Topic 1C – Language as communication: oral language and written language. Factors that define a communicative situation: transmitter, receiver, functions and context.

Topic 1C – Language as communication: oral language and written language. Factors that define a communicative situation: transmitter, receiver, functions and context.


Traditionally, theories of language have concentrated on the study of its different components in isolation, such as grammar, semantics, phonology, seeing language as a system that included all of them. However, when language is first acquired in childhood, is merely by means of communicating with the people around. In this sense, new approaches in the last third of the 20th C, paid attention to language as communication.

We, as human beings, need to communicate, and as most of us live in a literary society, we normally use oral and written language to transmit or receive information. As far as oral communication is concerned, most human beings speak using oral language in order to exchange information and interact with other people, but the use of oral language entails the knowledge of certain particular elements, norms, routines, formulae and strategies that are put into work when we are in conversations.

On the other hand, writing and reading require formal instruction, and children face a series of difficulties when learning these skills, because they have to comfort oral to written discourse, adapting rules, learning spelling, dividing speech chains into chunks called words, etc.

However, learning to write and read is probably the most fundamental step in education, because is the basis for future instruction and access to many fields of knowledge. In this unit, we are going to review the main characteristics of oral and written language, and then we will analyse the factors that define a communicative situation, namely the sender and the receiver of the message, the functionality and the context.


Among all the communication codes which are used by human beings (music, kinesics, sign language), written and oral language is the most efficient for the transmission and reception of information, thoughts, feelings and opinions. In addition, these linguistic codes are exclusively human and make us distinct from animals. But written and oral language are different processes: whereas we learn to write through a formal instruction, speaking and listening come naturally along different stages of the child´s evolution.

Therefore we can say that oral language comes first in our history as individuals. Therefore, speech and writing are not alternative processes, but rather we must consider them counterparts: all oral language should have a good representative system in a written form.

From a psychological point of view, oral communication is a two-way process in which both speaker (encoder) and hearer (decoder) must be present in the same situational context at a particular time and place (unless we talk about special cases of oral communication such as phone conversations). The functions of oral communication are, as we said before, to communicate or exchange our ideas or to interact with other people. Unlike written communication, in oral interaction we can monitor the reactions of the hearer through the feedback so that we can our speech in the course of the communication, as well as use different linguistic and non-linguistic features (gesturing, intonation…) to make our messages clearer. However, as it takes place in a particular place and time, the interlocutors have to make their contributions at a high speed, without much time to think, unlike writing.

Along history, the study of spoken language has not much tradition, unlike written language, due to several reasons:

– it was considered a secondary type of language as it was not reserved only to cultivate people.

– unlike written language, there was a lack of permanent records of oral language during our past history.

– it presents more mutability in the understanding and interpretation of what it is said than in written lg.

Halliday was among the first linguists to study oral language, saying that it was not a formless and featureless variety of written language. Since then, there has been an increasing interest to which it has contributed the inventions of audio, video and computer devices. In oral communication, we distinguish two different types:

Prepared speech The formal setting is organised as writing (syntax, lexis & discourse organisation) It is memorised or written down before (lectures, speech, oral poetry)

Spontaneous speech Speaker has not thought or memorised the message beforehand. It may present inaccuracies, hesitations, silences and mistakes

As spontaneous speech is the main form of oral communication, and directly reflects real communication processes with different demands and situations, and prepared speech does not allow for feedback and monitoring, the analysis and study of oral communication should concentrate on spontaneous speech, where the negotiation of meaning plays an important role for the communication purpose to be correctly achieved.

But because of its pervasive and everyday nature, its scientific study has proved particularly complex. It has been difficult to obtain acoustically clear, natural samples of spontaneous conversation, especially of its more informal varieties. When samples have been obtained, the variety of topics, participants, and social situations which characterise conversation have made it difficult to determine which aspects of the behaviour are systematic and rule-governed.


Linguistic elements

STRESS When we talk we have to bare in mind there is a regular distribution of accents along words and sentences. However, if we want to give special emphasis to a particular word or phrase, we change that regular pattern of stress and accent in order to make more prominent what we want.

