The -lect in Idiolect

Shakespeare text

Photo: Henry Stanford

When we discuss idiolects (the speech patterns or ‘dialect’ of a single person), it’s easy to focus exclusively on pronunciation. How we say something, with all those nuances of vowel placement and intonation, seems to exhibit more variety than what we say.  And yet word choice curios define our individual language just as much.

For example, when I ask where the bathroom is, I invariably ask ‘where’s the restroom?’ The question itself is hardly unusual, yet the frequency with which I use ‘restroom,’ rather than the ubiquitous American ‘bathroom*,’ is a personal peculiarity (I ask it even in informal situations). It stems from my puritanical side perhaps, which somehow finds more politeness in the affix rest- than the more licentious bath-. I realize it’s absurd on a conscious level.

Since idiolects involve personal word choice, they extend into one’s writing style in a way that one’s pronunciation obviously doesn’t**.  The word choices of a writer provide powerful tools to forensic and historical linguists. To cite a well-known example, the analysis of word choice and syntactic style helped famed English professor Donald W. Foster discern the author of the anonymous novel Primary Colors.

This type of thing also comes up in the authorship debate over Shakespeare‘s works.  The Bard had certain idiolectical quirks that allow us to deduce whether he truly wrote certain poems or plays. Shakespeare notably increased his use of the word most as his writing career progressed, to the point where it was unusually frequent toward the end of his career.

As the aforementioned example suggests, frequency is as much important to one’s idiolect as actual word choice.  In both my spoken and written English, for example, I use the word rather more frequently than more typical Americanisms such as kind of or sort of. A marker of an academic upbringing? (My father is a professor). Too much BBC as a child? It’s hard to say, but my rather pronounced use of rather could be a dead giveaway to an experience forensic linguist.

So, opening up the floor: what peculiar frequencies and word choices mark your idiolect?

*The word used to describe a room with toilets and sinks is one of the most striking divides between American and Canadian English, with the latter opting for ‘washroom.’

**Unless the writer is semi-literate.  Semi-literacy and non-standard spelling are, of course, a historical phoneticist’s best friends. As I’ve mentioned here before, for example, the common variation between the spelling of the first vowel of ‘Kendrick’ with an ‘e’ or ‘i’ in old census records from Kentucky, suggests the presence of the ‘pin-pen merger.’


About Ben

Ben T. 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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12 Responses to The -lect in Idiolect

  1. boynamedsue says:

    bathroom/restroom is a subject that fascinates me.

    It demonstrates progressive taboo avoidance, something seeming to occur with American words refering to toilets and death. Where a word that was used to avoid a taboo is then replaced because it because it has become associated too strongly with the object of the initial taboo.

    You also see it in the American, cock>cockerel>rooster.

    • darren says:

      I just don’t get ‘rest room’ I mean you aren’t resting in it, you are either going to the bathroom or bathing…but that’s just me

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    The ideolect is to a dialect what a dialect is to a language. Not only do we pronounce many words in our own way, we also use “special” words. For example, I use a number of retronyms, such as “ice box” for refrigerator. Part of that may be based on my age, but age aside, it is also based on the speech patterns of the family, career, and social milieu. One’s ideolect also changes over time, just like a dialect or language.

    • boynamedsue says:

      I’m the same, I base a lot of my informal speech on my grandparents’ speech, basically because I use dialect in informal situations, and my parents never used dialect with me. So my informal ideolect is basically a sweared up version of an outdated version of a dialect, younger dialect speakers use words and phrases I don’t, and some of the ones I use are no longer current.

  3. Elissa says:

    I have a few different things influencing my idiolect…

    – My South African upbringing has given me a few words which sometimes confuse Australians – particularly when I refer to a roundabout as a circle (“turn left at the circle”). Also dust-bin, and a two-syllable pronunciation of “poor”. And I sometimes use Afrikaans words – I’m apt to occasionally bewilder my partner by saying “hoekom?” instead of “why?”.
    – Discworld has also added a few phrases to my vocabulary – “dat’s der bunny”, “that bodes” (“bodes what?” “it just bodes”), or “bugrit”. My partner is a co-conspirator here rather than an innocent victim.
    – And then there’s discipline specific words of various disciplines – iterate and contiguous are computer science words that I quite enjoy using.

    My spoken and written language are quite different. My written language is usually more constrained in terms of word choice, as I have a background of academic writing that really emphasised clear and careful writing. Spoken language is usually a lot more colourful and grammatically casual.

  4. Lane says:

    I have an idiolect that changes faster than most people’s. Everyone tailors how they talk to situation, but I think I do it more than most. “toilet” in UK, “restroom” in the states. A “rather nice chap” in e-mails to older British colleagues quickly becomes a “super nice guy” to younger American friends. I wish I had more of a fixed way of writing and speaking, but I rarely speak/write without the intention to make some impression on another person, and one way I do that shamelessly is by speaking what I take to be *their* idiolect.

    • gaelsano says:

      I live in Korea, and when speaking to expats of different backgrounds I will tailor the language somewhat, but overall I have adopted a kind of WW2 era trans-Atlantic idiolect.

      I always opt, at all times, to use words with no ambiguity. I say underpants and trousers instead of pants/trousers or underpants/pants. There are some problematic pieces like sweaters/jumpers, but I usually default to America without issue (sweater vest, leather vest, and a tanktop undershit, not pullover, leather sleeveless jacket, and vest).

      I’ve unabashedly adopted “proper” and will slip into a West Country intonation at times.

      I’ve also de-flapped my t’s, differentiated (albeit imperfectly) my LOT words and more diphtongized my GOAT words (though Koreans expect a monophtongized version, that would require me to push my THOUGHT vowel down to LOT and re-merge LOT/PALM or go Scottish and merge PALM/TRAP)

      • gaelsano says:

        I should elaborate a bit. I use words like university over uni and college. I also say different from* and not “different than” or “different to.” But I’m no dinosaur; I will usually say phone instead of cell phone or mobile phone since the distinction is not needed unless for emphasis.

        As for writing, I like the Oxford comma and spelling (-our and -ize) but I’ll never get used to single quotation marks.

  5. m.m. says:

    I like that Marc Leavitt brings up that ones lect is like any part of language in that change over time happens. I tend to be very unconcious of how and when my lect changes.

    My lect up until highschool was naturally on the formal/academic side at all times due to who i learned english from and my community of practice [nerds]. Only recently has a real disparity between my formal and informal registers emerged.

    On toilet talk, I use restroom when in public and talking to someone random. Otherwise bathroom all the way.

  6. zbig says:

    I have a rather unrelated question, although it may involve idiolects 🙂
    What do I reply if someone wishes me e.g. “have a nice weekend”?
    I thought about “same to you” but I think it may sound rude, like an answer to someone telling to f…
    What do you native users say in such circumstances?

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