Linguistic Register: Stylistic Variation

The Degrees of Formality in Language Usage

register
The way you speak to a young child is probably not the same way you speak to a close friend—or, for that matter, the way you would speak to a judge in a courtroom. Those different ways of speaking to different people in different contexts are what we call register. (Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images)

In linguistics, one's register is a style or variety of language determined by such factors as social occasion, contextpurpose, and audience, also called stylistic variation. Practically, the term refers to the degrees of formality with which populations use language; these formal variations are sometimes called codes.

Registers are marked by a variety of specialized vocabulary and turns of phrases, colloquialisms and the use of jargon, and a difference in intonation and pace; in "The Study of Language," Linguist George Yule describes the function of jargon as helping " to create and maintain connections among those who see themselves as 'insiders' in some way and to exclude 'outsiders.'"

To put it simply, a register can be considered a unique way a speaker uses language in different circumstances, from chatting at a fancy dinner party to debating a topic in a classroom discussion. These differences help provide context to a conversation, adding flair to the art of discourse.

Language in Context

Linguistic registers primarily help a listener determine the context for the content of one's speech wherein the speaker's register is defined by the casualness or formality of tone, language, and grammar or the speech's intended use and audience.

Robert MacNeil describes the range of these registers to encompass everything from professional to intimate sounds couple makes in his book "Wordstruck: A Memoir." From the "very formal occasions, often requiring written English: the job application or the letter to the editor" to what MacNeil calls the "language with no clothes on; the talk of couples — murmurs, sighs, grunts," registers encompass all the ways in which humans communicate to one another in specific parameters.

Choosing which register to speak or write in is important in every attempt at communication. Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer states in "The Anthropology of Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology," that some registers may receive "more prestige than others, and some may be looked down on." As a result, it is pivotally important for a speaker to understand the audience before choosing a register to speak in.

Features of Registers and Linguistic Styles

Whether it be in writing, sign language, or verbal communication of any kind, a particular register is defined by certain lexical and grammatical characteristics as they compare to another localized language usage by a different population or in a different situation.

These characters include many linguistic classes, as Douglas Biber states in "Dimensions of Register Variation: A Cross-Linguistic Comparison." These include phonological features like pauses, intonation and speech patterns, tense and aspect markers, pronouns and pro-verbs, questions, nominal forms, passive constructions, dependent clauses, prepositional phrases, adjectives, adverbs, lexical classes, modals, reduced forms like contractions and that-deletions, coordination, negation and "grammatical devices for structuring information."

In order to form a complete understanding of a particular register, then, a linguist must consider what of these elements would constitute a truly "representative selection of linguistic features" wherein the analyses of these are "necessarily quantitative, because the associated register distinctions are based on differences in the relative distribution of linguistic features."