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ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY
ENCYCLOPEDIC ENTRY

Oral Language

Oral Language

Comprised of syntax, pragmatics, morphology, and phonology, oral language is how we verbally communicate with one another.

Grades

5 - 8

Subjects

Biology, English as a Second Language, Genetics, Social Studies

Image

Office Workers Talking

While all languages are built on the concepts of syntax, pragmatics, morphology, and phonology, they are all based on words.

Photograph by gradyreese

Oral communication is more than just speech. It involves expressing ideas, feelings, information, and other things that employ the voice, like poetry or music, verbally. Because so much of human life is dominated by speech and verbal communication, it would be difficult to fully express oneself without an oral language. Language involves words, their pronunciations, and the various ways of combining them to communicate. The building blocks of an oral language are the words people speak. Children begin learning to speak extremely early in life. They begin by babbling, an attempt to mimic the speech they hear from older people. As they get older, they develop more language skills and start forming sentences. They continue building their vocabularies throughout their lives.

Vocabulary is just one of the components of oral language. Other components include syntax, pragmatics, morphology, and phonology. Syntax refers to how words are arranged into sentences. How people use oral language to communicate is known as pragmatics. Morphology refers to how words are structured and formed in different languages. The study of the sound of speech is called phonology.

The history of oral language as a whole is difficult to trace to its beginning, however, there is a wealth of information on the histories of specific languages. The group of languages known as Indo-European languages, which account for almost half of the languages spoken throughout the world today, likely originated in Europe and Asia. Indo-European languages are thought to stem from a single language, which nomads spoke thousands of years ago. Recent evidence has shown that the origin of oral language may go back even further. The discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid bone in 1989, as well as the FOXP2 gene—thought to be essential for spoken language—in Neanderthal DNA, is evidence that Neanderthals may have communicated with speech sounds, possibly even language.

Although many animal species make sounds—ones that may even sound like speech­—to communicate, oral language is unique to humans, as far as we know. It involves using a finite set of words and rules in an infinite amount of comprehensible combinations.

Today, the people of the world speak over 7,000 different languages. Through oral language, people learn to understand the meanings of words, to read, and, of course, to express themselves. As the world changes, oral language changes along with it to reflect the needs, ideas, and evolution of the human race.

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Producer
Clint Parks
other
Last Updated

May 20, 2022

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