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How Did That Register? Five Levels of Formality in Language

We’ve all experienced the occasional verbal slip-up, whether we’re nervous or the words just don’t come out right. In casual speech between friends, a faux pas is usually laughed off and moved on from as quickly as it appeared. However, in business meetings and professional speeches, they’re a little harder to overlook. A major source of faux pas encountered in interpretation work is the tricky element of language known as register. It’s the difference between walking up to a colleague and saying, “What’s up?” instead of “How are you doing?”

Spoken language takes on different levels of formality depending on the social situation and the relationships between those involved. Register is the form that language takes in different circumstances, and “code switching” is the ability to go from one register to another guided by context. Register is an essential social skill that provides flexibility and demonstrates competence in speech and appropriate social norms.

Even for experienced interpreters, register is difficult to master, as it relies not only on the language itself, but also on social customs, culture, and even personal preferences. As a relationship progresses between individuals, the register they use may evolve to be more informal. Unlike words and grammatical structures, register follows its own set of rules, and it’s hard to hit the mark on it exactly. In most cases, close enough is usually sufficient.

There are two basic forms of register: informal and formal. Contexts where one might use the informal register are with friends, family, and meeting people at casual venues, like a bar. The formal register is reserved for professional settings, like classrooms, the workplace, and interviews. Place isn’t the only determinant of register: Factors like how long the people have known each other, their previous relationship, if any, and their purpose in speaking to each other affect how formal or informal the speech will be. Speaking with parents and teachers would require less formal speech than at a company networking event, but more formal speech than a peer group. Linguists have actually determined that there are five different levels of formality in every language (see the examples for English, shown below).

Register Definition Explanation
Frozen Language that never changes Wedding vows, Miranda rights
Formal Standard English Speeches, school lessons
Consultative Less formal standard English News casting, employee to employer
Casual Language between friends Loose sentence structure, vernacular speech
Intimate Language between lovers or other close family and friends Pet names, inside jokes

With the first language learned, register eventually becomes intuitive, while formality in a second language requires more thought. Most children start developing a strong understanding of register and code switching at around the age of 5 through exposure to a variety of social situations. However, lower income and education levels are associated with a poor grasp of nuanced speech. Research in the Journal of Children and Poverty shows that children living at or below the poverty level usually only master the casual register. Students in this income bracket were observed using the same register with their peers on the way to school as they do in the classroom with teachers. Such behavior can result in miscommunication, ultimately leading to negative social consequences like disciplinary action.

Interpreters can be more effective by looking at the background of the individuals speaking and receiving their interpretations. Take, for example, a farm worker explaining a work accident to a doctor, speaking in a register inappropriate for exchanges between professionals and clients. To make the transaction go more smoothly, the interpreter could code-switch for the farm worker. If it were two farm workers speaking to each other for the joy of conversation, an interpretation of register wouldn’t be necessary. Register touches on the personal experience of using language, and its use (or misuse) can determine the outcome of a social interaction.

Photograph by zizzybaloobah

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