RHYTHM It is the relationship we make between accents (chunks of words) and silences. Rhythm can range from very monotonous one (in quick or prepared speech) to rhythm with contrasts in order to give expressiveness and sense to our speech. Pauses are also important, because sometimes are made to divide grammatical units and other times are unpredictable and caused by hesitations.

INTONATION is the falling and rising of voice during speech. Any departure from what it is considered “normal” intonation shows special effects and expresses emotions and attitudes. Normally, falling tones show conclusion and certainty, whereas rising tones may show inconclusion or doubt (I´ll do it / I´ll do it… )

Paralinguistic elements

We cannot consider oral verbal communication without remembering that the whole body takes part. In fact, many times, a person can express sympathy, hostility or incredulity by means of body and facial gestures. This “body language” is normally culturally related & is learnt the same way as verbal behaviour is learnt, although it allows for spontaneity and creativity: we use head, face, hands, arms, shoulders, fingers…

Other linguistic features that characterise conversational language are:

Speed of speech is relatively rapid; there are many assimilations & elisions of letters; compressions of auxiliary sequences (gonna); it can be difficult to identify sentence boundaries in long loose passages; informal discourse markers are common ( you know, I mean); great creativity in the vocabulary choice, ranging from unexpected coinage (Be unsad) to use of vague words (thingummy).

2.2. RULES

When we use language, we do not only utter grammatically correct sentences, but we know where, when and to whom we are addressing our utterances. This is the reason why a speaker needs to know not only the linguistic and grammatical rules of a language (Chomsky´s linguistic competence) or rules of usage, but also how to put into effect these rules in order to achieve effective communication, so that we also need to be familiar with rules of use.

Rules of usage In order to produce and understand messages in a particular language we need to be familiar with:

PHONOLOGY We need to know the organisation, characteristics and patterns of sounds to communicate.

MORPHOLOGY We need to know the word formation rules and types of combinations of bases & affixes.

SYNTAX We need to know how words are put together to form sentences and which are their relationships.

SEMANTICS We need to know how words can be combined to produce the meaning we want or to understand the meaning expressed by others, even if it is nonliteral, methaporical or anomalous.

Rules of use To be communicatively efficient, we need to show our linguistic competence in real speech through:

APPROPRIATENESS or knowledge of what type of language suits best in a given situation, taking into account the context with its participants and their social relationships, the setting, the topic, the purpose..

COHERENCE or ability to organise our messages in a logical and comprehensible way to transmit meaning.

COHESION or capacity to organise and structure utterances to facilitate interpretation by means of endophoras and exophoras ( references to linguistic & situational contexts), repetitions, ellipsis…


Man´s ability to be creative with language is something obvious, but there are times when we choose how, when and why not to be creative, to repeat what has been said or heard many times, often in exactly the same form. Linguistic routines are fixed utterances which must be considered as single units to understand their meaning, and they are of a learned character (Hi! familiar or empty How do you do?), the process through which we acquire ritual competence being perhaps the most important socialisation we make of language.

Understanding routines & formulae require shared cultural knowledge because they are generally metaphorical in nature and must be interpreted at a non-literal level. People are often quite opposed to routines, formulae and rituals because they are meaningless and depersonalise our ideas, because literal semantic value is largely irrelevant. Some typical routines and habitual formulae are used in funeral condolences, religious ceremonies, weddings, graduation ceremonies…


Particular attention has been paid to the markers of conversational turns: how people know their turn to speak. In formal dialogue, there are often explicit markers, showing that a speaker is about to talk; in debate, the person in the chair more or less controls speakers´ turns. In conversation, however, the cues are more subtle, involving variations in the melody, rhythm, and speed of speech, and in patterns of eye movement.

When people talk in a group, they look at and away from their listeners in about equal proportions, but when approaching the end of what they have to say, they look at the listeners more steadily, and in particular maintain closer eye contact with those they expect to continue the conversation. A listener who wishes to be the next speaker may indicate a desire to do so by showing an increase in bodily tension, such as by leaning forward or audibly drawing in breath. In addition, there are many explicit indications, verbal and non-verbal, that a speaker is coming to an end (Last but not least…), wishes to pass the conversational ball (What do you think?, staring to someone), wishes to join in (Could I just say that…), leave (Well, that is all…), change the topic (Speaking of Mary…), or check on listeners´ attention or attitude (Are you with me?).

