History of Spoken Communication

Lesson Content

Inquire: Will You Just Talk to Me?


“The origins of human language will perhaps remain for ever obscure. By contrast the origin of individual languages has been the subject of very precise study over the past two centuries. There are about 5000 languages spoken in the world today (a third of them in Africa), but scholars group them together into relatively few families — probably less than twenty”.1

Think about the last words you spoke. Who were they directed at: someone who shares your language or someone who speaks a different language? Who were you communicating with: a group of people, a friend, a parent or a teacher? How did you know what words to use, and where did they come from?

In this lesson, you will learn how spoken communication evolved to become a vital part of our everyday routines and interactions. From the origins of speech and language used to create oral histories, to the modern communication models we now use to understand spoken communication, our methods have changed throughout time. However, the importance of spoken communication in everything we do has remained a constant.


Big Question

How would you feel if you woke up tomorrow and your ability for spoken communication had vanished: not just your ability to speak to others but also their ability to talk to you?

Read: The Evolution of Spoken Communication in Society

Spoken Communication: Then to Now

Humans are uniquely defined by their use of language. Unlike the manner in which animals communicate, humans use spoken words that can be combined to create an infinite amount of meaning. This begs the evolutionary question: when did we, as a species, develop the ability to communicate with speech? Formal record keeping does not date back far enough for us to “look up” the answer. And spoken language does not leave an artifact trail the same way art, technology, and other material items do. Instead, archeologists and psychologists have attempted to tackle this question by observing modern brain processes and systems.

DecorativeIn a provocative research paper released in August 2013, archeologist Natalie Thais Uomini and psychologist Georg Friedrich Meyer try to prove that tool-making skills and language skills evolved together. If this is the case, then the beginnings of speech could date back to when stone hand axes were used by prehistoric people: 1.75 million years ago. However, other researchers have challenged this conclusion, and there is still an ongoing debate around human speech origins. Most experts agree though that by 50,000 years ago our ancestors were able to speak to each other.2

Whenever it was first developed, spoken word has since been used to chronicle the human experience. Civilizations that predate written communication depended upon oral histories to keep records, tell stories, and spread their cultural laws and norms. Even today, this tradition continues all around the world, such as when grandparents pass down childhood stories to their children and grandchildren.

Oral histories have also been created and shared in order to help teach others and pass down lessons. Members of a society might learn – and carry on – cultural traditions from the retelling of such stories. They might cultivate survival skills and avoid the mistakes of those who have gone before them. This method of teaching is still used today. From the time we are young, we are told about events from our parents’ pasts and society’s challenges. These stories help us learn different lessons and, hopefully, help us avoid repeating mistakes. In this way, we engage in the same ritual of learning from one another that our ancestors did thousands of years ago.

When you consider how many ways we have to share ideas, the concept of creating an oral history may seem a bit outdated. Yet, think about your experiences when you listen to a teacher, watch the news, or hear an announcement on the radio. Each of these types of media (channels through which communication can be shared) convey some of society’s experiences through an oral history. Generating oral histories through media may be different, but the benefits of creating oral histories are much the same as they have always been.

The Many Models of Communication

At its most basic level, interpersonal communication consists of an interaction between two people; this is also known as dyadic communication. This form of communication is the foundation for many different models of communication.

Models of communication are conceptual models used to explain the human communication process. The first major model for communication was developed in 1948 by Claude Elwood Shannon (mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer known as “the father of information theory”) and published with an introduction by Warren Weaver (scientist, mathematician, and science administrator). At its most basic, communication models explain the process of sending and receiving messages or transferring information from one party (sender) to another (receiver).

DecorativeLinear Model of Communication

Shannon and Weaver were the first to propose the Linear Model of Communication in the 1940s (as presented in “The Mathematical Theory of Communication,” a technical journal article written by the two).3 This model shows communication as a one-way street, where the sender simply shares information with one other person, the receiver.

Interactive Model of Communication

DecorativeExpanding upon the Linear Model, the Interactive Model (also known as the SMCR Model of Communication) shows that information does not stop once the sender shares it. This model – introduced in 1960 by David Berlo of Michigan State University – posits that the receiver of the information will respond with feedback. The SMCR model emphasizes four communication elements: sender, message, channel, and receiver. The channel refers to how you are communicating; in relation to spoken communication, the channel is the use of words.

Transactional Model of Communication

Communication Studies expert Wilbur Schramm and other professionals in the Communication field state that communication is about more than simply sending and receiving messages. While the SMCR Model allows us to see oral communication as an interactive (two-way) process, academic Dean Barnlund developed the Transactional Model to focus more broadly on the entire interaction by emphasizing the importance of a message’s meaning.

DecorativeIn the Transactional Model, the sender and receiver (both communicators) take turns sending and receiving messages allowing the sending and receiving processes to happen simultaneously.

The Transactional Model reinforces earlier models’ arguments that both the sender and receiver share ideas through a channel (talking), but adds that communication is an ongoing process that can be impacted by our environment. Potential distractions in our environment are referred to as “noise” by communication researchers.

