Dialects and Registers

Professor One afternoon some years ago, an overheard conversation on the subway piqued my interest. A few train stops before my apartment, a pair of young men got on the car and sat across from me.  After exchanging a few friendly greetings with each other, they jumped into the following interchange:

–You read the latest issue?
–Nah, son, I’m only half-way through.
–You get to the Hitchens yet?

They then proceeded to have an erudite discussion of a Christopher Hitchens piece in Vanity Fair. This wouldn’t be notable except that the men conducted their conversation in the dialect known as African-American Vernacular English.  Loath as I am to admit it, it was startling to hear such a topic being discussed in a non-standard dialect of English.

The anecdote reminds me of linguist Peter Trudgill’s Standard English: What it isn’t*. Trudgill here distinguishes strongly between a dialect and a register.  The former is a variety of English, like Scottish, Irish, or New England, while the latter (‘register’) is something like a ‘lingo,’ or a set of terms that relate to a profession, vocation or intellectual pursuit.

We falsely assume that intellectual registers equate to ‘standard English.’  In fact, they do not.  In the above conversation, the two men are using what might be termed an ‘academic register,’ while speaking in a non-standard dialect (African-American Vernacular English).  The two are not mutually exclusive.

As Trudgill points out, the situation I’ve described above is quite normal in many other non-English-speaking countries:

In German-speaking Switzerland, for example, most speakers use their local nonstandard dialect in nearly all social situations and for nearly all purposes. Thus it is that one may hear, in the corridors of the University of Berne, two philosophy professors discussing the works of Kant using all the appropriate philosophical vocabulary while using the phonology and grammar of their local dialect.

As a hypothetical English example, Trudgill uses the Cockney-tinged phrase:

There was two eskers what we saw in them U-shaped valleys

This sounds strange, doesn’t it? But maybe it shouldn’t. Trudgill’s sentence illustrates how a non-standard dialect of English could easily be used to discuss the technical subject of geography. Just because a dialect is non-standard does not mean one can’t use it to debate the most complex of intellectual abstractions.

(To be clear, we’re talking about ‘dialects’ here, not accents.  I’ve heard intellectual discourse in strong Southern, London, Northern English, New York and Carribean accents.  But rarely have I heard such conversations conducted using non-standard morphology and syntax.)

What’s sad, of course, is that such mixtures of non-standard dialects and ‘intellectual’ language seem uniquely uncommon for our language.  Obviously, much of this can be attributed to the correlation between dialect and class.  It’s no secret that education and ‘standard English’ tend to go hand in hand, at least in America.  But as Trudgill’s Swiss example illustrates, this need not be the case.

Why do we exclusively associate elevated discourse with the dialect we know as ‘Standard English?’

*Trudgill, P. (1999). Standard english: What it isn’t. In Bex, T. and Watts, R. J. (Eds.), Standard English: The widening debate (117-128). London: Routledge.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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19 Responses to Dialects and Registers

  1. Ed says:

    Switzerland is an unusual case. I’d say that the mystery there is that its Germanic dialects have always been kept within the umbrella of the German language, even though Switzerland has never been part of Germany. In addition, the equality of the four languages used there means that there is no voice of prestige in the country, and there’s not much incentive to change how you speak.

    I wonder whether countries that are politically decentralised are more likely to have diverse dialects, as local governments use the local speech in official business.

    • trawicks says:

      True, although Trudgill also cites other languages (e.g. non-standard dialects of Dutch). My impression, with the caveat that I’m no expert on Germanic languages, is that neighboring countries tend to be more accepting of the high-register, non-standard-dialect combo than England. Here in America, I find such situations exceedingly rare.

      • Ed says:

        That’s interesting. I have wondered many times whether the intolerance of non-standard English dialects is linked to the reluctance of English people even to attempt to speak a foreign language. The Dutch, despite being like the British in many ways, have the opposite attitude: they tolerate non-standard dialects, and it’s not unusual to meet a Dutch person who can speak four languages.

  2. Peter S. says:

    Maybe other lower-register English dialects aren’t the right comparison here; maybe you should be comparing AAVE to Yiddish. Both are dialects of a predominant language which are not defined geographically, but by being spoken by a group of people historically despised by the majority. I am sure that there were lots of erudite philosophical conversations conducted in Yiddish. And I expect that the cultural dynamics that kept one from hearing intellectual conversations conducted in Cockney don’t apply to either of these cases.

