Difficult Pairs: speak vs. talk
Mothers long for the time when their child first starts to speak and mothers understandably feel somewhat miffed when babies in their initial babbling attempts tend to refer to their approximation to ‘daddy’ rather than to ‘mummy’. And then having acquired their proficiency in early speech babies never stop talking and the maternal longing starts to wane. And that to some extent defines the difference between this particular difficult pair.
As I have intimated, speaking comes first. That’s why we refer to related words like ‘speech’ and ‘speaker’ in the way we do. Speech is the origin of how language is expressed and a speaker is someone who delivers a speech often to an assembled audience. There is a place in London where every Sunday people stand up on a wooden box and proceed to speak about any issue they choose and if they get a crowd to listen to them or in some cases laugh or jeer at them, they are quite happy to get a reaction.
This particular spot is called appropriately enough: Speakers’ Corner. ‘Speak’ is therefore the starting point suggesting putting words in some coherent order and then saying them out loud. We say: I understand she speaks several foreign languages. Have you noticed that he speaks with an Australian accent? People were booing while the minister was speaking at the meeting. There is a sense of formality, if you like, about ‘speak’ It’s the starting point of making intelligible noises that other people can understand.
‘Talk’ on the other hand is the informal one. This suggests an open two way method of communication. Let’s contrast these two one with another: I want to speak to you and I want to talk to you. When someone addresses you with the former, it’s probably something formal and serious – The boss wants to say something about your work and it’s probably not favourable. On the other hand the latter is much friendlier because the indication is that someone wants to have a conversation with you.
Similarly you would go to listen to a speech delivered in a hall at a seminar in a college but you would go to the local village hall to listen to a talk (with possibly picture slides) given by a local birdwatcher about some of the birds that you can see in the area. When someone doesn’t like the way you say things either in the type of language or the topics, do they say: I wish you wouldn’t speak like that in front of your old aunt or I wish you wouldn’t talk like that in front of your old aunt? I have to tell you in all honesty, and I bet auntie would agree with me, you can say either. Talk to you soon.
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