Spoken language

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Under spoken language is understood in linguistics in general a means of articulation organs ( larynx , mouth , tongue , etc.) produced speech . The spoken language is juxtaposed - under different aspects - with other language systems: such as sign language and other sign languages , written language , literary language or, in a broader sense of "language", the language of images.

A spoken language consists of a finite set of speech sounds that are articulated in a specific way and can be broken down into specific functional units. The writing of spoken languages ​​is not subject to any generally applicable rules and can be designed in very different ways. The actual articulation of a language by means of a standardized and for all natural languages valid phonetics played.


The term "spoken language" has several shades of meaning in linguistics and represents a research object in different contexts:

  • The term “spoken language” mainly refers to the totality of speech sounds as a specific medium of production and perception of human language. With this reference he appears primarily in the research area on language acquisition and language production of the deaf and in connection with the associated speech training. Often spoken language and sign language are compared as systems and differences and similarities between them are defined.
  • The “spoken language” can also be understood as a counterpart to the “ written language ” or “written language”, in which case speaking and writing as possible forms of language production as well as hearing and reading as modalities of language perception are the focus of the research.
  • However, “spoken language” can also non-specifically mean any single language that consists of a certain set of speech sounds. In this regard, it is regarded as the second level of human communication after body language .
  • In some rare cases "spoken language" is - terminology wrong - with " phonetics ", ie with the phonetic transcription equated spoken language.

“Speech language” refers to a language system that can also be described on an abstract level and is not to be equated with the term “ spoken language ”, because the latter expression does not refer to the phonetic system of a language, or only to a limited extent. The term "spoken language" (often synonymous with " spontaneous speech ") rather refers to syntactic, textual, stylistic and similar features that distinguish between orally produced texts (e.g. a spontaneous everyday conversation) and written texts (such as a non-fiction book or a newspaper text).

Speech sounds

Human spoken languages ​​always consist of the sequence of a limited number of speech sounds. These are divided into vowels , half vowels and consonants . A characteristic of the individual languages ​​of the world is u. a. that no language contains all the sounds that can in principle be produced by the human speech organs, but always only a certain section of the possible sound spectrum. The ensemble of the sound qualities of a language results in its typical timbre.

The selection of which sounds are present in a language is consistent in so far as there is a certain sound continuum within syllables and words , which is determined by several factors, especially by

  • the type of articulation . This means that there is a tendency to preferentially form those sounds one after the other in a language that require little articulation effort. In the course of time, spoken languages ​​also change insofar as certain sequences of sounds are articulatively adapted to one another within words or parts of words ( assimilation ).
  • the quality of the individual speech sounds depending on their sound environment, i.e. on the surrounding other speech sounds. The sound qualities of the vowels also play an important role and are decisive for how a subsequent consonant is articulated.
  • structural conditions of each language, e.g. B. specify which consonata sequences are allowed in a language, how a syllable must be structured, etc. In this case, one speaks of the phonotactic rules of a language.

The type of articulation of speech sounds is practiced unconsciously in the course of acquiring the mother tongue using role models. As a result, the speakers of a language also remain unconscious of a large part of the phonetic characteristics and articulatory processes. When using a foreign language, these characteristics of the mother tongue are transferred to this other language, especially in the learning stage and in an untrained state, which makes up the typical foreign language accent. Certain language-specific articulation features are often very difficult to store. A particularly resistant case in this regard is the final hardening .

Categorization of speech sounds

Even within a certain spoken language, not all sounds are always articulated in the same way. (A German half-open e [⁠ ɛ ⁠] and a German closed e [⁠ e ⁠] for example, are not always differentiated by far to the same extent and pronounced in the same way.) In connection with the acquisition of the mother tongue learns Kind, however, to assign all different cases only to very specific classes or categories of sounds. (In this case one speaks of categorical perception .) As a result, these categories of sound perception are also transferred to one's own articulation.

If, as speakers of a certain language, we perceive sounds of another language that do not exist in our own, we therefore assign them more or less automatically to a certain sound category of our own language and produce them ourselves according to this. (Thus, for. Example, in the existing Arab an open vowel between said German a [⁠ a ⁠] and the German open e [⁠ æ ⁠] is located, as for example in the articles determine al exists. Since If this sound is not available in German, one of these German sound classes is chosen when adopting words that contain it.This special case is not clearly decided in the German-speaking area and therefore both the written version is used when corresponding Arabic words are reproduced in writing <a> and the variant <e> are used. For example, there are the spelling variants Al-Qaida and El Kaida for the terrorist organization or Al Djasira and El Djasira for the Arabic-language TV station. The case of the pseudo-English word mobile phone , the - under the false assumption that it comes from English - written with <a> and is usually articulated as a half-open [ɛ] to closed [e].)

The linguistic sub-discipline that studies the physical characteristics of speech sounds is phonetics .


