Speech in Culture: Speech Is Not Just Talk

Blog #1 in the Phonology Means Nothing and Other Astounding and Very Practical Facts about Speech Sound Disorders Blog Series

For more information about this series, see the Phonology Means Nothing Series welcome page

By Ken Bleile, PhD
February 17, 2020

Speech is more than talking. To see this, think of all the things that either you could not accomplish or you could only accomplish with much greater effort if speech did not exist to convey language. Things that speech facilitates include (yes) talking, but also thinking, being part of a group, and transmitting knowledge from generation to generation.

Talk (Interpersonal Communication)

Talk is how people typically communicate with each other (Carroll, 2008). Stand back and watch a conversation. The mouth of a person opens, emitting a volley of sound. Then the mouth of another person opens and returns a sound volley. As Fillmore (1975) described years ago, the volleys continue, back and forth, back and forth, conveying ideas, memories, and emotions.

Approximately 7,099 different languages exist in the world, a remarkably large number considering they all belong to a single species with the same cognitive system (www.ethnologue.com). In each of these languages, the primary means of communication is the exchange of sound. Many languages have written systems in addition to spoken ones, allowing the translation of speech into graphic mediums. Modern inventions such as the telephone, computer, film, and television have extended the realm of speech to transmission through electricity.

Thought (Intrapersonal Communication)

Speech turned inward conveys thought (Kozulin, 1990). Internal speech and images allow humans to regulate their own behavior, make plans, and reason (Huettig & Harsuiker, 2010). Indeed, sometimes a person does not turn their speech all the way inward and you can hear them muttering, sometimes in whole sentences, though more often in short snatches.

If you introspect, you can mentally overhear speech in your head, perhaps whispering dinner possibilities or planning what you will say to a friend this evening. Or, if you are preparing for an argument you expect with a significant other, the little whisper allows you to play both sides of the projected conflict, a sort of mental script like this:


Mental Script:

Me: You don’t treat me well!

Significant Other: I do too!

Me: We never go out to dinner anymore.

Significant Other: We do too. We went to dinner on your birthday.

Oops. They’re right. Revise the script.


Revised Mental Script:

Me: You don’t treat me well!

Significant Other: I do too.

Me: We never go out to dinner anymore, except on my birthday.

Significant Other: Well, I don’t have much money.

Me: That’s no excuse.

Good! Much better outcome.


You may notice that inner speech requires some mind reading. In the above example, “me” not only plans their own utterances but also mind reads what “Significant Other” likely will reply. The scientific name for this mind-reading trick is theory of mind, which essentially means that we act on the assumption that other people have minds, thoughts, wishes, motivations, etc. just as we do (Firth & Firth, 2005).  

Lastly, you may notice that inner speech takes a person out of the moment in which they live and projects them elsewhere—in the example, “me” projects their self into the future. A goal of many meditation practices is to turn off the inner voice, so a person may experience more of the now (Lazar, Bush, Gollub, Fricchione, Khalsa, & Benson, 2000). It is not easy! To see this, try turning off your inner speech, and look around the room in which you are reading. The voice disappears a few moments but soon returns, a little whisper. You can turn it off again, but for most people, it soon returns, taking you from the moment to other places.

Groups (Intergroup Communication)

For both good and ill, people use speech to form groups and to foster a group identity (Gumperz, 1972). Being a native speaker of a language is a common way people view themselves as belonging to a group. For example, persons born in Spain may group themselves as native Spanish speakers in contrast to those with foreign accents that show they are nonnative Spanish speakers.  

Shared speech characteristics of a dialect offer another means through which people place themselves in groups. In addition to dialects based on regions, people also may share a dialect based on social relationships, called sociolects (Wolfram, 2004). Cockney English is a famous example of a dialect that is both regional and based on social class.

Race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and gender all offer people other ways to build a group identity based on shared speech characteristics. To give just one example, teenagers with similar interests and outlooks may develop a slang (a temporary age and interest-based dialect) to differentiate themselves from those outside their group.

Persons within a dialect group may speak in their dialect with other members of their group and switch dialects when speaking to outsiders, called code switching (Wolfram, 2004).

Sharing a common language, dialect, or style of speaking facilitates cohesion within a group, evoking feelings of pride, shared history, and camaraderie (Trudgill, 1995). More negatively, a group may weaponize speech to exclude, mock, debase, or ridicule another group (Labov, 1972). When a group uses speech as a weapon, the attitude may be, “We are ___ (select a favorite adjective: good, superior, intelligent, moral, hip, etc.) because we speak this way, while you are ___ (select a negative stereotype: stupid, inferior, uneducated, ignorant, bad, etc.) because you speak that way.”

Generations (Intergenerational Communication)

Speech and its written forms are a primary mechanism through which a culture transmits what it considers needful to know from one generation to the next, allowing a person to learn without direct experience. To illustrate, a parent may tell a child not to touch a hot plate, enabling the child to learn about burns without receiving one. In a broader way, cultures do the same. A few of the multitude of things a culture may consider needful to pass on from one generation to the next include ideas about freedom, morality, and thousands of different technologies. Right this moment you are reading an article as a way of passing on knowledge of speech.

Compared to instinct, speech permits change to occur much more quickly. To illustrate, imagine a terrible drought transforms a forest into desert. To survive in this new environment, an imaginary creature that lived entirely based on its instincts would likely need generations for genes mutations to adapt to the new circumstance. For a species that relies on speech and its written forms to transmit information between generations, all it must do is develop new words to describe what is needful to know in the new environment.


Carroll, D. (2008). The psychology of language (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Tomson Delmar.

Fillmore, C. (1975). Santa Cruz lectures on deixis: 1971. Bloomington: Indiana University Linguistics Club.

Firth, C., & Firth, U. (2005). Theory of mind. Current Biology, 17, 644–645.

Gumperz, J. (1972). Language and social identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Huettig, F., & Harsuiker, R. (2010). Listening to yourself is like listening to others: External, but not internal, verbal self-monitoring is based on speech perception. Language and Cognitive Processes, 25, 347–374.

Kozulin, A. (1990). Vygotsky's psychology: A biography of ideas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Labov, W. (1972). Language in the inner city: Studies in the Black English vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lazar, S. Bush, G., Gollub, R. Fricchione, G., Khalsa, G., & Benson, H. (2000). Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. Neuroreport, 15, 1581–1585.

Trudgill, P. (1995). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Penguin.

Wolfram, W. (2004). Social varieties of American English. In E. Finegan & J. R. Rickford (Eds.), Language in the USA: Themes for the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.