Registering the difference – language and context
Consciously or not, we all adapt the way we speak and write to suit our audience or the situation we find ourselves in. If we are delivering a speech to a Parliamentary committee, a greater degree of formality is required than if we are chatting to friends at a party. In sociolinguistics, these different types of language are called registers.
It was the linguist T.B.W. Reid who first introduced the term register in 1956. By the 1960s, the term was in common usage. Registers are generally characterised according to their level of formality. However, the lines between registers are blurred and linguists have never been able to agree on how the spectrum of formality should be divided.
Register or style?
It’s difficult to assign specific categories to linguistic styles as there are so many factors to consider. The level of formality in speech and the written word is dictated by the choice of vocabulary but also by the pronunciation used, the speed of delivery, and the number of abbreviations employed. For example, a speaker would use “father” rather than “dad” to refer to their parent in a formal situation. They would desist from dropping the /g/ sound from words like walking and they would generally refrain from using slang words or regional dialect. But all situations and speakers are unique.
In 1961, Martin Joos identified five styles of spoken English and these are still commonly referenced to this day:
- Frozen: the language of printed historical texts which do not change and which often feature archaic language. Examples include biblical quotations and poetry.
- Formal: uninterrupted speech without exchange with others when technical or subject specific language is required such as when delivering presentations and lectures.
- Consultative: two-way participation in situations where prior knowledge is not assumed and interruptions are permitted such as when doctors are addressing patients.
- Casual: interactions between friends or acquaintances in informal settings when the use of slang and regional dialects is common.
- Intimate: interactions between close friends and relatives when tone and body language are more important that vocabulary and grammar.
In truth, it would be possible to establish an almost infinite number of styles for spoken English.
There are so many contexts to consider and every speaker’s delivery would be influenced by their knowledge, experience, command of English and regional dialect.
There are many overlaps between styles and so most people inevitably move between styles as they speak to one degree or another.
The trouble with textspeak
All languages are in a constant state of flux but they have changed more rapidly and dramatically in recent years than ever before. Many of the changes have been driven by new technology.
Text messaging has produced an entirely new register which Martin Joos could never have foreseen. SMS messages were originally restricted to 160 characters and were time consuming to enter due to the nature of the keypads.
As a result, we all started using abbreviations, acronyms, new spellings and then emojis to shorten our messages. Punctuation flew out of the window and a whole new linguist style emerged which is generally referred to as textspeak.
People don’t write letters anymore! Most of us default to SMS messages and social media posts as a means of communication. This has led to textspeak migrating into common usage and making it harder for everyone to choose an appropriate linguistic style to adopt in more formal circumstances.
Why is it difficult for native English speakers to master registers?
Unlike many languages, English does not have both formal and informal pronouns. There are no informal alternatives to “you”. This wasn’t always the case as English previously featured the informal “thou” but this has been dropped from the language over time.
Native English speakers who do not speak another language will never have faced having to choose between formal and informal pronouns. This makes it harder for them to perceive the contexts in which they should employ a more formal style of speech.
Why is it important to know which style to adopt?
Most native English speakers understand that there are different linguistic styles. But some are more adept than others at choosing the right register for any given situation. Such linguistic gymnastics come easier to those who have benefitted from a good education or diverse life experiences.
Choosing the wrong register when speaking doesn’t mean that you won’t be understood. But an inappropriate style of speech can reduce the impact of what you have to say in more formal situations and could results in your audience failing to take you seriously.
It could also cause offence as your listeners may perceive that you are not demonstrating sufficient respect for their social standing, professional standing or knowledge of the subject at hand.
On the other hand, choosing a formal register in a casual context can result in you appearing to be arrogant or patronising. Knowing how to adapt your speech to both the situation and your audience will increase the likelihood of you being accepted, taken seriously and getting your message across.
It is equally important to establish the correct style for written English. You wouldn’t adopt the same linguistic style when writing a newspaper article as you for completing a scientific paper. Any linguistic style utilised in the wrong context will fail to engage your audience and could feel strange or even amusing.
Registers and translation
Clearly linguistic style is an important consideration when translating any copy or speech. Using the wrong register will ensure that the resulting translation is inappropriate. Any translation must retain the gravitas, humour or formality of the original.
It just ain’t good enough to piss off your professor with the wrong lingo. LOL!