What is Register in Linguistics?

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, the register is defined as the way a speaker uses language differently in different circumstances. Think about the words you choose, your tone of voice, even your body language. You probably behave very differently chatting with a friend than you would at a formal dinner party or during a job interview. These variations in formality, also called stylistic variation, are known as registers in linguistics. They are determined by such factors as social occasion, contextpurpose, and audience.

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'."

Registers are used in all forms of communication, including written, spoken, and signed. Depending on grammar, syntax, and tone, the register may be extremely rigid or very intimate. You don't even need to use an actual word to communicate effectively. A huff of exasperation during a debate or a grin while signing "hello" speaks volumes.

Types of Linguistic Register

Some linguists say there are just two types of register: formal and informal. This isn't incorrect, but it is an oversimplification. Instead, most who study language say there are five distinct registers.

  1. Frozen: This form is sometimes called the static register because it refers to historic language or communication that is intended to remain unchanged, like a constitution or prayer. Examples: The Bible, the United States Constitution, the Bhagavad Gita, "Romeo and Juliet"
  2. Formal: Less rigid but still constrained, the formal register is used in professional, academic, or legal settings where communication is expected to be respectful, uninterrupted, and restrained. Slang is never used, and contractions are rare. Examples: a TED talk, a business presentation, the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, "Gray's Anatomy," by Henry Gray.
  3. Consultative: People use this register often in conversation when they're speaking with someone who has specialized knowledge or who is offering advice. Tone is often respectful (use of courtesy titles) but may be more casual if the relationship is longstanding or friendly (a family doctor). Slang is sometimes used, people may pause or interrupt one another. Examples: the local TV news broadcast, an annual physical, a service provider like a plumber.
  1. Casual: This is the register people use when they're with friends, close acquaintances and coworkers, and family. It's probably the one you think of when you consider how you talk with other people, often in a group setting. Use of slang, contractions, and vernacular grammar is all common, and people may also use expletives or off-color language in some settings. Examples: a birthday party, a backyard BBQ.
  2. Intimate: Linguists say this register is reserved for special occasions, usually between only two people and often in private. Intimate language may be something as simple as an inside joke between two college friends or a word whispered in a lover's ear.

Additional Resources and Tips

Knowing which register to use can be challenging for English students. Unlike Spanish and other languages, there is no special form of a pronoun expressly for use in formal situations. Culture adds another layer of complication, especially if you're not familiar with how people are expected to behave in certain situations.

Teachers say there are two things you can do to improve your skills. Look for contextual clues such as vocabulary, use of examples, and illustrations. Listen for tone of voice. Is the speaker whispering or yelling? Are they using courtesy titles or addressing people by name? Look at how they're standing and consider the words they choose.

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