Chapter 3: Verbal Communication
3.2 Defining Verbal Communication
When people ponder the word communication, they often think about the act of talking. We rely on verbal communication to exchange messages with one another and develop as individuals. The term verbal communication often evokes the idea of spoken communication, but written communication is also part of verbal communication. Reading this book you are decoding the authors’ written verbal communication in order to learn more about communication. Let’s explore the various components of our definition of verbal communication and examine how it functions in our lives.
Verbal communication is about language, both written and spoken. In general, verbal communication refers to our use of words while nonverbal communication refers to communication that occurs through means other than words, such as body language, gestures, and silence. Both verbal and nonverbal communication can be spoken and written. Many people mistakenly assume that verbal communication refers only to spoken communication. However, you will learn that this is not the case. Let’s say you tell a friend a joke and he or she laughs in response. Is the laughter verbal or nonverbal communication? Why? As laughter is not a word we would consider this vocal act as a form of nonverbal communication. For simplification, the box below highlights the kinds of communication that fall into the various categories. You can find many definitions of verbal communication in our literature, but for this text, we define verbal communication as an agreed-upon and rule-governed system of symbols used to share meaning. Let’s examine each component of this definition in detail.
|Verbal Communication||Nonverbal Communication|
|Oral||Spoken Language||Laughing, Crying, Coughing, etc.|
|Non-Oral||Written Language/Sign Language||Gestures, Body Language, etc.|
A System of Symbols
Symbols are arbitrary representations of thoughts, ideas, emotions, objects, or actions used to encode and decode meaning (Nelson & Shaw, 2002). Symbols stand for or represent, something else. For example, there is nothing inherent about calling a cat a cat.
English speakers have agreed that these symbols (words), whose components (letters) are used in a particular order each time, stand for both the actual object, as well as our interpretation of that object. This idea is illustrated by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richard’s triangle of meaning. The word “cat” is not the actual cat. Nor does it have any direct connection to an actual cat. Instead, it is a symbolic representation of our idea of a cat, as indicated by the line going from the word “cat” to the speaker’s idea of “cat” to the actual object.
Symbols have three distinct qualities: they are arbitrary, ambiguous, and abstract. Notice that the picture of the cat on the left side of the triangle more closely represents a real cat than the word “cat.” However, we do not use pictures as language, or verbal communication. Instead, we use words to represent our ideas. This example demonstrates our agreement that the word “cat” represents or stands for a real cat and our idea of a cat. The symbols we use are arbitrary and have no direct relationship to the objects or ideas they represent. We generally consider communication successful when we reach agreement on the meanings of the symbols we use (Duck, 1994).
Not only are symbols arbitrary, they are ambiguous because they have several possible meanings. Imagine your friend tells you she has an apple on her desk. Is she referring to a piece of fruit or her computer? If a friend says that a person he met is cool, does he mean that person is cold or awesome? The meanings of symbols change over time due to changes in social norms, values, and advances in technology. You might be asking, “If symbols can have multiple meanings then how do we communicate and understand one another?” We are able to communicate because there are a finite number of possible meanings for our symbols, a range of meanings which the members of a given language system agree upon. Without an agreed-upon system of symbols, we could share relatively little meaning with one another.
A simple example of ambiguity can be represented by one of your classmates asking a simple question to the teacher during a lecture where she is showing PowerPoint slides: “Can you go to the last slide please?” The teacher is half way through the presentation. Is the student asking if the teacher can go back to the previous slide? Or does the student really want the lecture to be over with and is insisting that the teacher jumps to the final slide of the presentation? Chances are the student missed a point on the previous slide and would like to see it again to quickly take notes. However, suspense may have overtaken the student and they may have a desire to see the final slide. Even a simple word like “last” can be ambiguous and open to more than one interpretation.
The verbal symbols we use are also abstract, meaning that words are not material or physical. A certain level of abstraction is inherent in the fact that symbols can only represent objects and ideas. This abstraction allows us to use a phrase like “the public” in a broad way to mean all the people in the United States rather than having to distinguish among all the diverse groups that make up the U.S. population. Similarly, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series, wizards and witches call the non-magical population on earth “muggles” rather than having to define all the separate cultures of muggles. Abstraction is helpful when you want to communicate complex concepts in a simple way. However, the more abstract the language, the greater potential there is for confusion.
Verbal communication is rule-governed. We must follow agreed-upon rules to make sense of the symbols we share. Let’s take another look at our example of the word cat. What would happen if there were no rules for using the symbols (letters) that make up this word? If placing these symbols in a proper order was not important, tac, tca, act, or atc could all mean cat. Even worse, what if you could use any three letters to refer to cat? Or still worse, what if there were no rules and anything could represent cat? Clearly, it’s important that we have rules to govern our verbal communication. There are four general rules for verbal communication, involving the sounds, meaning, arrangement, and use of symbols.
Case In Point: Sounds and Letters – A Poem for English Students
When in English class we speak,
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it’s true
That we say sew, but also few?
When a poet writes a verse
Why is horse not rhymed with worse?
Beard sounds not the same as heard
Lord sounds not the same as word
Cow is cow, but low is low
Shoe is never rhymed with toe.
Think of nose and dose and lose
Think of goose, but then of choose.
Confuse not comb with tomb or bomb,
Doll with roll, or home with some.
