Register (linguistics)
In linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

, a register is a variety
Variety (linguistics)
In sociolinguistics a variety, also called a lect, is a specific form of a language or language cluster. This may include languages, dialects, accents, registers, styles or other sociolinguistic variation, as well as the standard variety itself...

 of a language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

 used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. For example, when speaking in a formal setting an English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 speaker may be more likely to adhere more closely to prescribed grammar, pronounce words ending in -ing with a velar nasal
Velar nasal
The velar nasal is the sound of ng in English sing. It is a type of consonantal sound, used in some spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is N....

 instead of an alveolar nasal
Alveolar nasal
The alveolar nasal is a type of consonantal sound used in numerous spoken languages. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents dental, alveolar, and postalveolar nasals is , and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is n....

 (e.g. "walking", not "walkin'"), choose more formal words (e.g. father vs. dad, child vs. kid, etc.), and refrain from using the word ain't
Ain't is a colloquialism and contraction for "am not", "is not", "are not", "has not", and "have not" in the common English language vernacular. In some dialects ain't is also used as a contraction of "do not", "does not", and "did not". The usage of ain't is a perennial subject of controversy in...

than when speaking in an informal setting.

As with other types of language variation, there tends to be a spectrum of registers rather than a discrete set of obviously distinct varieties — there is a countless number of registers that could be identified, with no clear boundaries. Discourse categorisation is a complex problem, and even in the general definition of "register" given above (language variation defined by use not user), there are cases where other kinds of language variation, such as regional or age dialect, overlap. As a result of this complexity, there is far from consensus about the meanings of terms like "register", "field" or "tenor"; different writers' definitions of these terms are often in direct contradiction of each other. Additional terms such as diatype, genre
Genre , Greek: genos, γένος) is the term for any category of literature or other forms of art or culture, e.g. music, and in general, any type of discourse, whether written or spoken, audial or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria. Genres are formed by conventions that change over time...

, text types
Text types
Textual types refer to the following four basic aspects of writing: descriptive, narrative, expository, and argumentative.-The descriptive text type:...

, style
Stylistics (linguistics)
Stylistics is the study and interpretation of texts from a linguistic perspective. As a discipline it links literary criticism and linguistics, but has no autonomous domain of its own...

, acrolect, mesolect and basilect among many others may be used to cover the same or similar ground. Some prefer to restrict the domain of the term "register" to a specific vocabulary (Wardhaugh, 1986) (which one might commonly call jargon
Jargon is terminology which is especially defined in relationship to a specific activity, profession, group, or event. The philosophe Condillac observed in 1782 that "Every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas." As a rationalist member of the Enlightenment he...

), while others argue against the use of the term altogether. These various approaches with their own "register" or set of terms and meanings fall under disciplines such as sociolinguistics
Sociolinguistics is the descriptive study of the effect of any and all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and context, on the way language is used, and the effects of language use on society...

, stylistics
Stylistics (linguistics)
Stylistics is the study and interpretation of texts from a linguistic perspective. As a discipline it links literary criticism and linguistics, but has no autonomous domain of its own...

, pragmatics
Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics which studies the ways in which context contributes to meaning. Pragmatics encompasses speech act theory, conversational implicature, talk in interaction and other approaches to language behavior in philosophy, sociology, and linguistics. It studies how the...

 or systemic functional grammar
Systemic functional grammar
Systemic functional grammar , a component of systemic functional linguistics , is a form of grammatical description originally developed by Michael Halliday in a career spanning more than 50 years. It is part of a social semiotic approach to language called systemic-functional linguistics...


History and use

The term register was first used by the linguist Thomas Bertram Reid in 1956, and brought into general currency in the 1960s by a group of linguists who wanted to distinguish between variations in language according to the user (defined by variables such as social background, geography, sex and age), and variations according to use, "in the sense that each speaker has a range of varieties and choices between them at different times" (Halliday et al., 1964). The focus is on the way language is used in particular situations, such as legalese or motherese, the language of a biology research lab, of a news report, or of the bedroom.

M.A.K Halliday
Michael Halliday
Michael Alexander Kirkwood Halliday is a British linguist who developed an internationally influential model of language, the systemic functional linguistic model. His grammatical descriptions go by the name of systemic functional grammar .-Biography:Halliday was born and raised in England...

 and R. Hasan (1976) interpret 'register' as 'the linguistic features which are typically associated with a configuration of situational features - with particular values of the field, mode and tenor...'. Field for them is 'the total event, in which the text is functioning, together with the purposive activity of the speaker or writer; includes subject-matter as one of the elements'. Mode is 'the function of the text in the event, including both the channel taken by language - spoken or written, extempore or prepared, - and its genre, rhetorical mode, as narrative, didactic, persuasive, 'phatic communion'
Small talk (phatic communication)
Small talk is an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed....

