Verbs of Speech

There was a time when people used verbs of speech: talk, speak, say or tell. For people learning to speak English as a second or other language it is often difficult to tell the difference, and to remember that you tell somebody something, but you say something to somebody. I have spent a lot of time with Spanish people who don’t speak very good English and they typically use expressions like “Say me” instead of “Tell me” or “He say me” instead of “He told me”. I don’t think that we can blame Lionel Richie’s song “Say You Say Me” for this because they were doing it long before that song was released, at the end of 1985.

I read, many years ago, that Agatha Christie only used forms of the verb “to say” in her books, no other verbs of speech (but have never read any of them to check). Reading children’s books aloud to my children I still get caught out by verbs of speech, and adverbs, tucked away in the middle of a paragraph of dialogue. You read a line of speech in a normal voice and then find that the character whispered, mumbled or shouted it, or said it slowly, crisply or lazily. Scripts are easier: you are told how the line should be spoken before you get halfway through it.

The Beatles song “You can’t do that” has some good examples of verbs of speech, which I have recommended to Italian and Spanish people trying to improve their English. “I’ve got something to say … if I catch you talking to that boy again … because I’ve told you before / Oh you can’t do that … but if it’s seen / you talking that way / they’d laugh in my face … “

These days of course many people under the age of 40 have dispensed with most verbs of speech. This started well over ten years ago and I realized how far things had gone in the summer of 2006 when giving a younger member of my family a lift to meet some of her friends, to celebrate their excellent A-Level results. They all attended a very good girls’ school here in West London, and are well-spoken, but one of them explained a phone call earlier in the day, to contact another friend, along these lines: “So I was like ‘Is Ellie there?’ and her Dad was like ‘No? She’s away? She’s still on holiday?’ and I was like ‘Oh, when’s she coming back?’ and he was like …” To paraphrase Ashley Cole in a different context (quoted here) “I nearly crashed my car”. It was an early, and by no means unique, example of how rarely-used verbs of speech have become.

It’s not a new thing though. Back in the 1970s and 80s there were plenty of people who reported conversations without the use of verbs like say, tell, speak and talk. “So I goes, ‘Are you going down the pub?’ and he goes, ‘Maybe, what time you going?’ and I goes, ‘Well, I can get there about 9’, and he goes …”

What else can I tell you? That’s about all I have to say on this one, for now.

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