We have blood and food and good.
Mould is not pronounced like could.
There’s pay and say, but paid and said.
“I will read”, but “I have read”.
Why say done, but gone and lone –
Is there any reason known?
To summarize, it seems to me
Sounds and letters disagree.
–Based on a poem written by Lord Cromer, Spectator, August 9, 1902
- Phonology is the study of speech sounds. The pronunciation of the word cat comes from the rules governing how letters sound, especially in relation to one another. The context in which words are spoken may provide answers for how they should be pronounced. When we don’t follow phonological rules, confusion results. One way to understand and apply phonological rules is to use syntactic and pragmatic rules to clarify phonological rules.
Communication Now: Look It Up
We all know we can look up words in the dictionary, such as Webster’s Dictionary. When we do this, we are looking up the Denotative Meaning of words. However, given that there are so many Connotative Meanings of words, we now have a resource to look up those meanings as well. Urban Dictionary is a resource for people to find out how words that have certain denotative meanings are used connotatively. Go ahead, give it a try!
- Semantic rules help us understand the difference in meaning between the word cat and the word dog. Instead of each of these words meaning any four-legged domestic pet, we use each word to specify what four-legged domestic pet we are talking about. You’ve probably used these words to say things like, “I’m a cat person” or “I’m a dog person.” Each of these statements provides insight into what the sender is trying to communicate. The Case in Point, “A Poem for English Students,” not only illustrates the idea of phonology, but also semantics. Even though many of the words are spelled the same, their meanings vary depending on how they are pronounced and in what context they are used. We attach meanings to words; meanings are not inherent in words themselves. As you’ve been reading, words (symbols) are arbitrary and attain meaning only when people give them meaning. While we can always look to a dictionary to find a standardized definition of a word or its denotative meaning, meanings do not always follow standard, agreed-upon definitions when used in various contexts. For example, think of the word “home.” The denotative definition of the word is a dwelling or structure/ where you live. However, connotative meanings, the meanings we assign based on our experiences and beliefs, are quite varied. The connotation is the associated or thoughts and feelings that accompany and define the relationship to the word. For example, again applying the word “home”. This word has many connotations based on your relationship to the word and how you are affected by the use of the word. If asked to explain of “define” what a home is, you may say where your family is or a safe place. These ideas are the connotative expression and not the literal definition of the word. Think about how other words have positive or negative connotations. One consideration is the use of euphemisms in our language. A euphemism is a more politically or socially acceptable use of a word. We often use euphemisms to disguise the negative emotions surrounding language in a way that is socially agreed upon. You can think about how poor people may be referred to as “economically disadvantaged” or how “restroom” may be the most polite use of the term in polite or professional conversation.
- Syntactics is the study of language structure and symbolic arrangement. Syntactics focuses on the rules we use to combine words into meaningful sentences and statements. We speak and write according to agreed-upon syntactic rules to keep meaning coherent and understandable. Think about this sentence: “The pink and purple elephant flapped its wings and flew out the window.” While the content of this sentence is fictitious and unreal, you can understand and visualize it because it follows syntactic rules for language structure.
- Pragmatics is the study of how people actually use verbal communication. For example, as a student, you probably speak more formally to your professors than to your peers. It’s likely that you make different word choices when you speak to your parents than you do when you speak to your friends or even colleagues at work. Slang tends to be more generational and reflects a constantly evolving use of language. Words that are identified as slang are sometimes adapted and added each year to the dictionary due to their necessity in our current culture. Over 500 words have been added to the dictionary to reflect how technology is changing the language. Some examples include “sexting”, “vaping”, and “photobombing”. To see a complete list of new words making it into the dictionary, you can read the article published in WIRED in 2015 (Collins). Others are abandoned for more timely use. Think of how words like “neat” or “cool’ have been replaced by “dope”, “fleak”, or “chill”. Another specialized (often technical) use of language usually deferred to in professional settings or within co-cultures is jargon. You may recognize the use of jargon from watching medical dramas on TV or trying to follow along with an IT specialist while you fix your computer. Jargon can also be used within skill sets. I’m sure that some of you may identify as “gamers” and you recognize that there is a different language used in this context. These differences illustrate the pragmatics of our verbal communication. Even though you use agreed-upon symbolic systems and follow phonological, syntactic, and semantic rules, you apply these rules differently in different contexts. Each communication context has different rules for “appropriate” communication. We are trained from a young age to communicate “appropriately” in different social contexts.
A barrier to understanding language may be the addition of an accent or the use of regionalisms. A regionalism is a geographically influenced language use from a particular region. While Americans, British, and Australians all speak English as a language, the differences in accent and region create differences in the way words are pronounced. We can see regionalisms on a smaller scale by looking at how pronunciation changes by region within the United States. You may think about whether you refer to a carbonated drink as “pop”, “soda”, or a “coke”. Are you using a shopping cart or a “buggy”? What other regionalisms can you think of as you have traveled or met people from the northeast, south, or midwest?
It is only through an agreed-upon and rule-governed system of symbols that we can exchange verbal communication in an effective manner. Without agreement, rules, and symbols, verbal communication would not work. The reality is after we learn a language in school, we don’t spend much time consciously thinking about all of these rules, we simply use them. However, rules keep our verbal communication structured in ways that make it useful for us to communicate more effectively.