The subject-matter is an important variable, with some topics being “safe” in certain social groups (in Britain, the weather, pets, children, and the locality), others more or less “unsafe” (religious and political beliefs, questions of personal income such as How much do you earn¿). There are usually some arbitrary divisions: for example, in Britain, it is polite to comment o the taste and presentation of a meal, but usually impolite to enquire after how much it cost.

In Grice´s view, we cooperate in a conversation in order to produce a rational and efficient exchange of information, so that to reach a good final result in a communicative process, we apply 4 cooperative principles or maxims:

Maxim of quality: Our contributions have to be sincere, believing what we say & avoiding things we lack evidence of

Maxim of quantity: We should make our contributions as briefly, orderly & informative as required for the exchange.

Maxim of relevance: An utterance has to be relevant with respect to the stage the conversation has reached.

Maxim of manner: Which concerns the manner of expression (avoiding obscurity, ambiguity…).


Written communication is a type of communication, and as such, its main purpose is to express ideas and experiences or exchange meanings between individuals with a particular system of codes, which is different to that used in oral communication. In written communication, the encoder of the message is the writer and the decoder and interpreter of the message is the reader, and many times, this interpretation does not coincide with the writer´s intended meaning.

When we write, we use graphic symbols, which relate to the sounds we make when we speak. But writing is much more than the production of graphic symbols, just as speech is more than the production of sounds: these symbols have to be arranged, according to certain conventions, to form words, and words to form sentences. These sentences then have to be ordered and linked together in certain ways, forming a coherent whole called text.

Since classical times, there have been two contradictory approaches to speech and writing: firstly, the view that writing is the primary and speech the secondary medium, because writing is more culturally significant and lastingly valuable than speech; and secondly, the view that speech is primary and writing secondary because speech is prior to writing both historically and in terms of a child´s acquisition of language. But leaving aside this dichotomy, the first thing we must notice is that speech and writing are not alternative processes: speech comes first, but writing demands more skill and practice, and they have different formal patterns.

Most important of all, however, is that written and spoken language are counterparts: a writing system should be capable of representing all the possible wordings of a person´s thoughts. This implies that both systems could be regarded as the two sides of the same coin.

From a psychological point of view, writing is a solitary activity, the interlocutor is not present, so we are required to write on our own, without the interaction or the help of the feedback usually provided in oral communication. That is why we have to compensate for the absence of some linguistic features which help to keep communication going on in speech, such as prosody and paralinguisic devices such as gesturing, intonation, etc. Our texts are interpreted by the reader alone, and we cannot monitor his or her reactions, unlike the speaker: we have to sustain the whole process of communication and to stay in contact with our reader through words alone, and this is why we must be very clear and explicit about our intentions when we write.

However, not all the acvantages are on the side of the oral communication: in writing, we normally have time to think about what we are trying to express, so that we can revise it and re-write it, if need be, and the reader, to understand a text, can also read and re-read it as many times as wanted.


There are some features characteristic of written language, but this should not be taken to imply that there´s a well-delimited dividing line between writing and speech. However, the extend to which each of them makes use of different resources is directly related to the nature of the two channels: speech is the language of immediate communication, and writing is a type of communication with a distance in between. This is the reason why written texts present the following formal elements:

Linguistic features of written language A good writing system must be fixed, flexible, and adaptable at a time, so that:

– it must provide a codified expression for the elements expressed by oral language: each idea = a written form

– it must provide means for creating expressions for elements not codified yet: neologisms, borrowings…

Syntactic features of written language The syntactic elements which make writing different from speech are:

– markers and rhetorical organisers for clauses relationships and clarity (written texts are more permanent)

– use of heavily pre-modified NPs , SVO ordering and use of passive constructions and subordinate phrases

Lexical features of written language In order to compensate the absence of paralinguistic devices and feedback:

– more accuracy in the use of vocabulary, avoiding redundancy and ambiguity (due to its permanent nature)

– use of anaphoras and cataphoras, repetitions, synonyms… to signal relationships between sentences

– there is more lexical density in writing than in speech (more lexical items than grammatical ones)

Graphological implications Texts can be presented in different ways, as our culture value many times more the form than the content. To compensate for the absence of feedback and paralinguistic devices, written texts need to be accurate in spelling, punctuation, capital letters to mark sentence boundaries, indentation of paragraphs, different fonts to call attention (italics, bold…) and in poetry or texts to draw attention, exploitation of resources such as order and choice of words, variations in spelling (Biba la kurtura).

