Language is not just about speech

My friend Varda (SquashedMom) posted about language and speech and it got me thinking about language from the NLD (nonverbal learning disability) angle. Language has a lot more in it than speech – there’s a whole lot of nonverbal stuff that goes into it. And, since I have nonverbal LD, I am sensitive to that.

What else goes into language? Here’s a partial list:


We emphasize different words. It changes the meaning of sentences. For example, the following sentence

I didn’t say that John stole the money

can mean at least 7 different things, depending on emphasis. First, if you read the sentence with no inflection, it means just what it said. But….

I didn’t say that John stole the money

means that someone else said it.

I didn’t say that John stole the money

means that someone else said you said it, but you didn’t.

I didn’t say that John stole the money

means that, although John may well have stolen the money, you didn’t say so

I didn’t say that John stole the money

means that you said someone else the money


I didn’t say that John stole the money

means that y0u said John stole something else.


We say different things at different volumes.  Let’s say you’re in love with a woman.  You decide to propose marriage.  You invite her to a romantic restaurant, and, as the meal draws to a close, you pull out a ring and yell at the top of your lungs;


well…. it probably won’t get a very good reaction.  But, on the other hand, if you are in a movie theater and see a fire, and say, in a normal tone “fire”, you won’t get any reaction at all, except maybe “Shhhh!”


The same sentence can mean very different things when uttered in a sarcastic tone of voice.

“George Bush was the best president of all time” can be uttered by a conservative or a liberal, and will mean opposite things.  Just a little different tone.

Body Language

How you hold your body when talking to someone makes a difference.  Are you tilting your head back, peering down your nose and saying something? Or are you face-to-face?

There’s a lot of other things too.  And most NLD people have problems with them.  I do, both in producing them correctly and in decoding them.  That’s one reason I like the web.  On here, it’s all words.  And it’s one reason many people prefer phone calls or in-person conversation – because, again, on here, it’s all words.


  1. Suisan Blumberg says

    My 15 year old daughter with NLD wanted to add these to your list, Peter, as she thought you were right on target!


    Puns are the humorous application of a word or phrase that may be a homonym, related to a situation, or suggest a meaning opposite to a situation. Puns generally do not make people laugh and are judged by the groans of the audience in that the louder the groan, the better the pun.


    Idioms are metaphorical phrases that describe a situation humorously.
    Examples: ‘in a pickle”, “the white elephant in the room”, “kill two birds with one stone”.
    Idioms tend to make very little sense logically.


    Sarcasm is when a person agrees or disagrees with a statement in a specific tone that indicates they believe the opposite of what they said. The distinctive tone is the most accurate way to identify if a person is being sarcastic or not. It is also habitual, so if one can identify sarcasm several times by one person, it is likely they will continue to be sarcastic.

  2. Actually, I interpret the emphases (pl. in case you missed the spelling or thought it a typo) of “I didn’t say that John stole the money” slightly differently:

    *I* didn’t say that John stole the money – to suggest that somebody else may have said it.

    I *didn’t* say that John stole the money – to plain vanilla *deny* having said this.

    I didn’t *say* that John stole the money – to suggest that you either didn’t outright explicitly say exactly that, or perhaps that, not having said it, maybe you wrote it or pointed at him in response to the inquiring prompt.

    I didn’t say *that* John stole the money – to REALLY split the hairs and suggest no you didn’t say THAT he stole it – you outright said the thing itself: “John stole the money”.


    It could also mean this “I didn’t say THAT John stole the money” – to say in a slightly grammatically incorrect way that ANOTHER John stole the money. (Grammatically correct, it would have to read “I didn’t say that THAT John stole the money”….

    I didn’t say that JOHN stole the money – an outright screaming suggestion that somebody ELSE stole the money.

    I didn’t say that John STOLE the money – meaning that he did something *else* with it – the likely implication (excuse!) that he merely “borrowed” it…. 😉

    I didn’t say that John stole THE money – meaning that maybe you didn’t suggest he stole the money in question, but that in other conversations, maybe you said he stole some OTHER money.

    Finally: “I didn’t say that John stole the MONEY” – implying that he instead stole something else.

    WOW – that’s 9 different interpretations – and without even toying with sarcasm, or perhaps multiple emphases and/or permutations of emphases with slightly different strengths thereof….. I can’t exactly fathom a sensical way in which multiple emphases would even work here, or that they would generate more variations in meaning that already indicated above, but who knows…. 😉


  3. Nina Liakos says

    As an ESL teacher, it’s my job to teach non-native speakers of English how placing sentence stresses in different place changes the meaning of what we say (Emphasis). It’s not usually something native speakers are aware of.

  4. Hi Nina
    Yes, NLD is all about being LD with regard to things that NT people aren’t aware of.

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