Module IV: Language

Section 1: Verbal Communication

After completing this section, students should be able to:

  1. differentiate verbal communication and vocal communication.
  2. distinguish verbal and nonverbal communication.
  3. list and explain the functions and dynamics of language.
  4. define and explain connotation and denotation.
  5. identify strategies to improving one's verbal communication.

To communicate, we use a communication package of two components:  verbal communication and nonverbal communication.  Verbal communication is the use of symbolic language to stimulate shared meaningNonverbal communication is any non-linguistic variable with communication value—nonverbal communication is any factor about us, except for language and words, which stimulates meaning in a receiver. 

It is important to understand that verbal is not the same as vocal. Vocal factors, like pitch, rate, and volume, are part of nonverbal communication. With verbal communication, we focus on the language itself, how the words convey meaning, the grammar, and the syntax.
Even though the U.S. tends to be a low-context culture, placing a lot of emphasis on the spoken word, verbal communication is less than half of our overall communication package.  Researcher, Albert Mehrabian (1981), claimed in intensive emotional expression, language comprises only about 7% of our communication package. The other 93% is nonverbal, specifically 38% is vocal tone and 55% is body language.  In this section, we will look as some of the variables and dynamics of verbal and nonverbal communication.

Spoken language is a set of sounds with which we have learned to associate various meanings.  We send these sounds hoping the meaning stimulated in the mind of the receiver is highly similar to what we intended, but we know by now that differences in interpretation are the norm.  We have all experienced saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. We inherently know language has power.  If we say the wrong thing, it can damage or even destroy a relationship; it can hurt our credibility; or create enormous problems.  We know we must be highly self-reflexive, thinking carefully about the words we use in order to ward off such problems.

The Functions of Language

Language is our core survival tool.  Our ability to communicate detailed, complex messages allows us to work collaboratively to form societies, solve problems, develop new technologies, and fulfill our survival needs.  At its core, language fulfills four functions:

1. Language is used to express and negotiate a common worldview.  The way we refer to events, experiences, and people communicates our underlying view of the world.  For example, a person who is generally pessimistic will tend to use more negatively slanted

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language, focusing more on their dislikes than their likes.  A religious person may make far more references to their deity, letting listeners know their worldview contains a significant religious component.  Expressing our worldview is far more than simply stating ideas or opinions; rather, our language use, as a whole, gives others an overall sense of our personality, our viewpoints, the way we see the world, and overall who we are as a person.

As we reveal this worldview, we are also seeking to find common ground and validation from others.  Communication is an act of negotiating.  We exchange ideas, testing to see if the other person’s views are compatible with our own.  Sometimes we change our views, at least our stated ones, to match others, and other times, they will change their views to match ours.  As we form these common worldviews, we enhance our social bond (Fisk, 2013).   On a simple level, we have all experienced being in a setting where something was said, we realized we felt differently, yet we chose to say nothing or to even agree, at least for the moment.  We chose to enhance the social bond, not threaten it.  This negotiative process helps us develop a shared worldview that gives us comfort and confidence in our lives.  It builds trust with others, and establishes a foundation for further interaction. 

This negotiation process is vital to us as we seek validation.  We need to know our perceptions of the world are accurate, at least to someone else.  Just walk into a small-town café and listen to the sharing of worldviews.  Talk about politics, social issues, or sports will be rife with people negotiating a worldview.  This does not mean they have to all agree on precisely the same thing; rather, it means they feel they understand each other, have validated each other, and are comfortable with that understanding.

The internet has provided us the ability to seek refuge with those sharing our views, making us feel more confident and comfortable in how we see the world.  Liberals may read The Huffington Post, and conservatives may get information from Fox News.  At the extremes, there are detailed web sites for every conceivable conspiracy theory. These “echo chambers”See Module II, Section 2, for a discussion of echo chambers and confirmation bias.“echo chambers” are places those with similar worldviews can gather, at least virtually, to feel comfortable, confident, and validated about their worldview (Garrett, 2009).  On the down-side, however, these are also places we escape to that protect us from alternative viewpoints, diminishing our ability to consider and contemplate other perspectives.

