12.1 What Language Is and Does

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A woman looking into their hand imaginatively holding graphics of a microphone, ink-writing, and a human head figure

“Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order you can nudge the world a little.” -Tom Stoppard

The Ancient Romans who studied and taught rhetoric divided its study and process into five “canons:” invention, disposition, style, memory, and delivery. The term “style” does not refer to clothing styles but language choices. Should a public speaker use very basic language because the audience is unfamiliar with his topic? Or more technical language with many acronyms, abbreviations, and jargon because the audience has expertise in the topic? Or academic language with abstract vocabulary, or flowery, poetic language with lots of metaphors? Perhaps you have never thought about those questions, but they are ones that influence both the clarity of the message as well as the credibility a speaker will gain during the presentation.

However, we would be wrong if we treated language as an “add-on” to the ideas and structure of the speech. Language is a far too complex and foundational aspect of our lives for us to consider it as an afterthought for a speech. In this chapter we will look at how language functions in communication, what standards language choices should meet in public speaking, and how you can become more proficient in using language in public speaking.

Language is any formal system of gestures, signs, sounds, and symbols used or conceived as a means of communicating thought, either through written, enacted, or spoken means. Linguists believe there are far more than 6,900 languages and distinct dialects spoken in the world today (Anderson, 2012). The language spoken by the greatest number of people on the planet is Mandarin (a dialect of Chinese). Other widely spoken languages are English, Spanish, and Arabic. English is spoken widely on every content (thanks to the British Empire) but Mandarin is spoken by the most people. While we tend to think of language in its print form, for most of history and for most of the world, language has been or is spoken, or oral. More than half of spoken languages have not even been put into written form yet (https://www.swarthmore.edu/SocSci/langhotspots/fastfacts.html).

We have already seen in earlier chapters that public speakers have to make adjustments to language for audiences. For example, spoken language is more wordy and repetitive than written language needs to be or should be. It is accompanied by gestures, vocal emphasis, and facial expressions. Additionally, spoken language includes more personal pronouns and more expressive, emotional, colloquial, slang, and nonstandard words.

The study of language is, believe it or not, controversial. If you are an education, social sciences, pre-law, or English major, you will somewhere in your college career come up against this truth. While we use words everyday and don’t think about it, scholars in different fields concern themselves with how we choose words, why we choose words, what effect words have on us, and how the powerful people of the world use words. One theory of language, general semantics, says that meaning resides in the person using the word, not in the word (“Basic Understandings,” 2015). It is helpful for the public speaker to keep this mind, especially in regard to denotative and connotative meaning. Wrench, Goding, Johnson, and Attias (2011) use this example to explain the difference:

When we hear or use the word “blue,” we may be referring to a
portion of the visual spectrum dominated by energy with a wavelength of roughly 440–490 nano-meters. 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 a really 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. (p. 407)

Denotative meaning is the specific meaning associated with a word. We sometimes refer to denotative meanings as dictionary definitions. The [scientific] definitions provided in the first two sentences of the quotation above are examples of definitions that might be found in a dictionary. Connotative meaning is the idea suggested by or associated with a word at a cultural or personal level. In addition to the examples above, the word “blue” can evoke many other ideas:

  • State of depression (feeling blue)
  • Indication of winning (a blue ribbon)
  • Side during the Civil War (blues vs. grays)
  • Sudden event (out of the blue).
  • States that lean toward the Democratic Party in their voting
  • A slang expression for obscenity (blue comedy)
  • In plural form, a genre of music (the blues)

Language is not just something we use; it is part of who we are and how we think. When we talk about language, we have to use words to do so, and language is also hard to separate from who we are. Each of us has our own way of expressing ourselves. Even more, it is almost impossible to separate language from thinking. Many people think the federal government should enact a law that only English is spoken in the United States (in government offices, schools, etc.). This is opposed by some groups because it seems discriminatory to immigrants, based on the belief that everyone’s language is part of their identity and self-definition.

Not only is language about who we are; it is about power or at least is used by powerful people. In fact, some educational and political theorists believe that language is all about power. For instance, euphemisms are often used to make something unpleasant sound more tolerable. In one of the more well-known examples of the use of euphemisms, the government commonly tries to use language to “soften” what many would see as bad. During the Vietnam War, “air support” was invented to cover the real meaning: “bombing.” When you hear air support, you probably think “planes bringing supplies in,” not “bombing.”

Even today, terms like “revenue enhancement” are used instead of “tax increases.” The word euphemism has at its core “eu,” (which is a prefix from Greek meaning “good” or “pleasant”) and “phem” (a root word for speaking). Just as blasphemy is speaking evil about sacred things, “euphemism” is “pleasant speaking about unpleasant things.” We use euphemisms every day, but we have to be careful not to obscure meaning or use them deceptively.

