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February 04, 2004


Elihu M. Gerson

I'm confused. "Register" here seems to refer to 3 different things:

1. Social class (as in Labov's study)

2. Social distance-- e.g. (1) sometimes I talk about myself vs. (2) Occasionally, I speak of myself in the third person. This is a kind of formal/informal distinction, but it differs from:

3. Formal respect or deference, or diplomacy, e.g. the use of different names to refer to a dialect in your example

Is there some discussion in the literature which sorts these different things out?


Semantic Compositions

I see the distinctions you're making, but they're not quite orthogonal to each other. To take them in order:

1) Register isn't identical with social class. It's more accurate to say that different classes are associated with different registers. It's only mildly facetious to say that "My Fair Lady" is about trying to get someone with a lower-class register to shift to an upper-class one.

2) Switching between formal/informal speech is an example of speaking in different registers. To the extent that various classes might possess different grammars/vocabulary for formal/informal speech, there are multiple registers associated with the class.

3) In being cute, I may have also been confusing. A politically active linguist (now there's a redundancy) might say "Ebonics" when talking to a group of black activists, but "AAVE" when writing about the same thing in a journal. But the reason for doing so is that the respect/deference issues you identified would cause a choice of register, and again are not the registers themselves.

The reason it looks so slippery is that the definition is something like: grammar + vocabulary + a whole lot of sociological variables = register. It's not so much that there are different definitions, but there are a lot of different ways to approach it, economic class just being one of the earliest and easiest to test. Age, gender, profession, geographical region, and many other demographic variables have all been looked at in this regard.

A good place to start is the Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Lesley Milroy, who has written a lot on social networks and the language associated with them, is a good writer to look up, and you might also want to have a look at Labov's article about his work on Martha's Vineyard.

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