Idiolect (Language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Robert Louis Stevenson, "Truth of Intercourse" (1879).


An idiolect is the distinctive speech of an individual--a linguistic pattern regarded as unique among speakers of a person's language or dialect.

Patrick R. Bennett notes that at various times "linguists have tried to set criteria, to say that two idiolects are members of the same dialect if they have this much in common or are to this degree mutually intelligible, but they pertain to the same language if there are greater differences.

But all of the cutoff points are arbitrary" (Comparative Semitic Linguistics, 1998). 

The term idiolect--made up of the Greek idio (personal, private) + (dia)lect--was coined by linguist Bernard Bloch.




  • "Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged, because of the way I am, the way I talk. And they're always wrong."

    (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in the film Capote, 2005) 

  • "Because each of us belongs to different social groups, we each speak a language variety made up of a combination of features slightly different from those characteristic of any other speaker of the language. The language variety unique to a single speaker of a language is called an idiolect. Your idiolect includes the vocabulary appropriate to your various interests and activities, pronunciations reflective of the region in which you live or have lived, and variable styles of speaking that shift subtly depending on whom you are addressing."

    (Thomas P. Klammer, Muriel R. Schulz, and Angela Della Volpe, Analyzing English Grammar. Longman, 2007)

    Multiple Idiolects

    "Almost all speakers make use of several idiolects, depending on the circumstances of communication. For example, when family members talk to each other, their speech habits typically differ from those any one of them would use in, say, an interview with a prospective employer. The concept of idiolect refers to a very specific phenomenon--the speech variety, or linguistic system, used by a particular individual.

    All those idiolects that have enough in common to appear at least superficially alike belong to a dialect. The term dialect, then, is an abstraction."

    (Zdeněk Salzmann, Language, Culture, and Society. Westview, 2003)

    "It must be noted that the very existence of the term 'idiolect' as a proper object of linguistic description represents a defeat of the Saussurian notion of langue as an object of uniform social understanding."

    (William Labov, Sociolinguistic Patterns. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972)

    Shaping Idiolects

    "Recognizing that each person has an idiosyncratic personal dialect, linguists long ago coined the term idiolect. And it's not just vocabulary; it's everything from how we pronounce certain words to how we put them together to what we imagine they mean. Ever have a disagreement with someone over whether an ambiguously-shaded object was actually blue or green? Congratulations, you've witnessed differences in idiolect. . . .

    "Your sense of English as a whole is really an abstract combination of all of the idiolects that you've experienced over the course of your life, especially at a young and formative age. The conversations you've had, the books you've read, the television you've watched: all of these give you a sense of what exists out there as possible variants on the English language.

    The elements that you hear more commonly, or the features that you prefer for whatever reason, are the ones you latch onto as prototypical."

    (Gretchen McCulloch, "Why Do You Think You’re Right About Language? You’re Not." Slate, May 30, 2014)

    The Lighter Side of Idiolects

    "'Zerts are what I call desserts. Tray-trays are entrees. I call sandwiches sammies, sandoozles, or Adam Sandlers. Air conditioners are cool blasterz, with a z. I don't know where that came from. I call cakes big ol' cookies. I call noodles long-ass rice. Fried chicken is fri-fri chicky-chick. Chicken parm is chicky chicky parm parm. Chicken cacciatore? Chicky catch. I call eggs pre-birds or future birds. Root beer is super water. Tortillas are bean blankies. And I call forks . . . food rakes."

    (Aziz Ansari as Tom in Parks and Recreation, 2011)


    SpongeBob: [Wearing underwear on his head and walking backwards] Mr. Krabs, hello. Do you how do?

    Mr. Krabs: Why are you talking funny, man?

    SpongeBob: I anything can't do right since because pickles.

    Mr. Krabs: Nonsense. You'll be back working at the Krusty Krab in no time.

    SpongeBob: I don't think ready back go to work, Mr. Krabs.

    Mr. Krabs: You're doing just fine.

    ("Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy/Pickles." SpongeBob SquarePants, 1999)

    Also See

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Idiolect (Language)." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, March 3). Idiolect (Language). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Idiolect (Language)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 19, 2018).