2. Language allows us to navigate the present, past, and future.  From communication theory, we know  humans live in a “stimulus-thought-response” world.  We experience the world and process it through language.  In other words, we think about it.  As a result, for the most part, how we respond to the world around us is based on how we think about it, how we put it in language, and not just an immediate response to the stimuli.  We can anticipate consequences and make choices rather than simply responding instinctively.  We create and recall memories; we are constantly adding to our knowledge of how to handle the stimuli we encounter.  We are sentient beings; we are aware of being alive, and can reflect on what it means to be alive.  Such complex, abstract thoughts are only possible due to language.

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We humans are the only animal capable of this process of abstraction.  We can discuss events, ideas, and people who are not present, or we have not even experienced, due to our ability to interact with a world present only in our minds.  We can discuss the here and now, what we are immediately experiencing, and we can also discuss the past (the there and then), or the future (the there and then) because we can imagine what it was like or will be like.  Those "there and then" worlds are as much a part of our reality as the here and now.  We can plan, imagine, and hope because we can consider possible realities. This ability to conceive of such possibilities has led to the enormous expansion of the human knowledge base.  We can imagine something being different than what it is; we can think of new ideas; we can ask questions and seek out answers. 

3. Language is used to label what something is and what something is not.  This function operates on two levels.  First, attaching labels to events, things, experiences, and people gives us the ability to make references to those things with others.  We talk about objects, peoples, or events that are present, past, or anticipated with some degree of clarity and certainty.  We name things so others know what or who we are talking about.

Second, and a bit more complex, when we label something, we are also defining what it is and what it is not. This is an important part of negotiating meaning.  Consider the difference it makes if  college students are referred to as "kids" or as "adults."  Recall the perceptual process, the halo effect, and how we tend to cluster traitsModule II, Section 2.  The label used carries with it a whole collection of assumptions of what students are and are not.  If we think of students as “kids,” we are making assumptions about age, maturity, independence, and a host of other traits, but if we label students “adults,” those assumptions change quite dramatically.  As we talk about the world, the words we use to refer to people, events, and experiences say much about how we see the world and what we think of it. 

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Job titles are good examples.  A person may insist on being called an "administrative assistant" instead of a "secretary" because “administrative assistant” has a more powerful halo than “secretary.”  In higher education, whether a college teacher is labeled a "professor" or an "instructor" makes a huge difference; the halos of associated traits are quite different.  Politics is ripe with such examples.  Labels such as “elite liberal” or “neo-conservative” reveal assumptions about the person using them and their attitudes toward political viewpoints.

On a more sensitive note, labels we use for people matter.  Whether a person uses “African-American,” “black,” or “colored” has a significant impact, especially on those being labeled.  Words such as “retarded” or “crippled” have been replaced with “mentally challenged” or “developmentally disabled.”  The halos of the words are different; labels matter.

Verbal bullies insist on using sexist, racist, or other forms of demeaning and derogatory language. By using these labels, they are expressing their worldview of people different than themselves.  Communicators who insist on using demeaning language emphasize difference and disconnection; a way to emphasize dissimilarity, implying, “I am different from/better than that person or group.”

Generally, people who are sensitive to the significance of the halos use language thoughtfully, emphasizing similarity and connection, working to minimize the emphasis on differences.

4. Language allows us to meta-communicate.  Because we are sentient, we can "talk about talking."  Meta-communication is communicating about the quality of interaction and the quality of communication itself.  For example, in a public speaking class, a student gives a speech and then we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the speech; critiquing the speech is meta-communication, we are talking about the quality of the communication effort.  A couple will discuss issues and conflicts, but if one partner says to another, "You don't listen to me," the couple is now engaging in meta-communication; they are talking about how well they are communicating.

