaning just as well, and you won’t risk alienating parts of your audience.
The last common area where speakers get into trouble with gender and language has to do with job titles. It is not unusual for people to assume, for example, that doctors are male and nurses are female. As a result, they may say “she is a woman doctor” or “he is a male nurse” when mentioning someone’s occupation. We might say statements like this without realizing that the statements “she is a doctor” and “he is a nurse” already inform the listener as to the sex of the person holding that job. Speakers sometimes also use a gender-specific pronoun to refer to an occupation that has both males and females. Table 1: Gender Type Jobs lists some common gender-specific jobs titles along with more inclusive versions of those job titles.
Table 1: Gender Type Jobs
|Exclusive Language||Inclusive Language|
|Mailman||Letter carrier/postal worker|
Another type of inclusive language relates to the categories used to highlight an individual’s ethnic identity. Ethnic identity refers to a group of individuals who identify with each other based on a common culture. For example, within the United States, we have numerous ethnic groups, including Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Japanese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Cuban Americans, and Mexican Americans. As with the earlier example of “male nurse,” avoid statements such as “The committee is made up of four women and a Vietnamese man.” Instead, say, “The committee is made up of four women and a man” or, if race and ethnicity are central to the discussion, “The committee is made up of three European American women, an Israeli American woman, a Brazilian American woman, and a Vietnamese American man.” In recent years, there has been a trend toward steering inclusive language away from broad terms like “Asians” and “Hispanics” because these terms are not considered precise labels for the groups they actually represent. If you want to be safe, the best thing you can do is ask a couple of people who belong to an ethnic group how they prefer to label themselves.
Another area that can cause some problems is referred to as heterosexism. Heterosexism occurs when a speaker presumes that everyone in an audience is heterosexual or that opposite-sex relationships are the only norm. For example, a speaker might begin a speech by saying, “I am going to talk about the legal obligations you will have with your future husband or wife.” While this speech starts with the notion that everyone plans on getting married, which isn’t the case, it also assumes that everyone will label their significant others as either “husbands” or “wives.” Although some members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community will use these terms, others prefer for more gender-neutral terms like “spouse” and “partner.” Notice also that we have used the phrase “members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community” instead of the more clinical-sounding term “homosexual.”
The last category of exclusive versus inclusive language that causes problems for some speakers relates to individuals with physical or mental disabilities. Table 2: Inclusive Language for Disabilities provides some other examples of exclusive versus inclusive language.
Table 2: Inclusive Language for Disabilities
|Exclusive Language||Inclusive Language|
|Handicapped People||Person with a disablity|
|Insane Person||Person with a psychiatric disability (or label the psychiatric diagnosis, e.g. “person with schizophrenia”)|
|Person in a wheelchair||Person who uses a wheelchair|
|Crippled||Person with a physical disability|
|Special needs program||Accessible needs program|
|Mentally retarded||Person with an intellectual disability|
Ethnic identity refers to a group of individuals who identify with each other based on a common culture.
Heterosexism occurs when a speaker presumes that everyone in an audience is heterosexual or that opposite-sex relationships are the only norm.
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