Modern America, 1914-Present



By Ellen Hunt, Myra Jones, Rebecca Price, Claudia Walker, Lindsay Walker, Debra Williams 
Students, University of North Carolina at Pembroke 
Register and What It Means to Language 

Register is the level of formality used when speaking or writing.  Victoria Fromkin and Robert Rodman, authors of An Introduction to Language, call it "a stylistic variant of a language appropriate to a particular social setting, also called style" (535).  Dell Hymes suggests that register, or social variation in speech, is "located along such dimensions as the kind of speech event being engaged in (e.g. sales talk as compared to man-to-man talk), the roles of the various parties (e.g. talk to children compared with talk to adults), the topic of the discussion (e.g. children's talk about toys compared with their talk about discipline), and the style of the discussion (e.g. whether informal or formal)" (qtd. in Wootton 44).  From this, we can conclude that the determinants of register include social setting, situation, addressor and addressee, and topic.  In other words, language has to be appropriate to the individuals speaking and hearing it, and it also must match particular occasions and situations.  For example, a sportscaster would not recount highlights from a football game in the legal language used by lawyers and judges in a courtroom, nor would a minister order a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant in the same style he delivers his Sunday morning sermon.  Both the sportscaster and the minister adjust their style of speaking, or register, to fit the setting and to avoid embarrassment, just as most people adjust their language constantly in everyday speech depending upon whom they are speaking with and where they are. 

Formality is one of the many facets of register and is dictated by the addressee, context, and topic.  When an individual speaks or writes in the formal mode, he or she uses Standard American English, which Fromkin and Rodman define as "an idealized dialect of English that is considered by some prescriptive grammarians to be the proper form of English" (537).  Formal register, seen more often in written language than in spoken, is used in the professional realm and when people are not familiar with each other.  People tend to speak more informally when talking with family and friends.  Non-standard American English, slang, and the frequent use of contractions can characterize informal register.  Formal register and informal register allow the speaker to use a variety of speech styles that can easily be switched to meet the needs of both the speaker and the listener.  For example, a medical doctor does not use the same register to address everyone he or she speaks to.  A doctor may use an informal register at home with family and friends, a more formal register with patients that does not include medical jargon that the patient would not understand, and an even more formal register with colleagues that may include medical jargon and words associated with the medical field.  Many professionals such as doctors and lawyers have a jargon of their own that is not really slang.  These are words commonly used in their profession and make them sound more credible to their peers.  Just as formality determines register, the subject matter dictates what kind of register the speaker will use.  A doctor is not going recite the steps of tying shoelaces to his four-year-old daughter in the same manner he would recite the procedures for conducting open-heart surgery. 

Language varies according to the situation and addressee, but it also varies according to the speaker's social class, ethnic group, age, and sex, as Peter Trudgill notes in Sociolinguistics:  An Introduction to Language and Society (100).  This explains why there are differences between professionals' and blue-collar workers' speech, African-Americans' and Italian Americans' speech, teenagers' and adults' speech, and men's and women's speech.  The type of addressee determines what register will be used.  This change in register, when the speaker shifts his or her register to match the context, "corresponds to what Blom and Gumperz call situational switching" (Pride 28).  For example, a teenage girl chatting on the phone with a classmate is speaking informally, using slang, and speaking non-standard English, and when she accepts an incoming call from her father's lawyer, she shifts her speaking style from informal to formal by speaking Standard American English and by leaving out slang and colloquialisms used by her and her friends.  This kind of situational switching occurs naturally in the speech of most people and happens so quickly that the speaker usually does not have to make a conscious decision to change his or her register. 

Relevant Terms 

  • Register (Style): The level of formality used when speaking and writing.  Most speakers of a language know how to use many dialects, using one with friends, another when on a job interview or presenting a report in class, and another with talking with family.  These are situational dialects, also called registers or styles.
  • Slang: An informal style of speech.  Combining old words to elicit a more current meaning often creates slang terms.  "Spaced out," "right on," "hang-ups," and "rip off" have all gained acceptances as slang terms.  Slang terms may also introduce an entirely new word to the language; examples include "barf" and "poop."  Finally, slang often ascribes totally new meanings to old words.  Some examples of these type of slang words are as follows: grass/pot = marijuana, pig = police officer, sticks = legs.  Words such as "rap," "cool," "dig," "stoned," and "split" have extended their semantic domain as well.
  • Jargon: Words peculiar to a professional realm, science, trade, or occupation.  Words such as "ROM," "RAM," "morf," "modem," "bit," and "byte" were once computer jargon and only understood by computer technicians, but they are now understood by a large segment of the population.
  • Situational Switching: the act of changing one's register to match the setting, situation, addressee, or topic.
Some Types of Registers 
  • Formal Register: A type of register that incorporates Standard American English and is used by professionals or in situations where people are not familiar with one another.
  • Informal Register: A type of register used with more familiar people in casual conversation.  In the informal style of register, contractions are used more often, rules of negation and agreement may be altered, and slang or colloquialisms may be used.  Informal register also permits certain abbreviations and deletions, but they are rule governed.  For example, deleting the "you" subject and the auxiliary often shortens questions.  Instead of asking, "Are you running in the marathon," a person might ask, "Running the marathon?"
  • Over-formal Register: A type of register that can be characterized by the use of a false high-pitched nasal voice.  For example, a woman might approach another woman whom she does not really like and ask her cordially in a high-pitched voice, "How are you doing?"
  • Motherese: A type of register characterized by high-pitched, elongated sounds and "sing-song" intonation.  It is used when people speak to infants, young children, or pets.
  • Reporting Register: A type of register characterized by easily observable verbal and non-verbal cues:  flat intonation, rapid rate of speech, relatively low pitch, absence of marked facial expressions, and gestures.
Register in the Legal Field 

