Home African communication system i VERBAL AND NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION


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In this unit, verbal and non-verbal modes of communication are examined.


At the end of this unit, students should be able to:

  1. define verbal communication 
  2. outline the channels of verbal communication 
  3. define non-verbal communication 
  4. outline the channels of non-verbal communication. 


3.1 Verbal Communication

Verbal communication refers to direct contacts and actions or words of mouth. People communicate through discussions and songs as needs arise. By this mode, people meet face to face to discuss, decide and act. It is practised in almost all affairs of life from age to age. Since, most of the various ethnic groups in Nigeria were basically non-literate, oral forms of communication played a significant role in their indigenous communication network. It offers them opportunities for finding peaceful solutions to problems of life. It encourages and promotes socialization, peace and harmony among individuals, groups and societies.

In many places, the most important channel for the circulation of news (information) is the word of mouth i.e. verbal communication. Oreh (1980) divided verbal communication, into three main groups. The first, which is spoken communication – consists of simple statements, proverbs and riddles and narrative. The second group narratives – folktales (folktale characters or folktales which contain both animals, human and superhuman characters); and the third, mythology, and legends.

Further looking at the verbal mode, Wilson and Unoh (1991:23) stated, “[verbal] communication is an activity that is common to all cultures except in those cultures (if any) without a language.” It uses the human mouth, including all the sounds made with the mouth as they relate to spoken word. Ibagere (1994) listed the following forms as verbal modes – spoken language; song; poetry, chant and incantations. Song, poetry, chant and incantations are discussed under demonstratives. So, spoken language is discussed below.

3.2 Channels of Verbal Communication

3.2.1 Spoken LanguageLanguage is a set of arbitrary symbols, matched with meaning and used by a group of people for communication. So, spoken language is commonly referred to as word of mouth and used for everyday conversation. It is easy to relate to most common and most used of all traditional modes of communication. According to Ibagere (1994:84):Since it is the most common mode, it is easy to understand and is the first, after body language, to be learnt by a stranger. It is usually employed alone but it could be combined with any other mode, depending on the circumstance [and need]. For example, one could accompany one’s speech with music to make the speech more effective, depending on the occasion. However, such combination should be significantly functional in enhancing the creation of the right impact on those who receive the information being passed by the communicator.

Furthermore, language communicates one’s area of origin. The tone, intonation and sound production amongst others could reveal the speakers’ linguistic group or mother tongue. For instance, some Nigerian speakers of English as second language, through speech communication, reveal their linguistic group i.e. place of origin. A Hausa speaker of English language uses /f/ and /p/ phonemes in free variation.

3.2.2 Characteristics of Language

  1. Depends on sound for its meaning and the correspondence between sound and meaning is determined by culture (society itself). 
  2. Language is a structured system of symbols i.e. produced based on linguistic rules. It is articulate, systematic and ordered. 
  3. It is creative i.e. there is no limit to which you cannot use human language (you can use it to write plays, tell stories). The limits of human language are unlimited 
  4. Exhibits displacement. Displacement here means the ability to talk about an event that is far away in space and time i.e. you can use language to tell what has already happened. It gives us the ability to communicate about “the not here and the not now” (Rothwell, 2000: 91). 
  5. Human language has two aspects – the biological and social aspects. This means that man can speak many languages according to his environment and ability to speak. 

3.3 Sign Language Communication

Most channels discussed in the various literature on African communication system reviewed tend to be partial and fail to recognise some classes of people – the physically challenged. Some are blind, deaf, dumb and lame. At this point, one should consider sign languages (that can be likened to Morse code in Western culture) which is used to communicate with them, for they are part and parcel of the society and are involved in events around them. When and where some other channels exclude them, sign language and natural phenomena are kinder to them. See the module on natural phenomena for details on natural phenomena.

Morse code is an alphabet or code in which letters are represented by a combination of long and short light or sounds and signals. So, Morse code modes may include other signs, marks, long and short light or sounds and signals.
According to Rothwell (2000:119) “Sign language is not non-verbal because it possess all the characteristics of language”, although used for communication with the physically challenged. It is an aspect of Morse code. Sign language is a traditional channel of communication that is still in use in the modern times. It is shrouded with elements of open secrecies. It is used for normal, deaf, dumb and even the blind people. It is made up of gestures and signs intended for a particular persons and groups or purposes to the exclusion of others. Others may see, hear and touch them, yet they would not understand what is said or shown. They are secret ways of sending and receiving information, messages and guides on what to do, how to, where to and when to do things.