    • Peter S. says:

      Oops. I meant lower-class, not lower-register.

    • trawicks says:

      I find many similarities between Yiddish and AAVE (particularly in the context of the 20th-Century African-American diaspora). That being said, I find Yiddish more noteworthy for being a Germanic language surrounded by Slavic and Baltic tongues than a non-standard dialect surrounded by standard dialects, since its origins predate ‘standard’ Germanic languages.

      • Peter S. says:

        For Jews living in German-speaking areas (like my great-grandfather; he knew both German and Yiddish, as well as some of the Slavic languages), I expect the dynamic was quite similar to AAVE and standard English. The Germans definitely viewed Yiddish as a degenerate and inferior form of German.

      • Anonymous coward says:

        Not exactly, eastern Europe used to be bilingual with German. After WW2 the german speaking population was expelled from these countries.

  3. Aaron says:

    I wonder how this phenomenon manifests in other dialects and languages, especially regions that are “officially” monolingual.
    e.g. Hindi vs other Indian languages
    Mandarin vs Cantonese
    French vs Arabic

    I suspect our personal perceptions are tightly coupled with our individual ideas of cultural norms.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a good question. Intellectual discourse in regional languages and dialects other than Mandarin and Hindi is probably very common. The line between ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ in China is obviously pretty blurry, though! I would also be curious to know how this plays out in Caribbean countries, where ‘standard’ English and French co-exist with creole languages.

  4. CaitieCat says:

    Classism, is my best guess. You want to see register adjustment in action? Watch Judge Judy, or shows like it: almost exclusively working-class people, finding themselves acting as their own legal counsel in a courtroom setting, and feeling all sorts of self-pre-judgeyness about their native register and/or dialect. So you get all sorts of odd constructs as they try to adjust their register to what they perceive to be that of the courts: “The light changed, and he proceeded to go.” “I refused to permission him.”

    • Angus-Michel says:

      I used to have conversations with a former roommate that were like this. I have a fairly big vocabulary and good grasp of higher registers of English, where he doesn’t, so much. When I would engage him in conversation (funnily enough, about television, mostly, especially Star Trek), and without thinking about it, would shift into a higher register, he would attempt to follow my example and use all kinds of bizarre constructions like the ones in your examples. It used to really frustrate me, because I actually found it harder to follow his attempt at a higher register. A friend we had in common told me that he never had the same problem with him, because when he would talk to him about similar things, he would consciously not shift registers (he didn’t use the word, but that’s what he meant).

      • CaitieCat says:

        Exactly – he’s not a “native speaker” of the register (though nativeness is a bit of a dodgy name for it, as many of us learn new registers quite fluently later in life), so he makes all sorts of both competence and performance errors in trying to use it, just as a second-language learner will.

        I’ve always found the concept of registers totally fascinating, as I think they can be used as microcosms of the process of second-language learning, but in a way that specifically requires much more in the way of acquisition of new syntactic structures and vocabulary than it generally does in phonology. Had I continued in academia after my master’s, I was looking at using that difference to do some research into second-language acquisition, focusing on the syntax/morphology levels – SLA for foreign languages is a very different beastie than SLA for new registers.

  5. Charles Sullivan says:

    I’m not sure if this is dialect or accent (I’ll leave it you experts), but there’s clearly a contrast between Wynton Marsalis and Mr. Rogers in this encounter.

    • trawicks says:

      Marsalis seems to mostly be speaking Standard English with an AAVE-influenced accent in that clip. He exemplifies, however, a common situation in which ‘higher’ registers mix with ‘nonstandard’ dialects: among certain creative people. Marsalis grew up in a working-class household in New Orleans, but as classical musician, the vocabulary of his profession is ‘elevated’ and ‘intellectual.’ I’ve found that the same is true of some people in the restaurant industry: you will often hear, in prestigious kitchens throughout the world, French culinary terms mixed into various vernacular Englishes.

  6. Sooryan FM says:

    In Norway most people speak their dialect (except some snobs from the Western parts of Oslo). There are two official standards of the written language, but the spoken language is completely free, even parliamentary deputies speak in their local dialect in Norwegian parliament.

  7. Sooryan FM says:

    ”Intellectual discourse in regional languages and dialects other than Mandarin and Hindi is probably very common”

    You are right, especially in languages that are not diglossic, see here a medical lesson in Malayalam:

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