Consider the impact of this on social bonding.  Being able to reflect on how well we are communicating and connecting with others allows us to monitor those relationships, making adjustments as needed to keep them strong.  If Keith realizes he is not paying attention to his wife, he can alter those communication behaviors to strengthen that bond.  If Ruth realizes she said something to a friend that could be taken as an insult, she clarifies what she meant.  Social monitoring allows us to continually negotiate and strengthen our connections with others.  Parents teach children to ask themselves, “How do you think that made your friend feel when you said that?”  We teach children to be self-reflexive, to think about others, as we formulate messages.

The Meaning of Words

Words stimulate meaning in two ways: denotation and connotation.  Denotation is commonly referred to as the dictionary definitionConnotation is the evaluative tone associated with the word.  Language problems tend arise more from connotative issues than from denotative issues.  First, however, let's consider how language is a dynamic, ever-changing part of our lives.

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Words do not just appear out of the blue; rather, someone somewhere creates a new word, uses it with a group, and the word either catches on and becomes a new word, or fades away.  Numbers vary widely, but the English language grows by approximately 10,000 words every year (National Public Radio, 2006).  Although many of these are highly technical terms most of us will never use, some are taken on by the general public.  For example, the internet has been around only since 1990.  Prior to that time, the word "internet" did not exist in its current form.  Consider all the words associated with the internet: email, the web, app, browser, social media, and so on.  Although many reading this grew up with these terms, these were brand new words and phrases introduced to the culture quite recently.  At this moment, language is changing because our world is constantly evolving.  According to The Global Language Monitor (2013), approximately 15 new words are added to our language every day.

Sometimes existing words change in meaning.  Up until about 1980, the word, “gay,” meant "happy and lighthearted."  Today, however, the vast majority of American English speakers will see the word as meaning "homosexual," and probably "male homosexual."  The meaning of the word has changed.  The word "awesome" is another example of changing meaning.  Today we use the word to express that something is outstanding or great; however, its past meaning was something that was frightening in its magnitude. The English language is far from static; instead, it grows and changes constantly.  


The denotation of a word is the dictionary definition.  This does not mean that any word has only one, clearly identified, precise definition; rather, the denotation is the meaning typically applied to the symbol.

We regularly encounter words with which we are unfamiliar.  We hear technical terms, jargon, or other words for which we simply have no meaning.  When such uncertainty arises, we experience denotative semantic noise.  This can create confusion and frustration; but, at times, can also be beneficial. We seek information to alleviate the confusion, expanding our vocabulary and adding more language to our personal dictionaries. 

A more troubling problem with denotation is obfuscation.  Obfuscation is the deliberate use of complex language to confuse.  This occurs when a person purposefully tries to confuse by using language the receiver will not understand.  Obfuscation is about exerting power over the receiver; a deliberate, planned strategy to overwhelm the listener.  The success of obfuscation lies in the fact most people, when feeling uncertain about what something means, will not ask for clarification for fear of looking foolish. 

The danger with this is that we may agree to something when we really do not understand what we are agreeing to.  The listener may get taken advantage of because of obfuscation.  Imagine a mechanic tells Steven the following, "Your car is experiencing severe contamination of the primary engine lubricant causing an increase in wear and tear on the moving parts due to the contaminants etching the metal of the parts.  The only resolution possible is to put it on the hoist and completely and thoroughly replace the lubricants."  Depending on Steven’s knowledge of cars this may sound pretty severe, so it sounds expensive; however, all it really means is "Your car needs an oil change."  By rephrasing common, inexpensive maintenance items into complex, obfuscated language, an unscrupulous mechanic could charge far more for the work than is warranted, just because the situation sounds so bad.

The best defense against obfuscation is quite simple: ask for clarification.  If a person did not mean to obfuscate, they are usually happy to explain things in different terms.  On the other hand, if they have been caught attempting to mislead or overwhelm us, we have now removed their ability to exert power.  In effect, we are refusing to play the power game of obfuscation.


The connotation of a word is the evaluative tone associated with the word.  Many sexist or racist terms are less an issue of denotation than of what is implied by their use.  If a man insists on calling his spouse "the old lady", the connotation is clearly one demeaning to the spouse. 

