Register (linguistics)

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Register in linguistics refers to the patterns of communication used in particular settings and for specific purposes. Register is often an indicator of the formality or official nature of an occasion, or a mark of authority. Linguists make the distinction that register varies with use, rather than with the user. For example, most people's speech contains pointers, lexical, syntactical, and phonological, of their class or social status. Such speech changes register when it is altered to fit an occasion, such as appearing in court or speaking to a bureaucrat, writing a scientific paper, making a business presentation, or interacting with an older relative or small child. Register is marked by changes in syntax, accent or phonology, vocabulary, morphology. The study of register is commonly thought of as sociolinguistics, though it is also studied by other disciplines such as pragmatic grammar and stylistics. Register is also identified by non-linguistic markers, such as body language and attire, The term has been used since the 1960s, when linguist Michael Halliday identified three variables or types of factors that affect register:

  • Tenor: The relationship between the speakers matters, such as when a student is talking to a teacher, an offender to a police officer, an office worker to a superior, or a parent to an infant (baby talk). Here register is generally a marker of formality or intimacy, and commonly affects phonology, pragmatic rules, and accent.
  • Field: The subject of conversation or discourse matters, as particular situations call for particular kinds of vocabulary, mood etc. These variations are often called jargon, but are sometimes simply the form of a particular profession. For instance, priests use liturgical language, lawyers use 'legalese'. Philosophers use the language of subjectivity or rationality, while programmers have their own lexicon.
  • Mode: The medium of communication matters, such as whether it is spoken or written, and if either, on the level of formality or professionalism needed to be conveyed. Instant messaging, for example, is less formal than a handwritten letter, and a professional presentation is different from a coffee shop conversation. Here and in register determined by field, authority and expertise is being conveyed as much as formality.

The definition and study of register is not without controversy. Some linguists argue against the use of the term, because it suggests normative and prescriptive judgments. Others study the phenomenon in terms of basilect, mesolect, and arcolect, style, jargon, or genre.