Nonverbal Communication

Speech, in human interactions, relies on spoken words. Yet communication is equally, if not more, dependent on vocal and nonverbal cues. Some nonverbal cues are based on our physiology: how we hold our bodies, our appearance, our gestures, and our facial expressions when communicating. Space and time also offer non-verbal cues for interpreting communication: for example, how much personal space we take up when speaking and how much time it takes to respond to a communication. Additionally, vocal cues such as sighs, grunts, pitch, and silence allow the receiver to better understand what the sender is trying to say.

One of the most frequently quoted statistics on nonverbal communication is that 93% of all daily communication is nonverbal (popular media outlets frequently quote this specific number). So where does the number come from? Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc). Subtracting the 7% for actual vocal content leaves one with the 93% statistic, showing that nonverbal communication is very important when thinking about how we communicate.4

Reflect: Why Can't You Understand Me?


If you could no longer speak, how would you communicate with others?

Expand: The Impact of Spoken Communication


How does spoken communication impact different cultural groups and institutions? Spoken communication permeates everything: it shaped languages, played a role in religious movements, and still contributes to conversations about gender norms. These are just some examples of how spoken communication impacts us and the world we live in.

Speaking Across Languages

There are about 5,000 languages spoken in the world today, but these different languages can be grouped into probably fewer than 20 linguistic families. These families are made up of languages that share similar words, sounds, and grammatical constructions. The theory is that each of these linguistic groups have descended from a common ancestor.

A large percentage of languages spoken today descend from just two language groups. The most widespread group of languages today is the Indo-European group, spoken by half the world’s population (including English speakers). This language group is believed to descend from the language of a nomadic tribe that roamed the plains of eastern Europe and western Asia. Many groups within the Indo-European tribes would go on to form communities comprising many major religions that exist today including Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, Buddhism, and different factions of Christianity.

DecorativeThe other widespread group of languages is the Semitic family, believed to derive from the language of just one tribal group, possibly nomads in southern Arabia. Semitic languages were spoken from southern Arabia to northern Syria by around 3000 BCE, while the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hebrews, and Phoenicians all influenced the civilization and language of the area. Aramaic soon became the popular language of the Middle East.

The Connection Between Speaking and Spirituality

Language and religion are closely connected. Given religion’s power to bring people together and teach different lessons, many world cultures used religion to communicate and as a means of community building. Because of their close connection, spirituality and the spoken word evolved together.

In England, for example, the 16th century Reformation contributed to the rise of spoken and written English. Before the Protestant Reformation, English was the language of the common people and Latin of the learned and the religious. Mass and the Bible were read and written in Latin; only the educated and upper-class sections of society could read and study it. Additionally, the average person was not allowed to own a Bible as the words inscribed in it were exclusively for religious leaders (this prohibition was especially true for women).

The Reformation was in many ways a social revolution as much as it was a religious revolution. After the Reformation, the Bible was read and written in English. At the time, education and religion overlapped, so this change enabled many to become educated.

DecorativeMany faiths today use spoken language as a way to convey religious teachings. In-person and televised sermons explain religious texts and relate their messages to the lives of the community members. Religious bands, TV shows, websites, and other media embrace the spoken word to spread or reinforce religious ideas. While the words used to convey these spiritual ideas may have changed, their ability to both inspire and upset have not. This further reinforces the power of spoken communication and its role in cultural and societal development.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

History of Oral Communication

A basic history of oral communication

Is language unique to humans?

An interesting article on how human spoken communication differs from animal communication

The lasting power of oral traditions

An interesting piece on why oral history is important today

Communication Models

A closer look at the different models of communication

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • channel
    the method a sender uses to send a message to a receiver
  • communication
    the process of using symbols to exchange meaning
  • communication study
    focuses on how people use messages to generate meanings within and across various contexts, cultures, channels and media; the discipline promotes the effective and ethical practice of human communication
  • Linear Model of Communication
    a model that suggests communication moves only in one direction
  • message
    the particular meaning or content the sender wishes the receiver to understand
  • noise
    anything that interferes with the sending or receiving of a message
  • receiver
    the recipient of a message
  • sender
    someone who encodes and sends a message to a receiver through a particular channel
  • Transactional Model
    a communication model that demonstrates that communication participants act as senders and receivers simultaneously

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Caroline Cuneo for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeMan woman bench and sunAlex HolyoakeUsplashPublic Domain
DecorativeWorkplace Team Business MeetingFree-PhotosPixabayCC 0
DecorativeDiya Light Flame CelebrationTanuj_handaPixabayCC 0
DecorativeBench Couple Daylight Environmentfreestocks.orgPexelsCC 0
DecorativeInteractive Model of CommunicationTEL LibraryTEL LibraryCC BY NC SA
DecorativeLinear Model of CommunicationTEL LibraryTEL LibraryCC BY NC SA
DecorativeTransactional Model of CommunicationTEL LibraryTEL LibraryCC BY NC SA

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