The Grammarphobia Blog

Is talk cheap?

Q: I’m often irritated by hearing someone say “talk” when I think he or she means “speak,” but I’m not sure if there’s any basis for my irritation. What are your thoughts on “talk” vs. “speak”?

A: It’s interesting that you should raise this question now. I recently reread the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. There’s a recurring motif in which Lucia pretends to know Italian and tosses around a few Italian words. She is said to “talk” Italian, not “speak” it. All the characters use this term, and Benson himself as narrator uses it. I thought it odd that he didn’t use “speak.”

At any rate, both words have long been verbs meaning to use a language. But “speak” has meant this for many more centuries than “talk.”

The earliest published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary for “speak” used this way dates from the late 13th century (spelled “speke”). The OED’s earliest citation for “talk” in this sense is from the mid-19th century.

It appears from the OED examples that “speak” may have once been considered somewhat more respectable than “talk.” But modern dictionaries accept both verbs as standard English. To my ears, though, “speak” sounds a bit more formal.

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