There’s an old saying in debate, “He who defines the terms wins the debate.” In the 1988 election, George H.W. Bush was running against Michael Dukakis, who was the governor of Massachusetts. Vice President Bush was able to stick a label on Dukakis and it stuck, that of “liberal.” He not only labeled Governor Dukakis, but he also defined what “liberal” meant. The word was in disuse after that, and you don’t hear it as much now. The word in use now is “progressive.” Unfortunately, this incident in 1988 politics obscured the fact that the U.S. has always been a “liberal” democratic republic. The word “liberal” has shifted meaning, another trait of language, since meaning exists in the minds of users, not in some protected, never-changing space or form. In the majority of Americans’ minds, “liberal” has become associated with specific political positions rather than a form of government in general.

This example brings up another issue with language: words change meaning over time, or more specifically, the meaning we attached to them changes. “Pretty” used to mean “clever” 250 years ago. “Prevent” meant to “precede,” not to keep from happening. Language is simply not static, as much as we might like it to be. One of the main reasons we find Shakespeare daunting is that so many of the Elizabethan words are either no longer used or they have changed meanings.

With regard to the use of language for power, even unknowingly, feminists in the 1970s argued that the common way we use English language was biased against women. King-sized means “big and powerful,” but “queensized” means “for overweight women.” “Master” was not equivalent to “mistress.” “Madame” has taken on a negative connotation, even though it should have been equivalent to “sir.” Many words referring to women had to add a suffix that was often “less than,” such as “-ess” or “-ette” or “co-ed.” In the last thirty years we have gotten away from that, so that you often hear a female actor referred to as “actor” rather than “actress,” but old habits die hard.

We see another example of power in language in the abortion debate. Prior to 1973, abortions could be obtained legally, to some extent, in three states: California, New York, and Hawaii. After the Roe v. Wade decision in January of 1973, they could, at least theoretically, be obtained in all fifty states. Roe v. Wade did not make abortions legal so much as it made anti-abortion laws illegal or unconstitutional. Practically, the effect was basically the same, but we are often imprecise about language. The people who were against abortion were now on the defensive, and they had to start fighting. It’s generally better to be “pro-”something rather than “anti-”something, so they became “pro-life.” Those favoring abortion rights then automatically became “pro-death.” One side had defined the terms of the debate, and the other had to come up with something comparable. “Pro-choice” takes advantage of the American belief in personal freedoms.

Can you think of how advertisers choose words in a way that is meant to affect your thinking and see an object in different ways? Realtors sell “homes,” not houses. McDonald’s sells “Happy Meals” even though it is essentially the same food they sell that are not “Happy Meals.” As you progress as a public speaker, you will become more aware of the power certain words have over audiences. An ethical communicator will use language in a way that encourages respect for others, freedom of thought, and informed decision making. First, however, a speaker should seek to meet the standards of clarity, effectiveness, appropriateness, and elegance in language, which are discussed in the next section.

Pistol Pete and a crowd of OSU students hold their hands in the air displaying the gesture for "Pistols Firing/Go Pokes."

As the official mascot of Oklahoma State University, Pistol Pete was a cherished figure, always ready to rally the crowd with his infectious Cowboy spirit and colloquial cowboy lingo. However, during one particular international student orientation, Pete found that his cowboy language didn’t always translate as he intended.

Eager to welcome the new students, Pete greeted them with a hearty, “Howdy, partners! Y’all ready to saddle up and ride into the sunset of a great academic journey at OSU?” The crowd responded with a mixture of polite nods and puzzled looks, but there was a palpable sense of confusion among some of the international students unfamiliar with Pete’s cowboy vernacular.

Realizing that his message might not have come across as he intended, Pete decided to take a different approach. He remembered that effective communication was about making sure the message was understood, not just about delivering it.

With a friendly smile, he addressed the crowd again, this time opting for more universal language. “Welcome, everyone! Are you excited to begin your amazing academic journey at OSU?” This time, the crowd responded enthusiastically, their faces lighting up with understanding and appreciation.

However, Pete didn’t want to completely abandon his unique cowboy lingo, as it was a significant part of his identity and the Oklahoma State spirit. So, he decided to incorporate it in a way that would educate and entertain his listeners.

He explained, “In cowboy speak, when we say ‘saddle up,’ we mean get ready, and ‘ride into the sunset’ means to embark on an exciting journey. I know it might sound confusing at first, but don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it in no time!” The students laughed and nodded, appreciating Pete’s effort to include them in the Cowboy culture.

From that day forward, Pistol Pete made sure to balance his cowboy lingo with clear, universal language, especially when addressing diverse crowds. This experience taught him the importance of adjusting his communication to his audience, ensuring that his messages were not just delivered, but also understood and appreciated. Have you ever used colloquialisms or regional expressions that caused confusion or miscommunication? Why is it important to recognize how our language influences the audience’s understanding?

*Pistol Pete scenarios are all based on hypothetical events and were written with the use of Chatgpt and careful editing by Speech Communication faculty. 

This resource is available at no cost at https://open.library.okstate.edu/speech2713/


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