When these connotations interfere with clear communication, we are experiencing connotative semantic noise, similar to denotative semantic noise.  In this case, however, the noise is triggered not by what the words means, but by what the words suggests.  It is suggestion which can distract us, disturb us, and cause us to focus more heavily on the word itself instead of on the overall message.

We all have emotional triggers.  Emotional triggers are words or phrases so troublesome as to significantly interfere with clear communication.  While there are words that we generally avoid, such as racist terms, sexist terms, profanities, vulgarities, and obscenities, we each have our own unique set of emotional triggers.  Something that bothers one person may not bother another.  Three factors will cause a word to vary in its impact:

  • The person:  Each of us has our own set of values and beliefs affecting our language choices.  Religion is a good example.  For a Christian, an expletive such as “Oh, Christ,” may be offensive, but for a Muslim, it may not carry any real impact.  On the other hand, in Islam, it is considered blasphemy to have any images of Mohammed, so such images would be highly offensive. An emotional trigger for one person may be perfectly benign for another.

  • The source:  The person expressing the word may affect its power.  Swear words are not uncommon among college students; however, to hear a seven-year old use such words would be quite striking.  Many of us grew up not hearing our parents engage in much strong language; thus, to hear it from them may make the word much more striking because we do not expect it from them.
  • The context:  Where the word is said can also make a difference.  For many people, to hear someone swearing profusely in a church would be quite troublesome due to the nature of the place.  Students hearing a teacher using even a mild expletive may be quite taken aback due to the source and to the classroom context.  Context also includes how the word is used in a sentence.  A word used one way may be perfectly fine, while used another way, it may be quite problematic.  A prime example is the word, “bitch.”  Typically used as an expletive, the word also refers to a female dog.  So depending on the context of the use of the word, the emotional impact will shift.  The change in usage of the word dramatically changes its emotional impact.

Additionally, the severity of emotional triggers will vary.  They range from pet peeves to socially offensive.

Pet peeves are those items that bug us, nag at us, but are not significant issues.  They are troublesome, but not overwhelming.  Examples include items such as slang terms, pronunciation issues, grammar, and so on.  A good example is generic words for a soft drink: “pop,” “soda,” or “coke."  Depending on the part of the country, one term is generally the norm, so when travelling around the country, we may encounter other terms which can sound silly and odd, only because they are different from what we expect.

Swear Words

While often used interchangeably, these terms are slightly different:

  • Obscenity: a reference to sex or a sexual act.
  • Vulgarity: a reference to a body part or body function.
  • Profanity: a reference to a religious figure or concept.

Socially offensive terms include profanities, vulgarities, obscenities, sexist, and racist terms.  No words are offensive to everyone; however, these are words and phrases that tend to offend a broader spectrum of individuals and are generally considered inappropriate in polite society.  While pet peeves just nag at us a bit, socially offensive terms can trigger significant emotional reactions. 

When we encounter emotional triggers as a listener, we have three choices: 

  • If we feel it is appropriate for the situation and the relationship, we can express our displeasure with the use of the word or phrase. 
  • We can choose to remove ourselves from the situation, either physically or mentally.  We can physically leave, or “tune out” while the troublesome language is being used.
  • As often happens, we simply have to get by it.  We cannot leave, nor can we tune out, so we have to continue focusing on the message.

As speakers, however, we have the choice of what language to use.  Becoming aware of emotional triggers can have a significant impact on how we are perceived by the listener. We can choose to avoid them, as best we can, when needed. Thoughtfully using our language is a core part of impression management.

The Dynamics of Language

Language is far more than simply a set of sounds or shapes we use to communicate.  Language is a complex representation of how we see the world, how we think about ourselves and others, and what is important to us.  Language has several dynamics that illustrate its complexity and depth.

Words range from concrete to abstract. 

Some words we use are relatively definite in their meanings, while many are quite vague and flexible.  Concrete words refer to actual items, events, people; things we can see, touch, taste, hear or smell.  Because of this concrete nature, we can more easily share an understanding of what we are referring to.  Although there can still be a range of meanings, the range is usually far narrower than for abstract words.

