The Power of Words: “Spoken vs. Written”


Do words become more “real” when we say them aloud, as opposed to when we only write them down?

I have been thinking about this question a bit lately. In particular, today’s date – May 20th – happens to be the anniversary of my Commissioning as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve. I stood on the parade ground on a bright, sunny day and said these words:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

My fellow cadets and I had each signed our Department of the Army Form 71 “Oath of Office” several days before, and I suppose that the documents had all been post-dated to match the actual ceremony. I learned subsequently that it was the signed form that obligated me legally to obey the oath. Nevertheless, in the hazy fog of my nostalgia, it seems to me that the act of signing the written document had none of the power of saying the words when the time came. The emotional and psychological impact of the words came when I stood there and said them aloud.

We speak before we write. We are hard-wired to communicate vocally, taking in what we hear as infants and then using it to shape and form the sounds that become our words. Writing in any form is a form of technology, an artifact we use to capture and convey thoughts and ideas that exist before they are committed to paper or parchment or papyrus. Even the sentences and phrases scrolling along my computer screen that are deleted and backspaced and disappear forever as though they never existed did exist for however brief an instant in the internal dialog of my own mind.

It seems to me that the real power of words does not happen because they are written. Rather it happens when we hear them, whether that is hearing them spoken aloud, or just within the voice of the author as our mind imagines it, talking to us one on one.

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    I love this OP, @postmodernhoplite. Nowadays I prefer to clothe myself in written words, but for many years the expression of words through my voice was deeply rewarding. Thank you.

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  2. Arahant Member

    Postmodern Hoplite: or just within the voice of the author as our mind imagines it, talking to us one on one.

    Should I mention that I imagine your sounding much like Daffy Duck as I read what you write?

    You pose an interesting question, but I am unsure that the answer is uniform across the human race. There is a field?/study?/sales technique?/scam? called neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) which has a base-level premise that people tend to relate through different senses. There are three main senses that people relate through (touch/sight/sound). The secondary premise of NLP is that if one can identify what sense one’s potential customer relates through, one can use language to tune into that individual better and to get them to buy. Those involved in the practice quote statistics that 50% of people are kinesthetic (touch), 45% are visual, and about 5% auditory. Again according to their premises, because the auditory are outnumbered, they naturally tend to be able to understand the other folks and switch between. One thought I had is perhaps your preferred sense is sound, and this might make the difference in how you felt in taking the oath vs. signing the oath. For someone more visual, perhaps the document meant more?

    Another thought is that such a ceremony engages more of the senses. In signing the oath, you engage the visual by reading it and that kinesthetic sense by picking up the pen and signing. Perhaps it might also engage the sense of smell, if you’re attuned to the smell of the paper or ink or some such. But in the ceremony, you are engaging many more senses. You raise your right hand and speak, both of which are body movements. You are listening as the oath is being given and as you repeat it along with everyone else on the field. You are making the commitment before more witnesses. You are engaging with a large number of people in what may be an individual commitment, but at that moment is a team activity generating fellow-feeling with your fellow officers.

    Third, it’s possible that the spoken word really is more powerful. There is some evidence of this thought’s having passed down through history in multiple cultures. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    This conversation is an entry in our Group Writing Series under May’s theme of The Power of Words. We still have tomorrow and Wednesday available on our schedule if this has brought to mind something you would like to say about your relationship with words and their power.

    June’s theme will be Now That’s Imagination. If you have written or would like to write anything on that theme, why not head on over to our schedule and sign-up sheet and claim a date for June’s Group Writing?

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  3. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite

    Arahant (View Comment):
    neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) which has a base-level premise that people tend to relate through different senses.

    You raise a very good point here, and I think there is a lot of validity to your observation that the experience – the sunshine, the physical actions, the smells of the duct and newly-mown grass – all had the affect of imprinting the significance of hearing and saying the words upon me far more than reading them and signing a piece of paper.

    However, I suggest that the power of words is still inherently strengthened when they are spoken aloud. I almost wrote this post based upon Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and I’d offer that masterpiece as a nearly perfect example of what I’m suggesting here.

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  4. Stad Coolidge

    Postmodern Hoplite: It seems to me that the real power of words does not happen because they are written. Rather it happens when we hear them, whether that is hearing them spoken aloud, or just within the voice of the author as our mind imagines it, talking to us one on one.

    My take is . . . it depends.  Yes, it sounds like a cop out, and it is, in a way.  Three examples.

    One may read Hamlet’s soliloquy and sense the power of the words in the mind, but to hear a veteran actor speak them is to engage the mind and the heart, so one experiences the emotion of the words as well as the intellectual meanings.

    OTOH, one can read passages from the Bible silently and also feel emotion with hearing them aloud.

    Finally, there’s news.  I prefer to read the news rather than hear it for two reasons.  First, I can get the information much quicker.  But second, I want to digest the information without emotion as much as possible, and the spoken word in news is often used to convey emotion more than the facts.

    As for the oath of office, I think it has to be said aloud because hearing yourself say them instills a sense of duty to follow them.

