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LanguagePrintCritical dictionary

Oral Communication

Maria Lucilia Marcos

Living is communicating and the essence of the word is speaking. There is an historical, cultural, educational, communicational and existential primacy of the spoken language. It is because of its capability of speaking that the human species invented political life and rational thought. When we speak, we say and do more than when we write. Reading is the mediation between writing and speaking. The horizon of all communication is the “other”, and its ideal is the reciprocity of recognition as condition of the conscience of the personal identity and feeling of worth. Words are carriers of stories, values, melodies, senses, looks, smiles, love … We must learn how to communicate, in order to live the citizenship and know how to really love. Everyone’s very last word is itself.


Keywords: ethnocentrism; writing; language; name

Communication, broadly speaking, is a synonym of information transmitted by verbal messages. This reductive notion was established by the telegraphic model of communication which came from the USA at the end of the 1940s. Its schematic formula is sender-message-receiver. Linguistics, with “the obsession for scientificity”, Claude Hagège wrote, was driven to “invest itself with a false rigor”, forgetting itself that that its scope is “the man of words”, “the dialogal man” (Hagège, 1985).

In the 50s and 60s, new approaches of the phenomenon of human communication, namely the Palo Alto School, showed that all communication is meta-communication, pioneering a global, cultural and anthropological vision of communication. Anthropology of Communication, expression used by Dell Hymes, for the first time, in a text published in 1967, denotes “a way to read and to interpret life in society” (Winkin, 1996), turned towards paraverbal and non verbal aspects of communication, for its subjective, intersubjective and contextual dimensions. It is mainly a cultural, ethnographic approach, that is, on the field, that includes, namely, Conversational Analysis or everyday conversations, as well as comparative studies of the practices of communication in different societies (Contrastive Pragmatics).

There are more than a hundred definitions of communication, which is the object of study of approximately twenty disciplines covering neurosciences, cognitive sciences and social sciences. For this reason, Jacques Derrida asked, at the beginning of his intervention at a congress about “Communication”, three decades ago: “Is it certain that the word communication corresponds to a unique, univocal, strictly controlled and transmittable concept: communicable?”. It is indeed a polysemic word that “does not limit itself to semantics, to semiotics and even less to linguistics” (Derrida, 1972). Nevertheless, he added, its “equivocal field” may be “extensively reduced by limits of something that is called context”. It is also pertinent to ask here: What are the coordinates to approach oral communication, in the archipelago sea of “communication sciences”, and to navigate in it without losing sight of the context of communication (not recommending academic subtleties) in which this text is written?

Let us begin by looking at the past and putting into perspective, thereafter, some contemporary enjeux of oral communication.

“In the beginning was the Word” – this is how The Gospel of John begins, stating the biblical primacy of the word of the Creator. “All of ancient civilization is a civilization of word”, Georges Gusdorf said. “The emergence of humanity presupposed this first revolution that constitutes the passage of the lived world to the spoken world” (Gusdord, 1952).

Etymologically, myth means narrative, and epic the act to narrate. The Iliad and the Odyssey, epics attributed to Homer, date back to approximately 1.250 B.C., having started as an object of oral tradition, before its textual fixation, in the VI century B.C. The “oral traditions and expressions, including language as vector of intangible cultural heritage”, are included in the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization) in 2003 (Article 2.2a).

Philosophy, primordial expression of rational thought, was born as dialogue, with Socrates, protagonist of Dialogues of Plato, although Socrates was, in fact, more of a “monologue being”, as Gusdorf notes, but without disregard, “as what is characteristic of the great philosopher is precisely the incapacity of being understood by others”. In Plato’s Sophist the following is read: “Are not thinking and speaking the same thing, with the difference that what we call thought is speaking without a voice, interior, of the soul in dialogue with itself?” (263e)

The word is also constituent of politics, which is more than gregarity. As Aristotle said, at the beginning of Politics, “man is by nature a political animal” because he “is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech” (1253a). The invention of politics is the invention of public space, where the power of the word and the art of persuasive argumentation (Rhetoric) prevail. The importance of knowing how to speak in public, in Athenian democracy of the 5th century B.C., raised a necessity that the Sophists responded to, as the first professional teachers. A Sophist was an “expert at than making people clever speakers”, as read in Plato’s Protagoras, but was “a kind of merchant who peddles provisions upon which the soul is nourished” (312, 313c), without worrying about the truth of what he taught.

