Spoken English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples

Atakan/Getty Images


The ways in which the English language is transmitted through a conventional system of sounds. Compare to written English.

Spoken English, says linguist David Crystal, is "the more natural and widespread mode of transmission, though ironically the one which most people find much less familiar--presumably because it is so much more difficult to 'see' what is happening in speech than in writing" (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd ed., 2003).

In recent years, linguists have found it easier to "'see' what is happening in speech" through the availability of corpus resources--computerized databases containing "real life" examples of both spoken and written English. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (1999) is a contemporary reference grammar of English based on a large-scale corpus.

The study of speech sounds (or spoken language) is the branch of linguistics known as phonetics. The study of sound changes in a language is phonology.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • Academic Bias Against Spoken English
    "[L]inguists have inevitably had a long-standing and intensive contact with standard English. The nature of standard English as primarily a written variety, together with the immersion of academics in written English, does not augur well for their recognition of structures that may be more typical of spoken English than written English."
    (Jenny Cheshire, "Spoken Standard English." Standard English: The Widening Debate, ed. by Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts. Routledge, 1999)
  • The Relationship Between Spoken and Written English
    "[I]n the course of the language's history, the relationship between spoken and written English has come nearly full circle. Throughout the Middle Ages, written English predominately served transcript functions, enabling readers to represent earlier spoken words or (oral) ceremony, or to produce durable records of events, ideas, or spoken exchange. By the seventeenth century, the written (and printed) word was developing its own autonomous identity, a transformation that matured in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and first half of the twentieth centuries. (However, through at least the end of the nineteenth century, spoken rhetorical skills were also seen as critically important to people with social and educational aspirations.) Since World War II, written English (at least in America) has increasingly come to reflect everyday speech. While writing on-line with computers has hastened this trend, computers didn't initiate it. As writing growingly mirrors informal speech, contemporary spoken and written English are losing their identity as distinct forms of language."
    (Naomi S. Baron, Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It's Heading. Routledge, 2000)
  • Teaching Illiteracy
    "One main danger is that spoken English continues to be judged by the codified standards of written English, and that teaching pupils to speak standard English may, in fact, be to teach them to speak in formal written English. A test of spoken English may become a test of one's abilities to speak a very restricted code--a formal English used routinely by dons, civil servants, and cabinet ministers. It is not very far removed from the language of formal debate. Such a view of spoken English can produce an artificial and unnatural English and can even promote a kind of illiteracy which is as damaging to users of English as not being able to write literate English; for to have everyone speaking and writing only one code--a standard written English code--generates an illiteracy almost as grave as would be the case if everyone were only able to use a local dialect."
    (Ronald Carter, Investigating English Discourse: Language, Literacy, and Literature. Routledge, 1997)
  • Henry Sweet on Spoken English (1890)
    "The unity of spoken English is still imperfect: it is still liable to be influenced by local dialects--in London itself by the cockney dialect, in Edinburgh by the Lothian Scotch dialect, and so on. . . . [I]t changes from generation to generation, and is not absolutely uniform even among speakers of the same generation, living in the same place and having the same social standing."
    (Henry Sweet, A Primer of Spoken English, 1890)
  • The Value of Teaching Spoken English (1896)
    "Not only should English grammar be taught with reference to the nature of language and the history of English, but it should also take account of the spoken, as distinct from the written, form. The reasons for this seem to me many and excellent. For instance, it is a misfortune that the English language makes its appeal to the educated mind, mainly through the written and printed form. The appeal to the ear and the appeal to the eye, which should strengthen one another, are thus distinctly separate and divergent. Our orthography encourages this separation. It is, therefore, the more important that textbooks of grammar should make some attempt to counteract this tendency."
    (Oliver Farrar Emerson, "The Teaching of English Grammar," 1896)
  • The Lighter Side of Spoken English
    "'If Opal's goin' to be a school-teacher, mebbe she wants summat to practice on,' grinned her father.
    "'Oh, Pa, you mustn't say summat--it isn't a word," remonstrated his daughter.
    "'Ain't a word!' shouted her father with increasing excitement. 'Well, hear that! How do you know it ain't a word?'
    "'It isn't in the dictionary,' said Opal.
    "'Shucks,' disparaged Pa, 'what's the dictionary got to do with it? The words that git into the dictionary ain't common talkin' words nohow; they're written words--nobody puts talk into a dictionary.'
    "'Why not?' questioned Opal, astonished at her father's apparent knowledge of the making of dictionaries.
    "'Cause why? Cause spoken words is too lively for 'em--who can go round and keep track of every word that's spoke? I can make up a hull mouthful myself, and no dictionary'll ever know anything about it--see?'"
    (Bessie R. Hoover, "A Graduated Daughter." Everybody's Magazine, December 1909)
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Spoken English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/spoken-english-1691989. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Spoken English. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/spoken-english-1691989 Nordquist, Richard. "Spoken English." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/spoken-english-1691989 (accessed May 29, 2023).