Ask Language Log: recency check

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Rick Rubenstein wrote:

Is the usage "I can't speak to the Iranian situation" as opposed to "I can't speak [about/regarding] the Iranian situation" relatively recent (or at least recently accelerating), as I perceive it to be? I feel as though I first noticed it about a decade ago, and found it very strange. I'm now almost accustomed to it.

There's no question that "speak to (a topic)" is quite a bit more recent than "speak of (a topic)", and somewhat more recent than "speak about (a topic)". But Rick is probably not old enough to have noticed the difference.

In the OED's entry for speak, the sub-entry II.11.a. Speak of, which is glossed "To mention, or discourse upon, in speech or writing", is cited from about 825:

c825 Vesp. Psalter cxviii. 46 [Ic] sprec of cyðnissum ðinum in ᵹesihðe cyninga. c950 Lindisf. Gosp. Luke ix. 11 [He] spræcc him of ric godes. c1175 Lamb. Hom. 73 Of þe halie fulht spec ure drihten on oðer stude. c1200 ORMIN 6784 Goddspellboc ne spekeþ þ nohht Off all þatt oþerr genge. c1340 HAMPOLE Pr. Consc. 2683 Here es þe thred parte of þis buke spedde Þat spekes of þe dede. 1422 Secreta Secret., Priv. Priv. 203 Of this Spekyth the boke of Iudyth. 1530 PALSGR. 727/2, I go nowe beyondsee, but if God send me lyfe you shall here speke of me. 1603 PARSONS Three Convers. Eng. II. viii. 481, I shall haue occasion to speake againe of these heretiks in the next chapter. 1730 A. GORDON Maffei's Amphith. 58 The spoke of by Martial. 1818 SCOTT Br. Lamm. xviii, ‘And speaking of red-game,’ said the young scape-grace, interrupting his father. 1884 tr. Lotze's Metaph. 43 A common-place with every philosophy which spoke of Things at all.

In contrast, the sub-entry II.14.e. Speak to, glossed "To treat of or deal with, to discuss or comment on, (a subject) in speech or writing", is only cited from 1610, almost eight centuries later:

1610 J. DOVE Advt. Seminaries 42, I desire them speake to these foure points. 1637 HEYLIN Answ. Burton 78, For your charges,..I meane to take order, and speake as briefely to them, as you would desire. 1662 STILLINGFL. Orig. Sacræ II. vi. §4 Though it be a subject little spoken to either by Jewish or Christian Writers. 1706 STANHOPE Paraphr. III. 555 Part of this Scripture hath already been spoken to. 1724 SWIFT Drapier's Lett. Wks. 1755 V. II. 110 A lawyer, who speaks to a cause, when the matter hath been almost exhausted by those who spoke before. 1778 EARL MALMESBURY Diaries & Corr. I. 166 Unprepared as he was for such a proposition, he could not, he said, off-hand, speak to it accurately. 1869 Daily News 28 Apr., The report..was spoken to by the Most Rev. Chairman..and the Bishop of Derry. 1880 Ibid. 19 Mar. 2/3, I wish to call your allegation, and I shall endeavour to speak to it.

As for Speak about (sub-entry II.8), it's cited back to 1300 or so, validating Rick's sense of its antiquity:

a1300 Cursor M. 24795 For to spek abute sum pais. 1605 SHAKES. Macb. I. iii. 83 Were such things here, as we doe speake about? 1671 H. M. tr. Erasm. Colloq. 263 He falls on speaking about the success of their business. 1737- [see 14b]. 1843 J. H. NEWMAN Lett. (1891) II. 430 Sermons which speak more confidently about our position than I inwardly feel.

Rick also asks, "I'm also curious which side of the Atlantic this usage may have sprouted from." It seems clear from the OED entry that all the early action was on the British side of the Atlantic.

More seriously, it's quite possible that there's been a recent to-ward change in the balance of usage among the prepositions used with speak to express topic (which include at least of, about, regarding, on, upon, and to, of course with somewhat different shades of meaning and structural distributions).

Unfortunately, it's going to be a chore to test this quantitatively. One obvious problem is that there may be various things between the verb and a prepositional phrase expressing topic, e.g. "Mr. Pettijohn spoke at length regarding the Rocky Top Road issue". Another, more serious, problem is that in most instances of "speak to", the object of to is the audience, not the topic ("Palin Speaks to Investors in Hong Kong"). So (lacking an automatic classifier with adequate performance), you'd have to get a suitable random sample of instances of speak over time, and classify each one by hand. This is likely to take more work than will fit into one Breakfast Experiment™, at least with the resources now available to me.

[Note that the specific pattern "speak to the * situation" is apparently not common enough to support a trend analysis. For example, it has apparently only occurred once in the NYT news archive since 1981. So the net would have to cast more broadly in order to spot a trend, I think.]