One enters the public space, according to Hannah Arendt, by “linguistic birth”, second and true human birth. “With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance. [] A life without speech and without action [] is literally be dead to the world”. That is why belonging to a public space – a place of civic plurality, of singularity of the unexpected word and the significant deed – is a right. What is more, it is a right to have rights (The Human Condition, 1958)

The freedom of communication and expression was considered by the General Assembly of the United Nations, in its first session (1946), as the “touchstone of all freedoms” (Resolution 59). That is why, “the right to freedom of opinion and expression”, which “includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” was proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), for the first time (Article 19). It became a so crucial right, in a world transformed by new technologies of information and communication (NICT) and by Globalization that they were the motor of, that UNESCO added the term “communication” to the trilogy of its original denomination (education, science, culture). In the digital era, the reduction of the digital divide – that is, the unequal distribution of NICT among people and individuals – became an imperative of justice and development.

Meanwhile, the Director of Radio and Visual Services of the United Nations Information Service (Jean d’Arcy) stated, in 1969, that one day “a more extensive right: the human right to communication” would have to be recognized (cf. Fisher, 1984). And in 1976 an Intergovernmental Conference about Communication Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean, organized by UNESCO in San Jose, Costa Rica, recommended to the States the recognition of the existence of a “right to communicate”, and UNESCO was invited to prepare a declaration on it (cf. Marks, 1977). Such right still does not exist, it is legally problematic, but can not be excluded from the “endless perfectibility of the juridical phenomenon, just because the justice appeal is infinite” (Derrida, 1994).

Consequently, there is a historic, cultural, educational, communicational, existential primacy of speech. Jean-Jacques Rousseau observed in his Essai sur l’origine des langues (1781): “We express our feelings when we speak and our ideas when we write. When we write, we are forced to use all the words in their common meaning, but whoever speaks varies meanings through intonation, determines them as he wishes []. When we say everything as if it were written, all we do is to read speaking”. And further on: “The first stories, the first speeches, the first laws, were in verse; poetry precedes prose; it had to be like this, because passions spoke before reason”. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in Sad Tropics (1955):

One of the most creative phases in human history occurred in the advent of the Neolithic: responsible for agriculture, for domestication of animals and for other arts. In order to get there, it was necessary that, during millenniums, small human groups would have to observe, experiment and transmit the fruit of their reflections. This immense work was developed with rigor and with a continuity proven by success, while writing continued to be unknown. [...] On the contrary, since the invention of writing until the birth of modern science, the Western world lived about five thousand years during which its knowledge floated more than increased. [...] In the Neolithic, the humankind made giant move without the help of writing [...].

After stating that writing was a necessary condition, but not enough, for the scientific development of the 19th and 20th centuries, Lévi-Strauss affirmed: “The only phenomenon that has closely accompanied it is the education of cities and empires, that is, the integration in a political system of a considerable number of individuals and placing them in a hierarchy of castes and classes. That is, in any case, the typical evolution that is witnessed from Egypt to China, when writing appears: it seems to favour more the exploration of men than their illumination”. And he concludes: “If my hypothesis is correct, it is necessary to admit that the main function of the written publication was to facilitate servitude”.

However it may be, writing was the “second great innovation of man” (MacBride, 1980). It has a representative character that historically evolved in the direction of an increasing abstraction. What is the essential difference between written language and spoken language?

The most obvious is this one: writing is “a means of communication” that prolongs in time “the field of oral or gestural communication”, as Derrida says, giving continuity to the word (Derrida, 1972). But an essential characteristic of written language is the absence, although every sign is, by definition, the presence of an absence. The absence, in written language, is that of the readers, at the moment of writing, and of the writer at the moment of reading. It is a mismatch. In any case, now, at the beginning is writing. In a language with writing, the ‘natural’, pure speaking, is a lost paradise.

Reading is mediation between writing and speaking. Reading is an affective act and normally a solitary one. There is a “love me present in every writing”, said Barthes, and a desire in the readers. “Unfortunately, reading has still not found its Propp or its Saussure” – regrets Barthes. The same could be is said about speaking. In Michel de Certeau and Luce Giard’s opinion, “conversation has a lesser theoretical status probably because it is natural and necessary everywhere” (Certeau, Girad, Mayol, 1994).