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Abstract words refer to language constructs.  A language construct is an idea or thought we have only because of our use of language.  They do not refer to any actual object or sensory experience; they exist only because we think.  Take the word, “fair,” as in “to treat people fairly.”  This is a highly abstract concept, not referring to any real thing in nature.  After all, what one person sees as highly unfair, others may see as perfectly fine.  “Treating people fairly” is a thought process, existing only in the minds of people.  There is nothing ‘out there’ to point to what it means to “treat people fairly.”  Consider what it means to “be happy” and how broad the meanings of that phrase can be, varying dramatically from person to person. 

Clearly, the room for misinterpretation is far higher with abstract words.  To insure clearer communication, concrete words are more valuable than abstract terms.  Many students have had a teacher give a paper assignment and say something like, “I expect it to be well written.”   What does that teacher mean by “well written?”  Is it referring to content or writing mechanics?  Compare that to an instructor who lays out details, the paper will be graded on a list of specific expectations.  The more concrete list of expectations reduces uncertainty and gives the student a more specific idea of what the instructor is looking for.

Language use is inherently egocentric

Not only does the concrete/abstract nature of words cause problems, even with concrete terms the exact meaning we attribute to the symbol is specific to us.  We each see a word in our own personal, one-of-a-kind manner; we use language in an egocentric manner.  

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Take something as simple as the word, “cat.”  While it may seem like a clear, concrete term, what precisely one person means by “cat” and what precisely another means by “cat” can be different.  Even though we are talking about cats, we may have very different images in our minds.

Even when we try quite hard to be as clear as possible with others, effectively achieving shared understanding can be quite elusive as we have difficulty stepping outside our egocentric view of language.  No matter how well we understand what we are saying, it is vital we act in provisional and receiver-based ways, keeping in mind how the listener decodes the message will be different to some degree than what we intended. 

Language use reflects our worldview. 

The language we use can illustrate to others the way we see and experience the world around us.  This happens in several ways:

  • Topic frequency:  It seems self-evident the topics we return to most often are those carrying the most interest for us.  Depending on the choice of the topic, we get an insight into what is most important to the speaker.  Regularly talking about sports, politics, work, or money, reveals what occupies a place of priority in a person’s life.

  • Jargon:  Jargon is the specialized language of a field or interest.  Jargon is usually seen as something negative, but serves several important functions.  These specialized languages can speed up interaction and serve as a very concrete form of communication among those who use and clearly understand the jargon.  Medical jargon is a good example of a language which can speed up clear communication between users of that language. The classic image of an emergency room displays the use of medical jargon to make communication fast and precise.

    In addition, our ability to use and understand the jargon serves as a method of measuring inclusion and exclusion.  If we demonstrate a comfort level with the specialized language, we are showing we belong to a special group, and vice versa.

    A person’s jargon use also gives us insight into their worldview. We can assume a person’s interests in their world correspond to their language use, whether it is the jargon of a profession or of a hobby. While jargon can easily be misused for obfuscation, its overall benefits outweigh its drawbacks.
  • Colloquialisms:  Colloquialisms are the collection of sayings and other non-standard types of language we use usually associated with a region of the country.  For example, there is a collection of distinct, Minnesotan colloquialisms:  "ya betcha"; "whatever," "ya, sure."  The southern U.S. has a different set of colloquialisms: “in hog heaven,” or “eatin’ high on the hog.”  The variations in language reflect our culture, our generation, our education, and give others a sense of where we feel we belong.  One of your authors, Keith Green, was born in Tennessee, so he had a typical southern accent and used common southern colloquialisms.  Upon moving to Minnesota as a high school sophomore, he wanted to fit in, so he worked with his speech teacher to reduce his accent. He changed how he spoke to fit in with those important to him.  His brother, on the other hand, wanted to keep a strong southern identity, and even years after leaving the south he still has a pronounced accent and uses southern colloquialisms in his speech.  Keith talks like a Northerner; his brother talks like a Southerner.  This reflects where we feel a sense of place.  Like jargon, colloquialisms also serve inclusion/exclusion purposes. 

