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There are a number of questions e.g. What is the difference between “speaking” and “talking”? and “Speak to” vs. “Speak with” that deal with the slightly different connotations of the words "speak" and "talk". However, there also seem to be some grammatical differences between the two words. This question is about whether there's a way to formally pin down these differences, or whether they're just contingent features of the two words having different histories.

Some examples of grammatical differences are as follows:

  • be talkative ... be speakative
  • speak French ... talk French
  • give a talk ... give a speech (as opposed to a speak)
  • speak up ... talk up (the meanings of the two phrases being completely different, with "up" being a preposition only in the latter case)
  • speaking of which ... talking of which
  • grammatically speaking ... grammatically talking

On the other hand, many other constructions work just as well with either (though they might have subtly different meanings), for example

  • speak to ... talk to
  • speak with ... talk with
  • speak about ... talk about

I'm interested in whether there's a way to pin down these differences (e.g. are the two words classified as different types of verb in some way?), or whether they're essentially just arbitrary. I'm also interested in why we have these two different words with subtly different meanings. Is the distinction between “speak” and “talk” a feature of many languages, or is it just a peculiarity of English?

Etymologically, both words are from Germanic origins. “Talk” seems to have been formed from the Middle English tale, even though “speak” already existed in the English language by then (as far as I can tell). This makes it even more mysterious: Why did we form a new word as a synonym of one that was already established? Or were the meanings different at that time?

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Lots of differences; but you're not dealing the full pack. There's also say and tell. – John Lawler Dec 5 '13 at 3:37
@JohnLawler that's a good point, but I'm clearer on the grammatical differences between those two and the others: they are both transitive verbs, with the object of "tell" being another person and the object of "say" being an utterance. But neither "speak" nor "talk" is transitive (except in the case of "she speaks French"), which makes the difference more subtle. – Nathaniel Dec 5 '13 at 3:48
Do tell. Don't talk tripe. He spoke an oath. A telling argument. A talking point. Lots more differences. Oh, and "talking of which" has over 3.4 million hits on Google, and I have used it. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 5 '13 at 5:50
As @Edwin says, ‘talking of which’ does exist. ‘Talk French’ also exists, though it is of course nowhere near as common as ‘speak French’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 5 '13 at 11:56

We should distinguish between different lexical meanings of each word, since each meaning will have different grammatical and semantic requirements. Based on my own understanding, for the basic meaning of "speak" and "talk", "speak" refers to the actual act of saying something, and corresponds to the intransitive version of "say", whereas "talk" refers to the act of engaging in communication with others. This difference explains many of your examples, but not all, since some appear to arise due to different lexical meanings.

Examples of the distinction between basic "speak" and "talk"

  • "speak up", "speak out", "speak clearly", "speak confidently/authoritatively": These show that "speak" has to do with the act of saying something.

  • "actions speak louder than words", "speaks to the heart", "the clock spoke": Similarly these refer to things figuratively saying something. "talk" would be inappropriate here because these things are not having any conversation.

  • "speak for everyone": This refers to being a representative voice, so "talk" doesn't work.

  • "grammatically speaking", "so to speak", "speaking of", "talking about": "speak" refers to the actual verbalization, hence "speaking of X", while "talk" refers to the communication, hence "talking about X".

  • "talkative": It means "like to talk" or "talks a lot", which is about communicating with others.

  • "speak to", "talk to": Usually there is hardly a difference, but the distinction becomes clearer in certain situations. Anyone can "speak to the king" if given the opportunity, but to "talk to the king" suggests further that it is a conversation and not just one-way. In contrast, "speak with" conveys the sense of both speaking to one another, so I doubt it is distinguished from "talk with" in actual usage.

  • "spoke about X", "talked about X": "spoke about X" conveys just the speaking, while "talked about X" conveys speaking to others. But for this example both convey the same thing when taken in context.

A few examples of other lexical meanings

  • "spoke wise words", "speak English", "speak the truth": It is a different meaning of "speak" that is transitive. Nevertheless, there seems to be still a relation to the above distinction. We can say "talked to them in words of wisdom" and "talk to them in English".