In the legal field there are many varieties of language used to convey legal matters to various  people. The type of language that is used in a courtroom setting is often referred to as register.  William M. O’Barr, in his research report  "Law and Language Project of Duke University," specifically names four varieties of register used in the legal field. They are formal spoken legal language, Standard English, colloquial English, and subcultural varieties.  Many of these dialects are often used by court officials and lawyers to address legal matters in the courtroom. 

Lawyers may use one specific type of register such as Standard English, or they may use more than one; however, most legal speakers are not able to use all four registers because they are not aware that they have changed their register to begin with.  For example, in the legal field a lawyer may address witnesses 
in Standard English because that is what the witnesses speak most of the time in a formal setting.  The lawyer might then change his or her register when specifically addressing the jury by using colloquial English.  Colloquial English is a more casual style of language.  By changing to colloquial English, the lawyer might more successfully persuade the jury by becoming more relaxed in his tone of voice and word choice. 

One of the other registers O’Barr named in his report was spoken legal language, which parallels written legal language.  It is often used by the judge, lawyers, and other courtroom officials who are familiar with legal documents and legal terms. 

The last register O’Barr addresses is a subcultural variety, which is a spoken dialect used by a particular group of people.  An example of a subcultural variety is Black English. 

How to Study Register 
In their book Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Register, Douglas Biber and Edward Finegan provide an analytic framework to follow when studying register.  Biber begins with his definition of register as being “a general cover term for all language varieties associated with different situations and purposes” (32).  The framework should include and distinguish between characteristics of linguistic and non-linguistic factors and should use these differences for a classification of register. 

The communicative characteristics of participants involved in the situation taking place must be taken into consideration, beginning with the addressor(s), which can be the writer or speaker.  This will be a singular person; several people, as in a co-authored work; or institutional, as in departmental or government document.  The addressee(s) will be singular, as in a dyadic conversation or a letter; plural, as in a classroom; or unenumerated, such as in a novel or a magazine.  Next, a researcher must examine the relations between the addressor and addressee, taking into account the social role each participant maintains. Age, occupation, and shared knowledge, whether on the topic and/or personal background, all play important parts in determining this relationship.  In regards to relative status and power, it is necessary to determine which one has the most power or if they share an equal status.  The amount of interchange involved can be extensive, as in everyday typical conversation; extensive or moderate, such as in classroom lectures; or nonexistent, as in published materials or formal speeches.  Furthermore, it should be established whether or not the participants share personal knowledge of each other’s background. 

When and where the communication takes place is referred to as setting.  Biber identifies settings with a particular context of use or domain.  He distinguishes six primary domains: “Business and workplace, education and academic, government and legal, religious, art and entertainment, and domestic/personal” (43).  Within each of these areas, there exists a public and a private setting.  Technology such as TV, radio, or any type of mass media can be used to represent or present these domains. It must be taken into account that a difference among registers may arise when the time of communication and place are shared, as in direct conversation in the presence of each other.  Participants can share time and be familiar with, but not actually share place, as in a telephone conversation. Also, participants “can be familiar with, but not share, both time and place of communication (as in many letters), or be completely unaware of each other’s place and time (as in most kinds of expository writing)” (43). 

Careful attention must be given to the primary channel, or mode, of communication--usually writing or speech.  Both channels may be used together, thereby becoming a mixed mode such as a written lecture.  Other modes include drum talk, sign language, or Morse codes.  Another characteristic of mode to be considered is its permanence factor.  For speech--such as telephone conversations, face-to-face conversations, and television and radio broadcasts--the mode can be classified as recorded or transient.  Because writing, published or unpublished, is a form of recording, it is thereby nearly always permanent, classified as transcribed, printed, taped, handwritten, e-mail, or other. 

How the addressor presents the information and how the addressee receives it should also be considered.  Unlike writers, speakers lack the opportunity, “to plan, revise, and edit their texts as much as they wish” (43).  In addition to this, the addressee is affected by comprehension circumstances such as self-imposed time constraints. 

Another factor important in differentiating among registers is the different purposes, intents, and goals of the addressor.  At one extreme are registers that attempt to explain or describe facts.  At the other end of the spectrum are registers that are completely fictional or overtly imaginative.  Between these two extremes are a variety of registers such as position papers, historical fiction, editorials, philosophical arguments, and theoretical position papers.  As for purpose, Biber characterizes it along four parameters: “ ‘persuade’ (or sell), ‘transfer information’, ‘entertain’ (or edify), and reveal self" (44). 