In any case, what is most characteristic of written communication is that we see it (the organisation, length…).


In writing, communication also takes place following system and ritual constraints: this is the reason why when we look at a text we can distinguish and obtain information regarding different types of organisation, different purposes and different lengths.

Traditionally, written texts were divided following the classification of genres. Then, linguists linked their rhetorical mode to the syntactic structures, routines and formulae that characterised them, and established the following classification:

Postcards Pieces of writing normally directed to friends or family when travelling ,and sometimes used for congratulations and greetings. We just write on one side and the language used is colloquial.

Letters They can be formal (to enterprises or someone we are not closed to) and informal (to friends or family) There are some routines to write letters: apart from the writer´s address on the top right-hand corner, the date, the first line (dear + name/sir/madam/Mr/Mrs…), the closing (Yours…) and the signature, present in both types of letters, each type of letter follows this structural organisation into paragraphs:

Formal: 1st = reason why writing, 2nd = what you want from addressee, 3rd = conclusion.

Informal: 1st = introduction, 2nd = reason, 3rd = additional info, 4th = conclusion.

There are also directive letters, to provoke some reaction on the reader, using imperatives & remarks.

Filling-in forms Consist of answering what you are asked, as briefly as possible, so no writing style is needed to do so.

Curriculum vitae Consists of a clear summary to give the academic knowledge and experience someone has on a certain matter, so it includes personal details, current occupation, academic qualification and professional experience.

Summaries Brief résumés of articles, booklets and books that due to their special form of composition and writing they allow the reader to gather the main information about the original work without reading it.

Reports They are used to present clearly and with details the summary of present and past facts or activities, and sometimes of predictable future facts from checked data, sometimes containing the interpretation of the writer but normally with the intention of stating the reality of an enterprise or institution without deformative personal visions, and can be expositive, interpretative & demonstrative

Narrative texts The most universal of all the types of written texts, refer back to the story-telling traditions of most cultures. In fact there seem to be some basic universal structure that governs this type of texts:

Orientation (time, place and character identification to inform reader of the story world), Goal. Problem.­ Resolution. Coda and sometimes a morale at the end.

For this characteristic structure, some of the routines and formulae used are presentatives (there is…), relatives, adjuncts of place and time, flash-backs, different narrative p.o.v., narrative dialogues, etc…

Descriptive texts They are concerned with the location and characterisation of people and things in the space, as well as providing background information which sets the stage for narration. This type of texts is very popular in L2 teaching, and all types have the same pre-established organisation. Within descriptive texts we might find:

External descriptions, presenting a holistic view of the object by an account of all its parts

Functional descriptions, which deal with instruments and the tasks they may perform

Psychological descriptions, which express the feelings that something produces in someone

Some of the most characteristic structures are presentatives (there…), adjuncts of location, stative verbs (look, seem, be…), use of metaphors, comparisons, qualifying adjectives and relative sentences.

Expository texts They identify and characterise phenomena, including text forms such as definitions, explanations, instructions, guidelines, summaries, etc…They may be subjective (an essay) and objective (definitions, instructions), or even advice giving. They may be analytical, starting from a concept and then characterising its parts, and ending with a conclusion.

Typical structures are stative verbs, “in order to”, “so as to”, imperatives, modals and verbs of quality.

Argumentative texts They are those whose purpose is to support or weaken another statement whose validity is questionable.

The structures we find are very flexible, being this the reason for the existence of several types:

Classical/Pros & cons zigzag/One-sided arg/Ecclectic appro/Opposition´s arg first/Other side questioned

There are sometimes when we choose how, when and why not to be creative with language to repeat what is normally used in a given situation: we use linguistic routines and formulae. These are defined as fixed utterances or sequences of utterances which must be considered as single units, because their meaning cannot be derived of them unless considered as a whole.