, etc.' The Tenor refers to 'the type of role interaction, the set of relevant social relations, permanent and temporary, among the participants involved.' These three values - field, mode and tenor - are thus the determining factors for the linguistic features of the text. 'The register is the set of meanings, the configuration of semantic patterns, that are typically drawn upon under the specified conditions, along with the words and structures that are used in the realization of these meanings'. Register, in the view of M.A.K. Halliday and R. Hasan, is one of the two defining concepts of Text. 'A text is a passage of discourse which is coherent in these two regards: it is coherent with respect to the context of situation, and therefore consistent in register; and it is coherent with respect to itself, and therefore cohesive'.

Register as formality scale

One of the most analyzed areas where the use of language is determined by the situation is the formality scale. Writers (especially in language teaching) have often used the term "register" as shorthand for formal/informal style, although this is an aging definition. Linguistics textbooks may use the term "tenor" instead (Halliday 1978), but increasingly prefer the term "style" — "we characterise styles as varieties of language viewed from the point of view of formality" (Trudgill, 1992) — while defining "registers" more narrowly as specialist language use related to a particular activity, such as academic jargon. There is very little agreement as to how the spectrum of formality should be divided.

In one prominent model, Martin Joos
Martin Joos
Martin Joos was a linguist and German professor. He spent most of his career at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and also served at the University of Toronto and as a visiting scholar at the University of Alberta, the University of Belgrade, and the University of Edinburgh.During World War II...

 (1961) describes five styles in spoken English:
  • Frozen: Printed unchanging language such as Biblical quotation
    A quotation or quote is the repetition of one expression as part of another one, particularly when the quoted expression is well-known or explicitly attributed by citation to its original source, and it is indicated by quotation marks.A quotation can also refer to the repeated use of units of any...

    s; often contains archaism
    In language, an archaism is the use of a form of speech or writing that is no longer current. This can either be done deliberately or as part of a specific jargon or formula...

    s. Examples are the Pledge of Allegiance, wedding vows, and other "static" vocalizations that are recited in a ritualistic monotone. The wording is exactly the same every time it is spoken.
  • Formal: One-way participation, no interruption. Technical vocabulary or exact definitions are important. Includes presentations or introductions between strangers.
  • Consultative: Two-way participation. Background information is provided — prior knowledge is not assumed. "Back-channel behavior" such as "uh huh", "I see", etc. is common. Interruptions are allowed. Examples include teacher/student, doctor/patient, expert/apprentice, etc.
  • Casual: In-group friends and acquaintances. No background information provided. Ellipsis
    Elliptical construction
    In linguistics, ellipsis or elliptical construction refers to the omission from a clause of one or more words that would otherwise be required by the remaining elements.-Overview:...

     and slang
    Slang is the use of informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker's language or dialect but are considered more acceptable when used socially. Slang is often to be found in areas of the lexicon that refer to things considered taboo...

     common. Interruptions common. This is common among friends in a social setting.
  • Intimate: Non-public. Intonation more important than wording or grammar. Private vocabulary. Also includes non-verbal messages. This is most common among family members and close friends.


The term diatype is sometimes used to describe language variation which is determined by its social purpose (Gregory 1967). In this formulation, language variation can be divided into two categories: dialect
The term dialect is used in two distinct ways, even by linguists. One usage refers to a variety of a language that is a characteristic of a particular group of the language's speakers. The term is applied most often to regional speech patterns, but a dialect may also be defined by other factors,...

, for variation according to user, and diatype for variation according to use (e.g. the specialised language of an academic journal). This definition of diatype is very similar to those of register.

The distinction between dialect and diatype is not always clear; in some cases a language variety may be understood as both a dialect and a diatype.

Diatype is usually analysed in terms of field, the subject matter or setting; tenor, the participants and their relationships; and mode, the channel of communication, such as spoken, written or signed.

See also

  • Child-directed speech
  • Diglossia
    In linguistics, diglossia refers to a situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community. In addition to the community's everyday or vernacular language variety , a second, highly codified variety is used in certain situations such as literature, formal...

  • Honorific speech in Japanese – very extensive and formalized
  • Literary language
    Literary language
    A literary language is a register of a language that is used in literary writing. This may also include liturgical writing. The difference between literary and non-literary forms is more marked in some languages than in others...

  • Tone (literature)
    Tone (literature)
    Tone is a literary technique that is a part of composition, which encompasses the attitudes toward the subject and toward the audience implied in a literary work. Tone may be formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful, serious, ironic, guilty, condescending, or many other possible attitudes...

  • Vernacular
    A vernacular is the native language or native dialect of a specific population, as opposed to a language of wider communication that is not native to the population, such as a national language or lingua franca.- Etymology :The term is not a recent one...

External links

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