Speech is one of the oldest mediums. It is created through voice and sound, yet it is a specific subset of sound produced by the voice. This is reflected in the OED definition of speech as “the utterance of words or sentences” or the “faculty or power of speaking, or of expressing thoughts by articulate sounds.” Speech occurs through the act of articulation, particularly in words and sentences. It is not just any sound created by the human voice, but a specific set of sounds in a specific order.
Many argue that the capacity for speech—not just the capacity to make sounds, but to form language and use it for communication—is the fundamental element which separates humans from other animals. Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, argued that language creates a certain kind of perception of the world that is not available to beings without language. Wittgenstein described language in terms of a game. Like a game, language is determined by its rules and activities. Wittgenstein asserted that speech is an integral part of the language-game, and that “the speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life.” (§23) Although there is some debate over the phrase “form of life,” some believe that Wittgenstein meant that language is made possible specifically by the human form of life rather than any other form.
Speech also differentiates one human group from another. The OED notes that speech can be “the form of utterance peculiar to a particular nation, people or group of persons; a language, tongue, or dialect.” Speech, like many mediums, can both unify and divide. Speech has the capacity to bind together those who share a language, but in doing so it also excludes those who do not. It also defines an individual within a group, which is reflected in the OED definition of speech as “the manner or mode of speaking, especially the method of utterance specific to a particular person.” An individual’s speech can reveal his or her class or culture. In Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, for instance, speech is the key marker of class and even identity itself. In Shaw’s play, the world-famous linguist Henry Higgens transforms a flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, into a duchess by changing her manner of speaking. By the end of the play, Eliza not only passes for a duchess but also finds herself essentially changed. She is unable to return to her former life because she has lost entirely her identity as a flower girl.
It is fitting that Shaw explored the power of speech onstage, since theater depends upon speech as one of its fundamental modes of expression. The earliest piece of Western theatrical theory notes the importance of speech to its art: Aristotle theorized in Poetics that the three parts of theater are Opsis, Melos and Lexis, otherwise known as color, form, and voice (i.e. speech). Theater stripped speech of its spontaneity, but by doing so it allowed for a greater capacity to move an audience. Through theater and other forms of public speaking, rhetoric arose. Rhetoric is the art of speaking so as to persuade or influence an audience. It does this by utilizing devices like figures of speech and compositional techniques that increase eloquence and evoke a strong emotional response from the audience. Rhetoric was formulated by the Greeks and Romans, who also applied it to writing.
The most obvious remediation of speech is the written word. Writing is a visual representation of the sound of speech. Communication changed drastically with the advent of writing. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates expresses anxiety about the changes that the shift from speech to writing will create in the general public. Socrates tells a fable about Theuth, the inventor of letters, who is rebuked by his king for thinking that the written word will improve the memories of those who use it. The king tells Theuth, “this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.” (278)
In Understanding Media, McLuhan defined speech by comparing it to the written word. He described the transition from speech to writing as “an eye for an ear,” (80) emphasizing the change in medium from the aural to the visual. In his depiction of the spoken word, McLuhan focused on speech’s superior capacity to engage its participants. McLuhan argued that speech is a medium which engages all the senses, while the written word does not. He also claimed that the spoken word is capable of more variance in meaning, made possible through intonation and expression. (79) According to McLuhan, another crucial difference between the written and the spoken word is the spoken word’s capacity to evoke an emotion fully and immediately. McLuhan explained that “the written word spells out in sequence what is quick and implicit in the spoken word.” (79) In addition, he argued that speech requires and evokes reaction, while the written word does not. (79)
While McLuhan focused on the ability of the spoken word to move and engage a listener, many other philosophers and theorists have focused on the relationship of speech to thought. Ferdinand de Saussure posited that speech is closer to thought than the written word. According to Saussure’s theory of speech, sound becomes speech when it is combined with thought. Saussure wrote that speech occurs when “a sound, a complex acoustical-vocal unit, combines in turn with an idea to form a complex physiological-psychological unit.”(9) Saussure uses what he called the “speaking-circuit” to describe the relationship between speech and thought. According to the speaking-circuit, a concept is associated with the linguistic sounds, or sound-images, that are used to express it. The link between the concept and the sound-image is psychological, and speech is created through the physical process of transferring the sound-image into actual sound. (11-12) In Saussure’s system, language is a subset of speech. Writing is farther from thought than speech because it is a remediation of speech. Saussure asserted that “language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first.” (23) Writing is more removed from thought than speech because it must always be a representation of speech.
