Public Speaking and Writing: Art or Artifice?


By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

What we think of the best language is something which is a latecomer to language. But both written and spoken languages have a level of art or artifice.

A group of figurines representing a group of people listening to a speaker on a podium.
Spoken language, like the language of politics, can be quite different from the written form of the language. (Image: Dontree/Shutterstock)

Jokes and Politics

If you listen to a well-told joke, the joke is not told in the language of a history textbook. If you actually wrote down the joke you would find that it was in short, little phrases. There would also be a lot of clean-ups and hesitations and fragments and run-ons, and yet that’s what makes a joke work.

If you are watching speeches at a political convention, especially in our era, anyone who got up and spoke in paragraphs and chapters would not do very well.

It wouldn’t be considered effective. It wouldn’t go to the gut. It would be hard to sell oneself as a human being with meat and pith using language like that.

The Art of Speaking

It’s the art of spoken language which becomes necessary. It is important to realize that spoken language, while it is simpler in terms of vocabulary and syntactic structure, can also be artful, too.

There are all kinds of song lyrics that a lot of us probably cherish that are very short lines. None of us would want to hear a history textbook set to music. That would not be a hit. We would not listen to it. A history textbook belongs in a school. Songs tend to be written in spoken language.

Person holding a guitar and writing music or a song on a paper.
Though songs may be written down, the language used in them is that of the spoken kind. (Image: panitanphoto/Shutterstock)

You can be artful in spoken language. You can be not artful in spoken language. You could, for example be a public official who can’t rub a noun and a verb together. That can happen.

In the same way, you can write very well. You can also write very badly. You can use written language in a way that the sentences go on way too long, and vocabulary is used of an advanced nature just because the person can.

In other words, these are two different kinds of language, and they can both be used well or badly. But they are very different.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human LanguageWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Advantages of Writing

There are two other things to remember about written language in terms of advantage and disadvantage.

One advantage is that with written language you can deal in long lines of argument, and, therefore, sustained argument, which is much harder in the back-and-forth kind of real-time conversation that actual spoken language is.

For example, you can take a point-by-point argument, complete with corollaries and hesitations and footnotes which cannot be said. That does not work in real life. It is not something that humans came up with spontaneously.

But then there is a cross-fertilization in that once you have that kind of argumentation on paper, such as in works of philosophy or historical analysis, then you can learn to talk that way.

Learn more about sound changes in language.

Powerful Political Speeches

There was a time when a public official could make a speech in a spoken version of the written language of this kind. Susan B. Anthony traveled the country doing an almost Socratic dialogue about giving women their rights. It was based on the kind of argument which you couldn’t make just standing up at a meeting and which you couldn’t make by just stringing short phrases together.

That was something that was good about written language in that it increased the value of political discourse, particularly in a distant day. We tend not to make speeches like that today. There was a time when that was ordinary.

Technology and Writing

However, there is a disadvantage to written language in terms of the technology that allows it. This was less of a problem when it was a matter of writing on paper, and less of a problem when we had gone from that to printing.

But today we have a word processing problem. What I mean by that is that it is very easy to produce writing now, as you have a keyboard with the feather-light touch and the letters are right there. There’s no white-out. There’s no physical effort.

Fingers typing on a light keyboard.
Technology has made writing a very easy task, allowing for quick and easy corrections and changes. (Image: Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

As a result, ever since word processing, books have been getting longer and longer. Bill Clinton’s autobiography, for example, is about 400,000 words long and will be read all the way through by very few people.

In general, there are books of vital political analysis that are so long that they function better as doorstops than as things to read. People tend not to think about how hard it is to read that much material.

In any case, there are the good things, there are the bad things. But it is important to remember that written language is an artifice. It’s something that came along late in the evolution of language.

Common Questions about Public Speaking and Writing

Q. What kind of language is used in jokes?

Jokes generally use short little phrases. There are also a lot of clean-ups and hesitations and fragments and run-ons, and that’s what makes a joke work.

Q. What is the difference in the political language used long ago and now?

The political language in times past could be very complex and structured. But, nowadays, political language is simpler and much more direct.

Q. What is an advantage of written language?

An advantage of written language is that one can deal in long lines of argument. The written language then helps to construct elaborate argumentative spoken language.

Q. How has word processing affected written language?

Since there is comparatively less effort involved in writing on a word processor, books have become very long, and almost too long to read.

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