In written texts we find different types of routines and formulaic expressions, which vary depending on the type of text, as we have been previously seeing. Understanding them usually requires sharing cultural knowledge, because they are genarally metaphorical in nature and must be interpreted at a non-linguistic level (for instance, Dear in a letter does not always carry affective meaning).

All those phrases and sentences that, to some extend, have a prescriptive character, can be considered as routines and formulaic expressions: to consider all the different existing routines would take too long, but some examples are, in letters & postcards (Yours sincerely) in C.V´s, the organisation of info in different blocks, in narration (Once upon a time) in descriptions (on the left, high above),etc…

All in all, we can say that they are sometimes very useful but often meaningless & depersonalise our expressions & ideas.



Generally speaking, communication is the exchange of meanings between individuals through a common system of symbols, and this has been the concern of scholars since the Greeks. Communication refers to the transmission of information (a message) between a source and a receiver, using a signalling system.

At the turn of the century, the English literary critic Ivor Armstrong Richards offered one of the first definitions, saying that communication takes place when one mind so acts upon its environment that another mind is influenced, and in that other mind an experience occurs which is like the experience in the first mind, and is caused in part by that experience.

The study of human communication in all its modes is known as semiotics. There are several types of communication, and although in principle any of the five senses can be used as a medium of communication, in practice only three (tactile, visual and aural) are implemented in both active-expressive and passive-receptive ways.

Tactile communication involves touch (e.g. shaking hands, grasping the arm) and the manipulation of physical distance and body orientation in order to communicate indifference or disagreement, and is studied by proxemics. Visual communication involves the use of facial expressions (smiling, winking…, which communicate a wide range of emotions) and gestures and body postures of varying levels of formality (kneeling, bowing…). Visual non-verbal communication is studied by kinesics. Often, visual and tactile effects interact closely with verbal communication, sometimes even conveying particular nuances of meaning not easy to communicate in speech (such as the drawing of inverted commas in the air to signal a special meaning), and most of the times culturally related.

The chief branch of communication studies involves the oral-aural mode, in the form of speech, and its systematic visual reflex in the form of writing. These are the verbal aspects of communication, distinguished from the non-verbal (kinesics and proxemics) aspects, often popularly referred to as body language.

The term language, as we understand it, is usually restricted to speech and writing, because these mediums of transmission display a highly sophisticated internal structure and creativity. Non-verbal communication, by contrast, involves relatively little creativity. In language, it is commonplace to find new words being created, and sentences varying in practically infinite complexity. In this respect, languages differ markedly from the very limited set of facial expressions, gestures, and body movements.

According to Harmer, the characteristics apply to every communicative situation is that a speaker/writer wants to communicate, has a communicative purpose, and selects language, and a listener/reader wants to listen to something, is interested in a communicative purpose, and process a variety of language.

Models In order to study the process of communication several models have been offered; fragmentation and problems of interdisciplinary outlook have generated a wide range of discussion concerning the ways in which communication occurs. Most communication theorists admit that their main task is to answer the question Who says what to whom with what effect? The most important models are:

Dynamic Used to describe cognitive, emotional and artistic aspects of the different modes (narrative, pictorial, dramatic…) of communication as they occur in sociocultural contexts in their various manners and to and from different sorts of people. For those using this model, the stability and function of the channel are more variable and less mechanically related to the process than the linear models.

Linear Proposed by Shannon and Weaver, though very mathematical, its simplicity, clarity and surface generality proved very attractive. Originally intended for electronic messages, it was then applied to all sorts of communication. In its conception it contained five elements arranged in linear order: information source, transmitter, channel, receiver, destination. Then, the five elements were renamed so as to specify components for other types of communication, and the information source was split into its components to provide a wider range of applicability: source, encoder, message, channel, decoder, receiver.

Key factors

In theory, communication is said to have taken place if the information received is the same as that sent. In practice, we have to allow for all kinds of interfering factors, such as entropy (noise distorsion) which can be counteracted by negative entropy (receiver´s ability to clear blurred messages), by redundancy (used by the encoder), or by feedback (the sender calculates and weights the effects on the receiver and acts accordingly); and then we have the context, which covers the references to the linguistic aspects of the message or endophora (anaphora and cataphora) and the external aspects of situation or exophora (such as the field, or total event and purpose of the communication, the mode, or function of the text in the event, including channel and genre, and the tenor, which refers to the participants and their relationships).