  • Number of words for a given idea:  According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, there is a correlation between the number of symbols for a given concept and the importance of the concept to the person, group, or culture (Hussein, 2012). In the U.S., since acquiring more and more money is a strong, culturally emphasized goal, we have many terms referring to money.  Because sexual activity is a very important human drive, we have many terms referring to sex and related issues.  Through an analysis of the language of a person or culture, we
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    should be able to reach some sense of what is valued to the person or group.    
  • Euphemisms:  A euphemism is a polite way to refer to a taboo subject. Normally, instead of telling others we need to urinate, we use euphemisms such as "go to the bathroom," or "use the restroom."  These are considered more polite ways to make reference to uncomfortable topics.  As we look at the euphemisms in a person's language or a culture's language, we are seeing what they view as uncomfortable or taboo subjects, giving us insight into their worldview.


All of these factors display how we see the world around us.  Not only is our perception reflected in this word choice, we also seek to persuade others to see the world as we do.  Dr. Robert Scott, a University of Minnesota professor, argues that all communication is an inherent attempt to persuade others to see the world as we do (1967).  For example, if Bev says to a friend, "I thought that movie was quite good," she is not only expressing her perception, she is also asking they accept her opinion and be influenced to agree with the position.  As students read this text and attend the class, not only are we explaining the overall dynamics of human communication, we are inherently trying to get the student to agree we are correct, a clearly persuasive effort. 

Improving Verbal Communication

Improving verbal communication revolves around one core action:  expanding vocabulary. The more language we know, the more choices we have.  The more choices we have, the more tools we have at our disposal to best express our ideas.  Vocabulary acquisition is a life-long experience, especially given the annual growth of the language.  Although there are some very deliberate methods of improving vocabulary ( and other similar apps), the most effective method to incorporate vocabulary expansion into everyday activities is to read regularly, especially newspapers, news magazines, and related internet sites.  These sources contain the latest in language and, as a result, are great resources for learning more and new language.

By expanding our vocabulary, we have more language “tools” at our disposal so we can use precise, concrete words and phrases to express ourselves, avoiding more abstract language.  As discussed earlier, the more concrete language used, the greater the degree of shared understanding. 

Finally, and most importantly for public speaking, we must adapt our language use to the listener.  Most of us inherently know this; we will speak to an adult differently than a child.  Even when speaking to different adult audiences, language choices may have to change.  Due to the differences in education and experience, speaking to a group of adult students in a speech class requires a different language level than speaking to a group of communication instructors. 

Verbal communication is more than just words.  Instead, language functions to aid us in understanding the world and projecting our views about that world.  However, since language is so personal, the likelihood of misunderstanding is very high, so we must be careful to act self-reflexively to increase the quality of communication.

Key Concepts

The terms and concepts students should be familiar with from this section include:

Verbal Communication versus Nonverbal Communication

Verbal Communication versus Vocal Communication

Functions of Language

Language is constantly growing and changing



The Dynamics of Language

Improving Verbal Communication


Fisk, A.P., (2013). The inherent sociability of homo sapiens. Human Sociality. Retrieved 4/1/13 from
Garrett, R.K. (2009). Echo chambers online?: Politically motivated selective exposure among internet news users. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 14, 265-285. International Communication Association.
Global Language Monitor. (2013). Number of words in the English language: 1,019,729.6 (January 1, 2013 estimate).  Retrieved 4/1/2013 from
Hussein, B.A. (2012, March) The Sapir-Whorf hypothosis today. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 2(3), 642-646.
Mehrabain, A. (1981). Silent messages: implicit communication of emotions and attitudes. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. Retrieved 6/30/2017 from
National Public Radio. (2006, February). The English language: 900,000 words, and counting.Retrieved 4/1/2013 from storyId=5182871
University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning (2013).Phonemic awareness.  Retrieved 9/6/2013 from
Scott, R., Sprague, J., Stuart, D., & Bodary, D. (2014). The speaker’s compact handbook, (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Scott, R.L. (1967) On viewing rhetoric as epistemic. Central States Speech Journal. Volume 18, Issue 1 pages 9-17