So, if you’d asked me earlier today what speak and talk mean (in their verb forms), I probably would’ve said that, barring idiomatic constructions (you can talk someone into doing something, but not speak them into it) they’re pretty much exact synonyms. Or at any rate, I would’ve been hard pressed to articulate any difference in connotation. But quoting a news story in this Hit and Run post, I did stop to look twice at the construction: “No smokers stepped forward to talk against the proposal.” Nothing strictly wrong with it, of course, nor would there really be anything incorrect about: “We went down to the bar to speak about the rotten week we’d both had.” But it’s intuitively a lot more natural to have talk and speak transposed in those sentences. Even in the same sentence: “We should talk about that later” and “We should speak about that later” in otherwise identical contexts might suggest, in the first case, a casual chat, while in the latter there’s a sort of hint that Matters of Great Import must be Discussed.
This isn’t a terribly interesting distinction in itself, but as I noted at the outset, I’m pretty sure that in the absence of the triggering example, the subtle difference between how we use the words wouldn’t have occured to me. So it was interesting to me, at any rate, as another illustration of how our use of language deploys all sorts of tacit knowledge we’re not consciously aware of. Though really, if this is the sort of thing you find remotely interesting, you should stop letting me natter on and go check out heaps more of this sort of thing at actual-linguist Neal Whitman’s blog.