The Enduring Spoken Word

Science has just published a comment by me on Oard’s “Unlocking the potention of the spoken word” (Oard 2008). It is a critique of the monomodal view of language adopted in that article. (If you haven’t read the original piece, check it out here, or see my brief summary.)

The Enduring Spoken Word
In his Perspective (“Unlocking the potential of the spoken word,” 26 September 2008, p. 1787), D. W. Oard describes how writing caused a landslide in humanity’s cultural landscape, in large part because it was a findable, permanent record. He suggests that today’s speech recognition and recording technologies may mean that the comeback of the spoken word is upon us. However, Oard’s argument suggests a radical turn where there is none, for the simple reason that speech has never left our side.

The invention of writing allowed information to be stored reliably in a medium other than human memory. Speech processing technology is just a variation on that theme. Oard highlights the potential of the spoken word for information retrieval purposes. In no sense does this bring us to “the threshold of a new era”; it merely dusts off the worn-out view of the spoken word as mere vehicle for transporting ideas (Reddy 1979).

The full potential of the spoken word has always been more complex than the words themselves; the speaker and listener jointly construct meaning guided by common ground, social relationships, gestures, body language, and facial expressions as much as by the auditory signal (Tedlock & Mannheim 1995; Clark 1996; Enfield & Levinson 2006; Tannen 2007).

Discourse over the past 50,000 years has encompassed a lot more than neat text ready to be data-mined. Unlocking its full potential requires a richer and more dynamic view of language than that espoused by Oard.

Mark Dingemanse
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics

The letter is a rigorously edited version of a commentary I posted here some time ago. I will tell you that the headline I suggested was ‘Dusting off the conduit metaphor‘ — but given the good-natured response by the original author I’m quite happy with the more positive title supplied by the editor.


Doug Oard responds gracefully:

Rather than arguing that speech would overcome writing in another radical cultural shift, my intent was to suggest that speech would reemerge to stand side by side with writing as a conduit for transporting ideas with permanence and findability. As M. Dingemanse observes, speech can be so much more than a mere conduit, and I would agree that we are far from being able to build machines that can reasonably model the full richness of human expression, whether spoken or written. Many of our most widely used machines for processing language (such as search engines and translation systems) rely on fairly shallow representations of meaning, and predicting fundamental changes in that situation would seem to me highly speculative. Machines are merely tools, however—it is we, not our machines, who must ultimately make sense of what we see, hear, and read. But we should not underestimate the importance of having machines that can help us to find what we need. Dingemanse’s critique reminds us that change and continuity coexist, and that although permanence and findability can help us to use speech in new ways, many of the ways speech presently pervades our lives will surely also remain with us.

Douglas W. Oard
College of Information Studies
University of Maryland

I agree with Oard that the recent developments in speech recognition are quite interesting. Still, as Oard himself notes, most of today’s speech processing technologies still rely on ‘fairly shallow representations of meaning’. Things would get really exciting if we could harness the full potential of language — but that won’t happen as long as we keep thinking of it as a mere conduit (‘language as a series of tubes‘). I’m happy that my critique has served its purpose of pointing out the need for a more sophisticated conception of what language is and what it does.

Text quoted from Dingemanse & Oard 2009. Reprinted with permission from AAAS.


  1. Clark, Herbert H. 1996. Using Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Dingemanse, Mark; and Douglas W. Oard. 2009. The Enduring Spoken Word. Science 323, no. 5917 (February 20): 1010b-1011. doi: 10.1126/science.323.5917.1010b.
  3. Enfield, Nick J., and Stephen C. Levinson. 2006. Roots of human sociality: Culture, cognition, and human interaction. Oxford: Berg.
  4. Oard, Douglas W. 2008. Unlocking the Potential of the Spoken Word. Science 321, no. 5897 (September 26): 1787-1788. DOI: 10.1126/science.1157353
  5. Reddy, M. J. 1979. The conduit methapor – a case of frame conflict in our language about language. In Metaphor and Thought, ed. A. Ortony, 284-297. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Tannen, Deborah. 2007. Talking Voices: Repetition, Dialogue, and Imagery in Conversational Discourse. 2nd ed. Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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