Nevertheless, when we speak, we say and do more than when we write. Living is communicating, and the essence of the word is speaking. Oral communication is, at the same time, the interiority and the exteriority of writing. It is the life of languages and of communities and of individuals that speak them. It is the citizenship in the homeland of the language.

At the beginning of oral communication is the corporality, the sign-body. A language is a body of signs that forms one body with whoever speaks it. For Jacques Lacan, the unconscious subject is the subject of words. The psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto, author of a book entitled Tout est langage (1987), said that when words are no more in the mouth it is necessary to look for them in another part of the body. What is said wants to be seen and heard, it wants to say and say itself. But all the density of oral communication is in the presence, the meeting, the reciprocity. The “other” is the horizon of all communication. However, “a horizon is, at the same time, openness and limit”, observed Derrida that, although he protested against the inflated and mechanical use of the term “other”, he refers, in line with Emmanuel Levinas, to “infinite irreducibility of the other”. I’m “a hostage of the other” (Derrida, 1999). Therefore, in communication what is at stake, as Jean-François Dortier recalls, is this fundamental imperative: “constructing a society founded on the acceptance of the other” (Dortier, 1997). Actually, Gusdorf points out, “all expression tends to obtain recognition from the other person” (Gusdorf, 1952), which is a profound necessity of acceptance, respect, valuing, integration, being treated by name, etc. “One can even say that the search for recognition is, at the same time, one of the unconscious motors of communication and one of the fundamental processes through which personal identity is built” (Marc, 1997). The reciprocity of recognition, in communication, is the creator and enhancer of identity and coexistence. In the tensions between alterities, words can shoot poisonous darts or free white doves. Oral communication is, in Barthes’ beautiful expression, “the rumour of language [...] the noise of something that is working well [...] of the plural enjoyment”, even if it is “a utopia”.

The Roman historian Tacitus, in a text written around the year 80, wrote: “the Empire imposes itself and with it the democracy of the word disappears”. Our time is paradoxically a time of “hyper-communication” (Lévi-Strauss, 1984), but also of “a decline of the word and of the function it plays in the progress of civilization”, according to Philipe Breton (1999), who points out the importance of education in the fight against that decline. Education is, in fact, the most profound and resonant modality of communication, because of its humanising or dehumanising power. Yet La communication, c’est comme le chinois, cela s’apprend – according to the ironical title of a book (A. Oger-Stefanink, 1967)… Learning to communicate is learning to say the world, to say oneself in the world, to value the word, to value oneself and to value by the word, and also to communicate without words, in the silence of the interlocution … School, “the lobby of the public space” (Bougnoux, 1997), is responsible for a kind of semiotic eugenism when it neglects the subjective and civilising power of communication. In the absence of a communicational culture, or if communication is stopped or repressed, what is left is violence as a form of communication without symbolic mediations, the substitution of the peaceful speech acts by the violent acts speech. Cornelius Castoriadis stressed:

... the enormous role of education and the necessity of a radical reform of education, in order to make of it a true païdaïa, as the Greek said, a païdaïa of autonomy, an education for autonomy that takes those that are educated – and not only children – to constantly ask themselves to know whether they act with full knowledge of the facts and not impelled by a passion or by a prejudice.

Everything that happens during an individual’s life continues to educate and to uneducate him. The essential education that contemporary society provides its members with, in schools, in high schools and in universities, is an instrumental education, essentially organised to learn a professional occupation. And besides this one there is another education, the rubbish one that television broadcasts.

Without the concern of the “unlimited interrogation”, typical of intellectual autonomy, without communicational competence, without political awareness or civic capability, the individual becomes “privatized”, closed in his small domestic world (Castoriadis, 1999). We know the primacy of moral and civic dimensions of education in Plato’s Republic and Laws. In Laws, for example, the term “education” is reserved for that which has in mind educating for virtue and the exercise of citizenship. That is why, “as a rule, men with a correct education become good, and nowhere education should be neglected, because when combined with a great virtue, it is an asset of incalculable value[...] a task for the entire life that each one should assume until the limit of their strengths” (644b).

