Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Suits You, Sir: The Formality Of Language

There's a well-known saying that "good manners cost nothing, but can mean everything". Does this apply to language? Of course! In certain situations, you have to address people in a specific way if you don't want to risk offending or confusing them. In sociolinguistics this is referred to as register.

Register comes into play in many settings. You've probably seen a group of teens smoking outside a shop before, waiting for someone older to buy them some booze. Do you think they'd talk to their parents like that? Probably not...

Register affects the way words are said (phonetics) and the choice of words (vocabulary or lexicon). You probably wouldn't say ain't or goin' in a job interview, nor would you speak like the Queen with your friends.

"Now only if I could remember which one I poisoned..."
The issue with classifying registers is that there is no definite line between one register and another. One of the most commonly used classification systems utilises five distinct registers. They range from the most formal, frozen, to the most casual, intimate.

The five registers in this model are:

Frozen: In this register you can't even change the words. Imagine a passage in the Bible, just about every utterance in the Catholic Church (Amen...) and wedding vows (unless you're a romantic and have written your own).

Formal: You'll be using correct grammar, correct word usage and will be uninterrupted. Think of introductions and speeches.

Consultative: A posh chat. Think about a dinner party, eating lots of tiny foods you can't pronounce. You won't be able to drink your body weight in booze here. It's probably for the best, as you're expected to be polite, just as you would be speaking to a doctor, a teacher, or someone in a position of power.

Casual: Chatting in a bar? Had a few? Then this is the register for you. Expect interruptions, colloquialisms and probably slurring.

Intimate: This is the kind of register you can use behind closed doors. The words don't really matter by this point. It's not what you're saying, it's the way you're saying it. Private vocabulary and non-verbal messages...

Of course, you only get to use the intimate register if after those few drinks you end up meeting someone. You'll probably have to first pretend you're not seeing double before you can run through the registers and get to the whole reason you speak a language... to communicate with prospective sexual partners.

We wish job interviews were like this.
Thank God for your good fortunes  - Frozen
Introduce yourself - Formal
Quickly get through the small-talk - Consultative
Start flirting - Casual
End up by getting... Intimate

Congratulations!