The most usual answer to the question “why do we use language?” is “to communicate our ideas”. But it would be wrong to think that communicating our ideas is the only purpose for which we use language. Several other functions may be identified where the communication of ideas is marginal or irrelevant. We hardly find verbal messages that would fulfil only one function , although the verbal structure of a message depends primarily on the predominant function;

Following Jakobson, we agree that language must be investigated in all the variety of its functions, but an outline of these functions demands a concise survey of the constitutive factors in any act of verbal communication: the ADDRESSER sends a MESSAGE to the ADDRESSEE that to be operative requires a CONTEXT referred to and to be grasped by the addressee (either verbal and situational, a CODE, fully or partially common to the addresser and addressee, and a CONTACT, a physical channel and psychological connection enabling them to enter and stay in communication

If the main purpose of our use of language is to communicate our ideas, concentrating on the context to which these ideas refer to, then we are dealing with the referential or ideational function.

If there is a direct expression of the addresser´s attitude toward what is being communicated, tending to produce an impression of a certain emotion, that is the emotive or expressive function (also very common), which differs from the referential one in the sound pattern, and it flavours to some extend all our utterances.

If we orientate our message towards the addressee because we want a certain reaction, we are dealing with the conative function, syntactically and often phonetically deviate from other functions (vocatives and imperatives).

We talk about the phatic function when the language we use is for the purpose of establishing or maintaining social relationships, to check if the channel or contact works, to attract or confirm the attention of the interlocutor or to discontinue communication, rather than to communicate ideas, and is normally displayed by ritualised formulas (Well…, How do you do?).

If we use the language to talk about the language, such as when checking if addressee is using the same code as the addresser (Do you follow me? Do you know what I mean?), we talk of the metalingual function.

If, on the contrary, the focus is on the phonetic properties of the message, althogh not being the sole function of the message, we say that we are using the poetic function of language.

To end up, we will say that Halliday grouped all the functions into three interrelated metafunctions: ideational, to express ideas or experiences, the interpersonal to indicate, establish or maintain social relationships, and the textual, to create written or spoken texts that fit in the particular situation in which they are used.


However, if communication were simply a matter of applying the adequate schema, we wouldn´t have to worry about the addressee´s response to the communication process. Therefore, we need procedures to integrate these abstract schemata into the concrete process of discourse itself.

All communication depends on the alignment and adjustment of each interlocutor´s schemata, and the procedures we use are the interactive negotiating activities that interpret the directions provided and enable us to alter our expectations in the light of new evidence as the discourse proceeds, and this procedural ability which traduces the schematic knowledge into communicative behaviour is called capacity (inference, practical reasoning, negotiation of meaning, problem solving…).

This capacity apply to two different dimensions: one referred to the kind of schema that is being realised, and the other to the kind of communicative situation that has to be negotiated, that is, to the way in which the relationship between the schemata of the interlocutors is to be managed. We find that there are occasions in which we use procedures to clear up and make more explicit and evident the frame of reference, or use rhetorical routines to specify more accurately our illocutionary acts (the intended effects of our utterances) or that felicity conditions are not satisfactory so that we must use those procedures.

Other procedures, this time on the part of the addressee, are interpretative (as in A-“I have two tickets for the theatre” B- “I´ve got an exam tomorrow”). In some occasions, however, negotiation is too long, too difficult or even fails (as in interethnic interaction) because the schemata are very different, so that interlocutors may use other signalling system (e.g. pictorial), or use (re)-formulation procedures (So what you say is… Now let´s put it straight..)


Communication is , therefore, the main purpose of a language, and the use and function that fulfils depends greatly on the characteristics of the information or the form of the message. In any case, for a communication process to be complete, it is necessary that both addresser and addressee negotiate the meaning of what is being transmitted, overcoming any possible obstacles difficulting that process.


Halliday, M. A. K. An Introduction to Functional Grammar Chapter 9 1985

Tannen, D. Conversational Style Chapter 8 1984

MacArthur, T. The Oxford Companion to the English Language OUP Oxford 1992

Hedge, T. Writing. OUP. Oxford. 1993