  1. Brett said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 8:38 am

    I don't know if it's just me, but I would never use "speak to" with a human subject. "This evidence speaks to the defendant's motive and opportunity," and "I don't think I've ever found a reference that speaks to that point," are fine, but I couldn't describe a person as "speaking to" a topic.

    [(myl) Judging by the distribution of subjects in the examples of this construction turned up by a web search, your usage pattern is not widely shared. But it's an interesting and little-studied phenomenon that individuals form idiosyncratic grammatical "rules" of this kind. We mostly learn about them when the individual in question achieves (or aspires to) some status as an arbiter of usage, and attempts to impose his or her idiosyncrasies on others; but I suspect that almost everyone has personal patterns of this general kind.]

    Related to this is the fact that I interpret "speak of" or "speak about" as meaning that the object is the (or a) specific topic being "spoken" about. (With any preposition, the "speech" can, of course, be metaphorical.) However, "speak to" merely says that the speech will be relevant to the mentioned topic; the speech may be about something else entirely, but with noteworthy parallels to the matter "spoken to."

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 8:44 am

    Google Books – "can't speak to the * situation".

    I'm surprised to find how old it is. Earliest citation there is 1967.

    I can speak to this one, but I can't speak to the Department of Defense situation.
    – Hearings, reports and prints of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, U.S. G.P.O., 1967

  3. Dave Orr said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    I think the distance between the preposition and "speech" matters, at least to my ear. "Speak to the Rocky Top Road issue" sounds fine to me, if a little pretentious, but "Speak at some length to the …" sounds questionable, and "speak as much as I can given my poor level of knowledge to…" sounds pretty awful. By comparison "speak as much as I can given my poor level of knowledge about…" seems fine.

    Sort of like leaving out optional relative pronouns, which is fine if the relative clause is close to the noun it modifies but awful if it gets too far away.

  4. dw said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    @Brett: Wow — I am exactly the opposite. I use "speak to" with a person all the time. I was completely unaware that one could "speak to" a topic, rather than an audience, until I came to the US. Perhaps this is a trans-Atlantic thing.

    [(myl) Brett's claim had to do with the nature of the subject of speak, not the object.]

    @MYL: I noticed your use of "validing" where I expected "validating" ("validing Rick's sense of its antiquity"). Do you know whether this "verbing" is also recent, or is it also a usage that goes back centuries? I don't think I have heard it before.

    [(myl) It was a typographical error, and is fixed now.]

  5. Ray Girvan said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    MYL: Note that the specific pattern "speak to the * situation" is apparently not common enough to support a trend analysis.

    There might be enough in Google Books (638 hits, though they'd need reading to sift out false positives). I'm seeing the first clear-cut hits for "speak to the whatever situation" in the 1940s.

  6. dw said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 11:43 am

    @Brett: Please ignore my comment on your post. I hadn't understood it properly and wrote in a pre-caffeinated state. Where's the delete button when you need it?

  7. Jim said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    "I'm surprised to find how old it is. Earliest citation there is 1967."

    That sounds about right. (And it's hardly "old".) I recall it coming into curency among community organizer types in inner-city settings, and in those days that kind of thing was all righteous and prestigious, so the pattern could spread easily. It was a variation on addressing a question or issue, thus the non-standard preposition. Besides, it was new and non-standard and jargony, so that was cool points too.

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

    "Old" compared to the usual time scale of recency illusion.

  9. marie-lucie said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    It seems to me that most of the cited examples of "speak to" in myl's post mean "respond to" or "address" some statement (even ancient or hypothetical) or situation which has already been mentioned, rather than "speak about" some topic which may be newly introduced by the speaker.

    It is not possible to "speak to" (= about) a third person, because the meaning is precluded by "speak/talk to" a second person, while to "address" a statement or even a situation cannot be confused with addressing/speaking to a (second) person.

  10. Craig Russell said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    That damn recency illusion! The other day I heard someone on a talk show say something to the effect of, "This is a great new book, so we're gifting it to the entire audience." I was sure that using "gift" as a verb like that was brand new and stunk of marketing-speak, but OED has plenty of examples going back to at least the 17th century.

    But I still FEEL that with "gifting"–and with "speak to" in this sense, by the way–the usage *has* somehow changed in my lifetime, either in its frequency or some shade of meaning or something. But I'm probably wrong.

  11. Acilius said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 3:38 pm

    I'd suspected there might be a difference in distribution between "speak to * situation" and "speak to * condition." The top results from a quick Google Books search for "speak to * condition" are all from Quaker authors inspired by George Fox's claim that he founded their movement because one day in 1647 he heard a voice say "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition." On the other hand, quite a few of the top results for "speak to * situation" also seem to be from Quakers. The expression "speak to * situation" is clearly much more widespread than Quakerism. So maybe the Quakers have gamed Google Books somehow.

