Register in language

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If you want to consider some of the meanings of register outside the study of language, go to Register. This page is only about the technical term in linguistic work.

The idea of register, as a technical term in the study of language, is not easy. Indeed, among linguists and teachers there are many definitions of the word that vary in detail, sometimes greatly. (A precise discussion of the term might make a good question for an assignment in linguistics.) Fortunately, to AWE's knowledge, there is little dispute as to the central idea. A linguistic register is a variety of the language, one that is governed by the context in which it is used. As the OED puts it, under meaning 8. d. of register, n.1: "Linguistics. A variety of a language or a level of usage, spec. one regarded in terms of degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and (when written) punctuation, and related to or determined by the social role of the user and appropriate to a particular need or context".

Some qualities that are considered in trying to identify the register of a particular utterance or text include:

  • the degree of formality of the occasion. In a court of law, the judge in charge will adopt a formal register, if only to appear serious and 'correct' in her or his dealings: it is expected;
  • the rank of the speaker, or writer. A judge should sound more authoritative than a lawyer in the same court. An accused might be foolish to sound more authoritative still;
  • the degree of professional expertise shown, often in the vocabulary. Health professionals use words which most lay people do not know, let alone understand (at least in detail);
  • the degree to which participants in a conversation, or written discourse, mark their belonging to a particular group - social, geographical or professional - and mark such qualities as their class, status, degree of education or income. Various forms of slang or jargon or even dialect are indicative here;
  • the degree of courtesy shown, often a reflection of the intimacy of those taking part. In a family gathering, a politician may well say some funny things which it would be rash to repeat in a public meeting - or in Parliament.