To sum up, with Michel de Certeau and Luce Giard, oral communication:

                Demands recognition of its rights, with reason, because we begin to understand more clearly that the oral has a founding role in the relationship with the other. [...]

Oral communication is also constituent of the community essential space. In a society, there is no communication without oral communication, even when in this society writing plays a big role, for the memorisation of tradition or the circulation of knowledge. The social exchange requires a correlation of gestures and bodies, a presence of voices and accents, a whole hierarchy of complementary information, necessary to interpret the message beyond the simple utterance  [...]. It needs this grain of voice by which the speaker identify and individualise itself, and of this type of visceral tie, founder, between sound, sense and body. [...]

                Priority to the illocutionary, to which does not concern the word nor the sentence, but to identity of the speakers, to circumstances, to context, to the “sonorous materiality” of the conversed words (Certeau, Giard, Mayol, 1994)

Words are imperfect signs, they are not to be taken literally, but when they are not words, words, words (Hamlet, Scene II) they are carriers of stories, values, melodies, meanings, looks, smiles, love … To live citizenship and to know how to love, it is necessary to learn how to communicate. Each human being needs to know how to say its word. But there is neither first nor last word. Our first word was the name with which our parents wanted us, the last one is ourselves.



Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes trópicos, Lisboa, Edições 70, 1955.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Conservation, contrainte et culture”, in UNESCO, Culture pour tous et pour tous les temps, Paris, 1984, 95-104.

Claude Hagège, L’homme de paroles – Contribution linguistique aux sciences humaines, Paris, Fayard, 1985.

Cornelius Castoriadis, “L’individu privatisé”, Manière de voir 46 – Révolution dans la communication, Le Monde Diplomatique, 1999, Juillet-Août, 75-77.

Daniel Bougnoux, “Les territoires de la communication”, Sciences Humaines – Hors Série – La Communication: état des savoirs, 1997, nº16, mars/avril, 12-15.

Desmond Fisher, Le droit à la communication: Rapport sur l’état de la question, Paris, UNESCO, Études et documents d’information, 1984, nº 94, 61 p.

Edmond Marc, “Le face à face et ses enjeux”, Sciences Humaines – Hors Série – La Communication: état des savoirs, 1997, nº16, mars/avril, 30-32.

Jean-François Dortier, “Les mystères de la communication”, Sciences Humaines – Hors Série – La Communication: état des savoirs, 1997, nº16, mars/avril, 6-11.

Georges Gusdorf, La parole, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1952.

Jacques Derrida, Marges de la Philosophie, Paris, Les Éditions Minuit, 1972.

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Jacques Derrida, Sur parole – Instantanés philosophiques, La Tour d’Aigues, Éditions de l’Aube, 1999.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Essai sur l’origine des langues – où il est parlé de la mélodie et de l’imitation musicale, 1781

Maria Lucília Marcos e A. Reis Monteiro, Reconhecimento – do Desejo ao Direito, Lisboa, Colibri, 2008.

Michel de Certeau, Luce Giard, Pierre Mayol, L’invention du quotidien – II – Habiter, cuisiner, Paris, Gallimard, 1994.

Philipe Breton, “Déclin de la parole”, Manière de voir 46 – Révolution dans la communication, Le Monde Diplomatique, Juillet-Août, 1999, 97-97.

Plato (Edited by John M. Cooper & D. S. Hutchinson, 1997). Plato – Complete Works. Indianapolis / Cambridge, Hackeht Publishing Company.

Roland Barthes, O rumor da língua (‘Le bruissement de la langue’, trad. de António Gonçalves), Lisboa, Edições 70, 1984.

Sean MacBride et al. Voix multiples, un seul monde – Communication et société aujourd’hui et demain: Vers un nouvel ordre mondial de l’information et de la communication plus juste et plus efficace (Rapport de la Commission internationale d’étude des problèmes de la communication), Paris, La Documentation Française / Les Nouvelles Éditions Africaines / UNESCO, 1980.

Stephen Marks, “UNESCO and Human Rights: The implementation of Rights relating to Education, Science, Culture and Communication”, Texas International Law Journal, 1977, Vol. 13, nº1, 35-67.

Yves Winkin, Anthropologie de la communication – De la théorie au terrain, Éditions De Boeck & Larcier S. A. / Éditions du Seuil, 2001.


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