    [(myl) I like the idea of a secret Quaker black-heat SEO operation to subvert Google Book Search. Bring in undercover operatives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the modern-day representatives of a secret society founded by John Wilkins and Robert Hooke, throw in a couple of undergraduate computer science majors, and get Dan Brown and Neal Stephenson to collaborate on the screenplay.]

  12. Andrew said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 4:54 pm

    At one time I thought of 'gift' in that sense as distinctively Scottish; now I am seeing it used more widely, so though it isn't recent in itself, it may have spread.

  13. Andrew said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

    Oh – and does 'speak to your condition' mean the same as 'speak of/about your condition', or does it mean rather something like 'speak to someone in your condition'?

  14. Brett said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    In this case, I'm not surprised to find that my usage is idiosyncratic. Reading the other comments and thinking about the matter further, I suspect that I may have limited "speaking to" a topic to inanimate subjects because I was trying to avoid constructions where confusion with the primary meaning of "speak to" (with the addressee as the object) could arise. The "speech" of an inanimate object often lacks a specifcially intended addressee. I guess I just generalized more than necessary in formulating my idiolect.

  15. Rubrick said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    "As for Speak about (sub-entry II.8), it's cited back to 1300 or so, validating Rick's sense of its antiquity"

    I knew it!

  16. Acilius said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    @Andrew: I think "speak to your condition" means "speak to someone in your condition."

  17. Mabon said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

    @ Craig Russell: "But I still FEEL that with "gifting"–and with "speak to" in this sense, by the way–the usage *has* somehow changed in my lifetime, either in its frequency or some shade of meaning or something. But I'm probably wrong."
    Perhaps the recency sensation you're feeling with "gifting" is from the use of the term "re-gifting" on Seinfeld.

  18. David Eddyshaw said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    "Speak to situations" has occurred for some time as a piece of charismatic Christian jargon meaning something like "having a specific gift of the Holy Spirit to discern and share God's will in the particular circumstances."

    I've always just sort of assumed it was a sort of relatively recent (American) barbarism – very interesting to see it has a venerable Quaker pedigree.

    Recency illusion indeed on my part.

  19. Zythophile said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 8:45 am

    Andrew/Acillus, I'd prefer a proper member of the Society of Friends to talk about this, rathet than someone (me) who once used to attend Quaker meetings, but I interpet Fox's "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition" as meaning "be the answer to the situation you find yourself in", "solve your [spiritual] woes", rather than just "speak to someone in your condition". Fox was searching for answers to the distress he felt, and saw all around him, in the middle of the English Civil War.

  20. John Walden said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    Something to do with so many US courtroom dramas? Expressions like "It speaks to motive" ring a bell, where "speak to" seems to mean something like "goes some way to explain" or "shed light on". Perhaps also something like "address", which makes sense. We need a lawyer!

  21. Acilius said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    @Zythophile: My wife is a Quaker, I'l have to consult her about this. But I think you're right.

    @John Walden: If my wife were a lawyer, I'd consult her about this too, and we'd have one-stop shopping. Anyway, I think you're right also. I think all these uses of "speak to" have some suggestion of "going some way to explain," or "shedding light on."

  22. Jonathan said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 1:34 pm


    I also feel "speak to" (a topic) is more natural with inanimate subjects. It means "indicate", not "discuss." E.g.: " Your Major Donor membership speaks to your passion for both education and the environment" (

    "Speak to" with an animate subject sounds like jargon to me. Regardless of how Swift may have used it, nowadays it seems limited to guilty politicians.

    I also think "speak to" with animate subject is narrower in meaning than "speak about". The topic "spoken to" is almost always a charge. Would anyone ever say: "The docent spoke to Renaissance painting techniques for half an hour"?

  23. marie-lucie said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    Would anyone ever say: "The docent spoke to Renaissance painting techniques for half an hour"?

    I don't think so, it would have to be "spoke to the topic of R….", and I would expect the lecture to be a response to an earlier mention or discussion, not an introduction of the topic as new.

    Your Major Donor membership speaks to your passion …

    This can also be construed as a response: you responded/reacted to your passion by becoming a major donor.

  24. MB said,

    October 3, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    I agree with Brett and Jonathan: for me, 'speak to' can only mean 'is a testament to', and I wouldn't use an animate subject with it.

  25. marie-lucie said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 2:00 am

    MB, You may not use the verb with an animate subject yourself, but when you encounter a sentence where an animate subject speaks to something (not someone), as in several examples above, what do you think the verb means for the person using it?

  26. Andrew said,

    October 5, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    A quite common phrase in some academic spheres is 'speaking to a paper'; this means presenting a paper, not by reading it out word for word, but by talking less formally about its main ideas (sometimes in the hope that the audience have read the paper in advance).

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