3.4 Non-Verbal Communication

Communication is more than speaking. “Action speaks louder than words”. According to Rothwell (2000:119) “Non-verbal communication is sharing meaning with others nonlinguistically.” So, it refers to the mode of communication done with the human body and does not involve the use of words.
It involves all such modes of communication, which make use of any device other than the spoken word, song, chant, incantation and other related modes, that make use of the mouth. This does not suggest that different modes cannot be combined for the purpose of a more lucid dissemination of information. So, it should be noted that any of the verbal modes could be combined with the non-verbal mode (Ibagere, 1994).

Ibagere (1994) further classified the non-verbal mode into the following groups: body language, symbolography, dance, music and the hardware of music (idiophone, membranophone, chordophone, aerophone and xylophone).Symbolography would be discussed under visuals; dance and music and music hardwares under instrumental.
So, the main types of non-verbal communication used during transactions include physical appearance, hair; facial expression; and gestural communication. However, some of them (physical appearance, and hair) are discussed under visual communication while the rest are discussed below as communicating with parts of the human body. Essentially, non-verbal communication is multi-channelled, but this unit only discussed body language.

3.5 Channels of Non-Verbal Communication

3.5.1 Body Language or Gestural Communication

Body language is not peculiar to Africa, but is commonly used in Africa for communication. Body language refers to all signs and gestures made with any part of the human body for the purpose of communication (Ibagere, 1994). Amali (1990:12) asserted, “these gestures and signs contain and emanate messages with meanings”. Essentially, body language involves actions, such as facial contortions, walking and other movements which are used to communicate messages. The particular movements of a person or a people and particular facial expressions and other gestures are used to communicate different messages depending on the circumstance (Ibagere 1994:87).

3.5.2 Communicating with Parts of the Face and Other Parts of Human Body

Parts of the human body such as the face, fingers, eyes, head, nose, and lips constitute media of communication. Below are the various forms. Facial Communication: The eyes and face are the most immediate cues used to form first impressions

On facial expression, Rothwell (2000:132) stated that “the face is your personal billboard”, …it never gets totally hidden”. First the face signals specifies emotional states: a smile signals happiness and a frown signals sadness. The universal emotions identified by all cultures from specific expressions are fear, anger, surprise, contempt, disgust, happiness and sadness.

Furthermore, according to Rothwell (2000:131) “eye contact is an important aspect of non-verbal communication. For instance, stress can be measured by how often someone blinks. Thus one non-verbal cue may suggest relaxed demeanour while another non-verbal cue contradicts the observation. This conclusion may be shaky. Eye contact regulates controversial turn taking, communicates involvement and interest, manifests warmth, and establishes connection with others. It can also command attention, or look cold and intimidating.” It should be noted however, that the appropriateness of eye contact differs from culture to culture.

Eye contact invites attention and interpersonal communication is quite dependent on eye contact. For instance, blinking or winking or shutting the eyes in a particular way has much and varied messages to pass across to the other person or group.

Touch Communication: Touching skin is an enormously powerful and important communication code. American playwright Tennessee Williams testified to the power of touch when he wrote, “Devils can be driven out of the heart by the touch of a hand on a hand, or a mouth on a mouth”. Touch is essential to the expression of love, warmth, intimacy, and concern for others. Misuse of touch can repel, frighten, or anger others. Touch communicates power. Sexual harassment is often an issue of inappropriate, unwanted touch communication, while handshake is most often wanted touch communication and a sign of friendship Voice Communication: Voice is second only to face in communicating emotions.Voice communicates information about age, sex, socio-economic status, ethnicity, and regional background.Vocal cues (paralanguage) are divided into three. They are vocal characteristics (laughing, yelling, moaning, crying, whining, belching); vocal qualifiers (Volume, tone, pitch, resonance, rhythm, rate); and vocal segregates (uh-hum, uh, mm-hmm, oooh, shh). This also obtains in Africa. According to Ogwezzy (1999) groaning, coughing or croaking the voice is generally a warning against a person or his utterances and or actions; and sometimes a sign of slight.

