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