Jacques Derrida resisted the assertion made by Saussure, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and many other philosophers that spoken words are closer to thought than written words. Derrida claimed that speech is just as far from thought as the written word. In Of Grammatology, Derrida argued that Saussure’s very own theory supported the distancing of speech from thought, since Saussure theorized that the connection between a sign and its signifier is arbitrary. The choice of sounds to express ideas is just as arbitrary as the choice of written word, Derrida argued, and thus speech is as far from thought as the written word.
Of course, writing is not the only technological advance to drastically change the way that speech is used and viewed. The telephone in particular changed the way that speech was experienced. McLuhan described the telephone as “speech without walls.” (283) This phrase aptly expresses how the telephone demolished the previous spatial limits of speech. Aside from primitive amplifiers like megaphones or amphitheaters, speech had been limited by the ear’s ability to hear across distance. Where the ear’s capacity stopped, speech stopped. The telephone extended the ear’s range to thousands of miles. Speech was divorced from the bounds of the body, and for the first time disembodied speech became widely experienced. As phones have developed further, first becoming cordless and then becoming entirely mobile through the use of satellites, the telephone experience has become even less bounded than before. Within the developed world, anyone can have a telephone conversation with anyone else and it can be conducted almost anywhere.
Speech through the telephone still requires all of our senses, McLuhan argued, but because it is disembodied speech it does not provide an adequate visual element. McLuhan explained that this is the reason why people doodle when they talk on the phone—they are seeking to supply a visual element to speech which was eliminated with the loss of the other person’s body. (267-8)
If the telephone changed the spatial limits of speech, then the phonograph changed the temporal limits of speech. Before the phonograph, speech could only be experienced as it happened. Once a conversation was over, there was no way of aurally experiencing it again. Visual permanence could be achieved through writing, but the actual sounds of speech were fleeting. The phonograph enabled recorded sound, and for the first time speech became permanent.
As McLuhan pointed out, the phonograph’s other title—gramophone— is derived from the root “gramma,” meaning letters. The name emphasizes Edison’s original idea that the phonograph would act as a “form of auditory writing.” (McLuhan, 276) According to McLuhan, however, the phonograph was more popular for playing and recording music than speech. (276) Friedrich Kittler was also concerned with how the phonograph changed our experience of speech. In Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, he asserts that the phonograph does not record just speech or music, but “acoustic events.” An “acoustic event” includes all sounds that occur in a given moment. The phonograph does not differentiate between speech and non-speech, or music and non-music, but records all sounds equally. (23) In contrast, during a normal conversation the human ear will filter out background noise and only take note of the sound it seeks. The phonograph’s representation of speech, then, makes us more aware of the environment in which speech takes place.
With video, speech regained embodiment and achieved visual and aural permanence. Video phones and web cams have restored the missing visual element that McLuhan observed in telephone conversations. Films have lent permanence to speech performances in a way that theater could not. But filmed speech and live speech are not equivalent. The sort of reaction and interaction possible in live speech is noticeably absent in filmed speech. Rosalind Krauss argued in her essay “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” that “the medium of video is narcissism.” (51) She explained that because video acts as a mirror and forms an instant feedback loop, there is a “displacement of the self” that changes the “performer’s subjectivity into another, mirror, object.” (55) In other words, the performer onscreen becomes both the subject and the object of the video and so the viewer is excluded completely from the video.
Despite their alienating effects, television and film have made speech a large part of our daily lives. Speech now has as much if not more power than print, especially in politics. Televised speeches are a huge part of any political race. In the 2008 presidential election, record numbers of people tuned in to watch the speeches, and many speculated that the speeches were one of the most influential elements of the election.
Aristotle. Aristotle. Edited by Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.
Krauss, Rosalind. “Video: An Aesthetics of Narcissism.” October 1, Spring (1976): 50-64.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1994.
Plato. The Dialogues of Plato. 2 vol. New York: Random House, 1927.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan, 1963.