Explaining Changes in Register in Middle Tennessee: More than Just Formality
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Since the field of linguistics is fundamentally based on the classical grammarian tradition, which evolved to study classical languages, the concepts of formal and informal speech are frequently used to analyze register change in modern languages, such as English, that do not indicate formality structurally. This notion of formal and informal speech, embedded in the traditional Western conceptions of language, stems from the feature of Romance languages (in addition to other European languages, such as Russian and even Finnish) in which different pronouns and verb forms are used for the second person depending on the degree of familiarity between the speaker and the listener; for example, in Spanish one uses tú with friends and usted with strangers and superiors. However, since English has lost this feature, the literature uses another linguistic feature to fill the slot in the classical grammarian tradition for formality: register change, or the use of differing linguistic varieties in different social settings. According to this model, a standard dialect is spoken around superiors, and a folk dialect is spoken around friends, analogous to the use of different pronouns and verb forms in many European languages. I hold that the classical model of formality does not aptly describe the nature of register change in Southern English; the comparison with the Romance languages inherent in the usage of terms such as “formal” and “informal” registers hinders a better understanding of the true factors at work. Instead of considering the shift from a folk dialect to a standard dialect as a measure of formality, I will demonstrate that the causes for such a shift are in fact much more complicated and include more than a single variable. Indeed, if formality is the basis for register change, then the entire register should change as a whole for a given social setting, when in fact phonological features are changed in some circumstances, grammatical in others, and different speakers exhibit either process to different degrees. In place of this rigid model, one can envision a continuum between the nonstandard and standard dialects consisting of phonological and lexical/morphological features that change depending on various social factors, such the speakers’ cultural allegiances, sense of social standing with respect to the listener, and linguistic competence in the given register. While formality is indeed reflected by certain variable elements contained within this system, different speakers, depending on their particular social backgrounds, express formality in different ways, and other social factors at work, such as the shifting cultural elements mentioned above, are obscured by the use of the classical concept of formality.
SubjectUniversity of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee; Department of Anthropology, University of the South; Linguistics; Informal speech; Register change
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