Oh, hello, reader! It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? Welcome back. Today’s topic is register—and not the kind you had to switch on to keep warm these last few days.
So what kind of register do I mean? Well, linguists are actually moving away from the term in favour of “style” and other words. But those are too broad for what I mean—namely, the “level” of language. I mentioned it in last year’s column when I talked about literal meaning versus connotations, and that’s still probably the best summary. Register doesn’t cover actual changes in meaning. It has more to do with why you ask your friend, “Wanna catch a flick?” whereas to the cute, nerdy girl it’s “Would you like to go to the movies with me?”
If any topic in linguistics has a part in your conscious daily life, this is it. You speak differently to your friend, to your romantic partner, to your parents, to your grandma, to your neighbour, to your nephew, to your boss, to your siblings (especially to your siblings), and to everyone else. Go on, imagine how you would ask each of those for a dollar so you can buy a coffee. (For some of them, you just wouldn’t!)
Now, maybe not all of the things involved in that thought experiment count as register. But register is a lot more than formality and informality.
Speaking of formality, we’ve all had to learn one more register to succeed here at UTM: “academese”. You know what I’m talking about; it’s the “We shall first, therefore, examine…” that begins the paragraph after your thesis. The line you would never use in any other earthly context. Academese is a mixture of jargon—that is, technical terms—and, well, what we’ve been taught is a “higher” level of language.
Academese is practically a dialect of its own, but no one speaks it natively. It has to be learned and encouraged. Among us undergraduates, it tends to be over-encouraged. Just about everyone’s first article in The Medium comes to us in the form of an essay. They spell out every “it is” and “cannot”. But newspaper style is not academic style. It even differs from section to section. (We’re in Features, right? That’s why I get my “Oh, hello” up there.)
As a human being, you’ve learned to speak in many different registers, some of them harder to master than others. And there’s a situation for each one, a situation that dictates what kind of language you can use and still sound sane. According to some linguists, every conversation has a register, which determines even non-verbal communication, including turn-taking, intonation, and gestures.
So context is everything. One type of theory behind register is that in our lexicon—that’s our mental dictionary in which every word is packed with even more data than in a paper dictionary—words and common phrases have a marker to identify the context they’re good for. That would be a sociolinguistic way of looking at it: it doesn’t affect the grammar, but the social context.
But in a sense, register does involve grammar. Not only are entries in the lexicon classified, so are whole rules of grammar. In the example with the cute, nerdy girl, I used the conditional tense—“Would you?” Think about it; what exactly is the condition, the “if”? There isn’t one. For all intents and purposes, it means the same thing as “Do you?”, except the conditional tense in that situation has been deployed to serve one purpose: register.
Register is also a factor in language change, because of how it classifies elements of a language. The meaning of a context tends to rub off on whatever appears in it. In French, for example, a tense called the passé simple has drifted so far to the literary that it’s now totally absent in regular conversation… but in some French translations of the Bible, most of the past-tense verbs are in passé simple. Now, passé simple is a tool writers can optionally use to create a certain effect.
We rarely notice these changes as they’re happening, because they’re so subtle. In English, the present subjunctive is disappearing shade by shade—Shakespeare is probably your closest memory of sentences like “Though he be but little, he is fierce.” And it’s already uncool to use past subjunctive. If I were to use it, you’d probably (forgive the pun) register it.
And that’s exactly the experiment I’d like to encourage you to try this week. Try to register register. As you go about using language every day, notice it. Listen for it in the speech of people around you. And play with it in your own. It can be way fun.