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  5. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase

    I certainly think there is truth to this, although I would submit that the power of the word is potentially increased when spoken or heard, rather than the definitive.  I can be powerfully moved by the written word just as much as when speaking or being spoken to (although the experience is different).  I think it has more to do with how receptive I am in the moment to really hearing what is being presented, whatever the means.  I can just as easily tune out and be absolutely unmoved by the spoken word, as I can glaze over a written narrative that just doesn’t grab me.

    In the case of a vow, for example, I fully agree that the power and import of the moment is greater when I speak it than when I write it, or even hear it spoken by another.

    It is interesting though.  But I do think our inner posture in terms of openness to receiving is a key component in the measure or assessment or experience of that power.

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  6. Nanda Pajama-Tantrum Member
    Nanda Pajama-Tantrum

    Thanks, @postmodernhoplite!  Your point brings up one of my main frustrations with written online communication – and some forms of online learning…

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  7. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Thinking of when the Israelites all heard G-d’s voice and how terrified they were, and from then asked Moses to have G-d speak to him first. At the same time, hearing Him that once had to be a transcendent experience.

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  8. MarciN Member

    I once read a wonderful book called The Line’s Eye by Elisa New. A lot of the book concerned the history of education. One powerful point the author made was about why Socrates was sentenced to death. Everyone remembers the part about his being accused of corrupting the young people. We forget that the nature of that “corruption” was that the Greeks wanted to go to a wholly written education. Socrates said, paraphrasing greatly, if they did that, half of what was being communicated would be lost. In other words, written language is limited in its ability to communicate fully. 

    In addition to the body language and facial cues and gestures and tone of voice that speakers use to convey more meaning and conviction or doubt than they are able to do using words alone, I also think there’s some small amount of extrasensory communication in play too. 

    I think on some level we all know that. I can’t imagine our country putting much faith in a trial by e-mail. :-) 

    That said, when authors and their publishers commit words into type in a printed book, those words take on an importance that they would not have in more ephemeral communication. 

    A great post. Thank you. 

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  9. TBA Coolidge

    Signing a marriage certificate represents your relationship to the state; reciting marriage vows is about your relationship with your partner and your friends and family. Oh, and God. 

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  10. EJHill Podcaster

    Most speeches begin by being written so the marriage between the written word and the spoken word is a close one. The difference is in the performance and the connection between the writer and the speech maker.

    Peter Robinson was exceptional at capturing Ronald Reagan in his head. He had the rhythms, the cadence and, more importantly the sense of the man. 

    Churchill, on the other hand, had a better writer – himself. The drama of Churchill’s words were never lost because every word was his. And perhaps this is the essence of the post, to speak the words is to own them. Which is why the words “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” are attributed to Reagan and not Robinson.

    And sometimes the written word compels the spoken. When Margaret Mitchell had Gone With the Wind published in 1936, her written words, her imagining of Rhett Butler, almost universally compelled her one million readers to demand that there was only one man fit to speak the captain’s words. 

    But I suppose one could also argue if the spoken is greater than the written why did God insist on that whole tablet thing? 


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  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    Postmodern Hoplite: We speak before we write.

    In more than one sense of “we,” given that writing is a relatively recent technology for humans.

    When I was working through the Pimsleur course on Ojibwe, I suppose in one way it was appropriate because Pimsleur courses are mostly about the spoken word and not the written language.

    For a while I also spent some time with Ojibwe language forums online, and was completely unsurprised to learn that among some Ojibwe people, it is not approved for outsiders to learn the language except in the Ojibwe community and preferably at the feet of the elders. And they especially don’t approve of it being learned on the internet. When I explain this to other chimookomaanag (of which I am one, lit. “long knives”) some are surprised. “I think they’d be glad for more people to learn their language!”

    To explain this to some people, I’ve compared it to the way we Lutherans treat catechism instruction. Even though there is a written book, it’s not something you do online or via a correspondence course. You do it by interacting with the pastor and other teachers, and with your fellow catechumens. The person-to-person use of spoken words is of primary importance.  I think it is similar with other religious teachings. This is also true with the transmission of Ojibwe language and culture. 

    (Perhaps less relevant: Each time on the internet I’ve suggested that I’d like some recommendations as to where to read some of the essentials of Karl Marx, but that I’m not going to read the whole corpus, somebody will be sure to come out of the woodwork and essentially tell me that it’s a worthy goal but that I need to be catechized, step by step.  Catechize is not the word they use, but that’s essentially what they offer to do.)

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  12. Postmodern Hoplite Coolidge
    Postmodern Hoplite

    EJHill (View Comment):
    But I suppose one could also argue if the spoken is greater than the written why did God insist on that whole tablet thing? 

    Excellent observation. My first thought is to point out that the Lord first spoke the words to Moses and the people of Israel: 

    Exodus 20:1.  “And God spoke all these words, saying,

    2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

    3 “You shall have no other gods before[a] me.”

    The tablets – a very necessary step – followed the speech.

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