Lastly, the topic or subject being discussed--whether popular, generalized, or specialized--needs to be considered.  If the subject is specialized, it must be noted accordingly, examples being science, finances, politics, sports, and law. 

 Through these parameters, a thorough study of register and all of its affecting circumstances can be accomplished.  Biber writes: “The primary goal of the framework is to specify the situational characteristics of registers in such a way that the similarities and differences between any pair of registers will be explicit” (41). 

Other Studies of Register (from William Labov’s Sociolinguistic Patterns) 

  • John L. Fisher’s brief study on the –ing suffix used by children in a New England community (1958)
  • Henry Kucera’s observations of the use of Common Czech and Literary Czech variables in the speech of 19 exiles on French radio stations (1961)
  • John Gumperz’ investigations of dialect stratification and code switching in Khalapur, India and Hemnes, Norway (1964, 1967) and his study of Marathi-Kannada bilingualism in Kupwar, India (1969)
  • Lewis Levine and Harry Crockett’s report on the use of post-vocalic "r" in their sociolinguistic survey of Hillsborough, NC (1966); Frank Anbshen’s study of four phonological variables in the black population of that city (1969) 
  • Investigations of Spanish English bilingualism in the Puerto Rican community of New York City and Jersey City by Joshua Fishman, John Gumperz, and Roxana Ma (Fisherman et al. 1968) and particularly Ma and Herasimchuk’s study of Spanish and English variables.
  • Roger Shuy, Walt Wolfram, and Ralph Rasold’s study of social stratification phonological and grammatical variables in Detroit English (Shuy, Wolfram, and Riley 1967) and Wolfram’s analysis of black speech within the study (1969) 
Annotated Bibliography 

Biber, Douglas, and Edward Finegan.  Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Register.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 

    This book gives detailed information on registers and its variations. 
    It also includes examples of social dialects and children's language. 
    The authors give in-depth information on the various forms of register.  The book ends with a survey of Empirical Register studies. 
Di Pietro, Robert J., ed.  Linguistics and the Professions.  Norwood: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1982. 
This book is a collection of essays in the field of applied linguistics.  These essays explore societal functions of language, the pragmatics of speech acts, and the analysis of discourse. 
Fromkin, Victoria and Robert Rodman.  An Introduction to Language.  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998. 
Written by two professors, this book is used as a textbook in linguistic courses to introduce linguistics and the study of human language.  It includes information on the brain and the production of language, grammatical aspects of language, psychology of language, and results of psycholinguistic studies of language processing. 
Labov, William.  Sociolinguistic Patterns.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972. 
The first part of this book contains reports of Labov’s research on his study of inner-city African American youth in Martha’s Vineyard and New York.  The rest of the book is dedicated to presenting the ideas of other scholars that developed from Labov’s initial study of Black English. 
Pride, J.B., ed.  Sociolinguistic Aspects of Language Learning and Teaching.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1979. 
This book is a collection of papers written by linguists and scholars for prospective teachers of English as a foreign language who would like to understand more about the sociolinguistic aspects of the English language.  The book is divided into four sections with each section beginning with a paper that serves as the introduction to that section.  The book also stresses the importance of learning and understanding both a first and a second language. 
Trudgill, Peter.  Sociolinguistics:  An Introduction to Language and Society.  Harmondsworth:  Penguin Books, 1983. 
This book illustrates how class, race, religion, environment, and region are determinants of language differences, and how language indirectly affects society.  Trudgill considers varieties of spoken English and other foreign languages in his study of grammar, dialect, accent, and other linguistic phenomena. 
Wootton, Anthony.  Dilemmas of Discourse:  Controversies about the Sociological Interpretation of Language.  New York:  Holmes & Meier Publishers. 
This book is devoted to clarifying certain myths, controversies, and other issues surrounding recent approaches taken by sociologists when analyzing speech.  The book is divided into six sections:  “Language, Concepts and Description,” “Components of Meaning,” “Rules, Norms and Speech Acts,” “Ethnomethodology,” “Language and Social Class: Vocabularies of Motive,” and “Sociology, Language and Descriptive.” 
  1. Divide into groups and discuss one type of register that pertains to a particular group of people.  For example, one group may want to discuss register of children below the age of five. 
  2. Give an example of a place or setting where people would change registers several times while speaking--for example, a courtroom. 
  3. Compare and contrast formal register and informal register. Give examples of situations where both would be used. 
  4. Using the example handout, refer to Biber's analytical framework for conducting a study of register. Try to distinguish between the variety of communcations and their registers. 
  5. After observing your usage of registers in a variety of settings, write a short paragraph describing the different registers you used.  Why would a person change registers in different domains? 
  • William O' Bar
  • William LaBov
  • Martin Joos
  • John Gumperz
  • Douglas Biber
  • Edward Finegan
  • Register (Style)
  • Slang
  • Jargon

  • Situational Switching

Preschoolers' Development of Register 

Grammar Slammar 

Grammar Help 

University of South Australia 

Rethinking conversational code-switching: codes, speech varieties, and contextualization 

© Mark Canada, 1999

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Updated November 3, 1999 | University of North Carolina at Pembroke
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