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What Is Spoken Language?

By J.E. Holloway
Updated May 23, 2024
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Spoken language is a form of communication in which people uses the mouth to create recognizable sounds. These sounds come from a large vocabulary of sequences of sounds with agreed-upon meanings. These sequences of sounds are called words, and each represents one or more objects or concepts. A shared grammar and syntax allow the speaker to form these words into statements which listeners will be able to understand.

The origins of spoken language remain unclear, although they are the subject of ongoing research by anthropologists. Skeletal evidence suggests that early hominids used some form of vocal communication, but it is not certain when this first became complex enough to be considered spoken language. Vocal communication occurs in many species of animals, from birds to cetaceans, but this communication does not appear to possess the grammar and vocabulary which would qualify it as a language. A 2006 study in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America suggests that the anatomy for speech developed in humans approximately 100,000 years ago. The development of written language is extremely difficult to trace in either the archaeological or fossil record because, unlike written language, it leaves no physical trace.

Spoken language is not the only form of human communication. Written language conveys meaning through the use of writing, in which visual symbols correspond to the meanings and sounds of words. Many languages have both a written and a spoken form, although there are a number of languages which have a spoken form but no written form. For example, the Mosuo, an ethnic group who live near Lugu Lake in China's Yunnan Plateau, have an indigenous language which is only spoken. The reverse is much rarer, although some ancient languages, like Latin, have spoken forms which are basically extinct while their written forms have survived in the archaeological record.

While spoken language uses sound to convey meaning and written language uses images, sign language uses the movement of the body to communicate. Modern sign languages developed from systems intended to communicate between people who could not use spoken language, either because their hearing or speech were impaired or because cultural factors prevented them from speaking. This was the case among medieval monks, who used signs to communicate during periods when they were not permitted to speak. One theory of the origin of language, the gestural theory, suggests that languages based on gestures actually predate the origin of spoken language.

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Discussion Comments
By OeKc05 — On Sep 16, 2011

It’s astounding how many different accents can be found within one spoken language. English is spoken in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia, but each country has put their own twist on the sound of it.

Also, within countries, you have several accents from various regions. The southern U.S. speaks differently than the northern part, and certain places like Boston and Brooklyn have distinct accents associated with people who live there.

In the UK, you have what is considered proper English, and then you have the Cockney form. The latter is associated with the working class, while proper English is spoken among the royals and the wealthy.

By indemnifyme — On Sep 16, 2011

@sunnySkys - That is very true. There are also a lot of differences in written language too!

I find it interesting that languages made with gestures might predate spoken language. I wonder why none of these gesture languages survived though! It seems like they would be quite handy for situations like hunting when silence is necessary.

By sunnySkys — On Sep 16, 2011

I'm always amazed at the differences between different spoken languages. There are some languages, such as the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish) that sound so similar. But other languages, such as English and Japanese, sound so completely different from one another.

For example, there are certain sounds that are made in one language and not another. I think there is a language in Africa where clicking sounds are made as part of speech. There is no equivalent to this in English!

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