  • "I'm talking grammar here": A transitive meaning of "talk". This can be used in place of "grammatically speaking", but conveys talking to the audience about grammar rather than simply stating something.

  • "give a talk", "give a speech": The noun "talk" just happens to be spelt the same as the verb.

By the way, I just found out that http://www.thefreedictionary.com/speak mentions roughly the same distinction as I did, but I disagree with what it says about telephone calls. I don't think there is anything wrong with asking to talk to someone on the phone. I don't even think it is less formal today.

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You have a great grasp on 'speak" and "talk", and good examples of when each should specifically be used. While there are specifics, they don't seem to follow a particular pattern.

Whether you use speak or talk depends on what kind of communication you have in mind. Originally, speak meant one person informing another. Talk (from tell) originally meant the same thing as speak, but evolved to connote a conversation or dialogue. So speak tends to be used for one-sided communications (e.g. she spoke to her employees), whereas talk implies a conversation or discussion between two or more people (e.g. everyone was talking when he walked into the room).

Speak is a little more formal than talk, and is often used in polite requests.

from Dos, Don'ts and Maybes of English Usage, Theodore M. Bernstein and other sources.

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For general usage, "talk" and "speak" are synonyms that differ in only inference and shades of meaning. In virtually all situations, you can substitute one for the other without losing any meaning. (The only slight difference comes to sophistication of the verbal communication; it's common to call the trick of teaching a dog to bark on command "speak", but "talk" would be improper.)

The reason why English has so many synonyms, by the way, is because of William the Conqueror. When he inherited the crown and secured the country by force, England acquired a ruling class which spoke a language (French) different form that of the people they ruled (German.) Over time the languages co-mingled and formed the basis of modern English, and resulted in several overlapping words where our sister languages only have one. (For example, "Beef" and "Cow".)

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Thanks, but the question is really about the grammatical differences, rather than the differences in meaning, which I already have a good intuition for. I know that English generally has a lot of synonyms due to its history (not just the Normans but also the Romans, Vikings, Angles, Saxons etc.) but I'm curious about whether speak/talk is just an example of this, or whether it's a more universal distinction shared by other languages. – Nathaniel Dec 5 '13 at 5:30
Etymologically, it seems both words are Germanic in origin, so I guess the Norman invasion probably isn't the reason in this case. – Nathaniel Dec 5 '13 at 5:34
There is, I believe quite rightly, a move away from the strict division of analyses into syntactic and semantic which followed the essential work by Chomsky. (I'm avoiding the word 'grammatical' as being ambiguous and thus confusing and off-topic here.) For instance, it's crazy to say crudely that 'He took the dog a bone' and 'He took the dog a walk' have the same basic structure. Meaning has to inform structural analysis. I'd classify 'He spoke an oath' as S-V-Od and 'He spoke French' as S-V-AO where AO is an adverbial objective, as 'home' say in 'He went home'. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 5 '13 at 5:55
If the OP is essentially about whether there are logical rules in the background governing those usages which are considered acceptable for speak and talk (and say and tell), and, if there are, whether they could be used to predict behaviour in novel constructions, I'd say it would take a lot less time getting familiar with actual usages, and accepting that they look pretty idiosyncratic. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 5 '13 at 6:01
@EdwinAshworth I'm aware there are no prescriptive logical rules about this sort of thing. My question is meant to be more in the sprit of "do the sort of people who study these usage patterns have a special word for this particular difference?" I'm only asking for the sake of having some additional obscure grammar knowledge. But you're right - the more I think about it, the more I agree it looks more like a collection of idiosyncratic differences than any kind of fundamental distinction. – Nathaniel Dec 5 '13 at 6:50

I think talk has to do with diallogue or conversation and speak has to do with ability of communicating.

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Yes it's clear if you know a bit: speak means no concentration, whereas talk means where you concentrate.

For example:

he speaks with all but he talks with me (concentration)

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That's not a generalisation I think works. – Matt E. Эллен Jun 16 '14 at 9:56

protected by tchrist Dec 14 '14 at 0:37

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