With regard to the phonetic structures of languages, individual sounds are also the smallest meaning-distinguishing language elements, so-called phonemes . A sound is also a phoneme in a certain language if it causes a change in meaning when it is exchanged for another sound in the same sound environment. In German, for example, the "suppository r" [⁠ ʁ ⁠] and the "tongue r" [⁠ r ⁠] Although different sounds, but - regarded each - no phonemes because there is no case, where the one exchanged for the other would cause a difference in meaning of a word: The word “raven”, for example, means the same thing in both cases of articulation. However, the / r / “as such” is considered a phoneme, as there are words that acquire a new meaning after replacing the / r / with other sounds, such as in the word pair raven - honeycomb .

Which sounds count as phonemes differs across languages. What represents a phoneme in one language does not have to be in another. The number of phonemes also often varies greatly depending on the language. With only 13 phonemes , the Hawaiian language has one of the lowest phoneme numbers of all known languages ​​and the Pirahã language has only 10 of them. In contrast, the language ǃXóõ has the highest number of phonemes with 141. Most languages ​​have around 30 to 50, on average 40 phonemes, which should have proven to be the most practical number insofar as there is still a certain linguistic economy and, on the other hand, sufficient differentiation is guaranteed.

Analogous to spoken languages, these linguistic structural units are also referred to in sign languages ​​as "phonemes", of which each individual sign language has a specific inventory.

The linguistic sub-discipline Phonology undertakes the research and description of phonemes or speech sounds with regard to their functions in the individual languages . From this point of view, the spoken languages ​​are also classified according to whether they are tonal languages or stress languages . The former (such as Chinese languages ) are characterized by the fact that vowels in a syllable or in a morpheme can take on a different tone progression, i.e. they rise or fall in pitch, whereby this pitch change has a differentiating effect. (This means that the same word with a rising tone has a different meaning than with a tone that remains at the same pitch or falling.) In stress languages, on the other hand (for example all Indo-European languages ), a stress accent is placed on a vowel of a syllable, there are no meaningful differences Pitch differences.

Spoken language and writing

When describing the inventory of characters in a language and when classifying languages ​​according to certain criteria, linguistics generally assume the pronunciation of the linguistic elements, i.e. the phonetic realization of the language. The written implementation of a language serves to "preserve" it and can take very different forms. For the time being, it has basically no connection with the phonetic reality of languages. However, certain conventions were formed for all written languages. For example, the volume solely by means of Latin letters [⁠ ʃ ⁠] in German as rendered as <sch> in "goulash" in English as <sh> as in "cash," cash ", in Hungarian with <s > as in "gulyas" 'goulash soup', in Italian with <sc> as in "scena" 'scene, stage' or in French with <ch> as in "chaine", 'chain'. On the other hand, no difference between the voiced (used in German in the textualization [⁠ ʒ ⁠] ) and the voiceless ([ʃ]) variant made of "sh" -Lautes while for example in French in addition to the voiceless articulated <ch> the Voiced "sch" with <g> as in "gendarme", "Gendarm" or with <j> as in "jour", "Tag" is written. (The different spellings result from the respective word history.) The fact that conventions can only have limited validity is shown, among other things, in spelling reforms .

Non-linguists, on the other hand, usually do not start from the articulation of the sounds, but from their written representation: For example, linguistic laypeople use this or that "letter" when actually a certain "sound" is meant, from which it is incorrectly derived that a particular letter must always be articulated in the same way. The fact remains that a letter often does not indicate a sound itself, but a sound quality. (For example, the letter <e> in See is pronounced differently in German than in Meer, and the doubling of the vowel means that the vowel is pronounced long.) Also the question of whether the spelling of either this or that language is closer to the actual pronunciation corresponds to the words (i.e. whether writing and pronunciation tend to or tend not to "match") is also an amateurish question because the written form of one's own spoken language is usually interpreted as the correct norm. This is why the pronunciation of a word in another language - unless the phonetic transcription is used - is reproduced in writing as if it were a word in one's own language.


  • Patricia Ashby: Speech Sounds. Routledge, London 1998, ISBN 0-415-08571-3 .
  • Heikki J. Hakkarainen: Phonetics of German. Fink, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-8252-1835-X .
  • Allen Tracy Hall: Phonology. An introduction. De Gruyter, Berlin 2000, ISBN 3-11-015641-5 .
  • Katharina Puls: German sign language and German spoken language. A phonetic / phonological comparison. Unpublished Mag.Schr. Hamburg 2006.
  • Elmar Ternes: Introduction to Phonology. 2nd edition. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1999, ISBN 3-534-13870-8 .

Web links

Wiktionary: spoken language  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Britta Günther, Herbert Günther: First language, second language, foreign language: An introduction. Beltz-Verlag, Weinheim 2007, ISBN 978-3-407-25474-0 , pp. 40f.