On voice speech, a whispering soft voice may indicate speech anxiety when it occurs in front of a large audience, a flat, monotone voice can induce sleep in listeners, while speaking at hyperspeed may communicate nervousness and excitement. Listeners prefer a speaking rate that approximates their own speech pattenr. However, there are cultural differences regarding vocal communication. The arabs speak very loudly because it connotes strength and sincerity; Israelis, view high volume as a sign of strong beliefs on an issue; Germans, assumes a commanding tone that projects authority and self confidence; and Thailand, Japan & Philippines, tend to speak very soft, almost in a whisper. This connotes good manners and education. Laughing signals joy in Japan, but laughing often camouflages displeasure, anger, embarrassment and sorrow. (Rothwell, 2000:131).Ogwezzy (1999) agrees with Rothwell (2000). He stated that in Africa, ladies are expected to speak in soft tones, while men are to speak in a commanding tone like the Germans to projects authority and self confidence. Again, when people are angery, they speak in very high tone, and when someone is in danger, the voice could also disseminate such information.

Gestural Communication: Sometimes when communicating with others, we often wriggle, fidget, finger-tap, hand-wave, toe tap, and arm flail body in motion. These are gestures and they come naturally to us. According to Rothwell (2000:134) “Many gestures are unconscious manifestations of inner feelings” and that there are three main categories of gestures (manipulators, illustrators and emblems).
Manipulators are gestures made with one part of the body, usually the hands, rubbing, picking, squeezing, cleaning, or grooming another part of the body. They have no specific meaning, although people observing such manipulators may perceive nervousness, discomfort, or deceit from such gestures. Manipulator is also said to occur when a person is relaxed and feeling energized and when no deceit is occurring. Nonetheless, researches have shown that people mistakenly judge deceitfulness when a person exhibits many manipulators (Rothwell, 2000). So, do not jump into conclusions concerning what manipulators mean.

In Africa, producing some odd sounds from the nose or block it shyly is to slight an issue or a person or his speech while gathering the lips and protruding them out or abnormally spreading them out is contempt (Ogwezzy, 1999).

Illustrators are gestures that help explain what a person says to another person. They have no independent meaning of their own. Telling a person to go to the left, then pointing in the appropriate direction, is an example of an illustrator. Describing how to “zig-zag”, while drawing the movement in the air, is another example. Many of the unconscious gestures we make that emphasise what we are saying are illustrators (Rothwell, 2000). Again, people use fingers to send messages, information and instructions in many ways. E.g. placing the finger vertically across the two lips means or tells the other persons not to talk or to maintain silence (Ogwezzy, 1999).

Emblems are gestures that have precise meanings separate from verbal communication. Nodding your head up and down signals “yes” in Africa as well as in the United States. Moving your head side to side signals “no” (Rothwell, 2000). Also, Ogwezzy (1999) posits that “ to nod, wave or shake the head in a particular way tells a story and also directs the recipient on what to do.”


This unit presented the verbal and non-verbal modes of communication and concluded that in many African communities, both modes are important channels of communication. It noted however, that the verbal mode it is the most important channel for circulating information.

It further noted that since non-verbal communication is not peculiar to Africa, the competent communicator needs to be mindful of the vast potential for misunderstanding in gestural code. Very few non-verbal communication signs have precise meanings in all contexts. Most are far more ambiguous and require sophisticated interpretation tied specifically to the context in which they occur. Folding your arms across your chest may mean that you are closing yourself off others in a defensive gesture, or it may simply be a comfortable way for you to rest your arms. Be cautious when interpreting the meaning of non-verbal codes. When you interpret the meaning of non-verbal codes, match them with other non-verbal codes, context and look for consistency of meaning.


This unit examined verbal and non-verbal modes of communication. It discussed spoken and sign language as channels of verbal communication, highlighting the characteristics of language. It also highlighted the channels of the non-verbal.


  1. Define verbal communication 
  2. Define non-verbal communication 


  1. Outline the channels of verbal communication 
  2. Discuss five characteristics of language 
  3. Discuss the two main channels of non-verbal communication 


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