Stephen wrote an entertaining post recently about linguistic registers. In communication, a register generally has to do with what Macmillan Dictionary defines as “the type of language that you use in a particular situation or when communicating with a particular group of people”. (It can also refer to voice quality in phonetics, which is similar to its meaning in music theory.)
In sociolinguistics, register is often about how formal your language is. By convention, there are situations where formality is expected. Introduced to someone for the first time, we might offer a casual “How’s it going?” or a less breezy “Hello, how do you do?” It depends on what seems appropriate. We tend to make this decision automatically if we are tuned in to cultural norms. In unfamiliar languages, it can be easy to forget the T–V distinction if we’re not used to applying it.
Someone I know who began tutoring in university told me something that surprised me: some of her students seem to have little or no awareness of these nuances in their correspondence. They use the same colloquial expressions and tone in emails to their professors that they use in text messages to their friends. For example, they might begin semi-formal emails with the words “Hey Professor”, and see nothing untoward about this.
In other words, they seem to lack what’s called “code switching” ability. Many people have a local dialect they replace with more standard English in certain circumstances. This is an example of code switching. Other examples are what bilingual people do when they change languages, and the way people switch between work jargon and a more everyday variety of speech.
As I wrote in a comment on the Sociological Images blog, where the subject was raised, I would have thought switching registers would come naturally to third-level students. Evidently not, in some cases. As Stephen noted, it’s a tricky area. Language usage is closely tied to cultural notions of correctness that can be outdated or dubious, and English does seem to be becoming less formal generally. (See Baba Brinkman & Professor Elemental’s popular rap about this.) I have no time for pompous formality, but I’m not sure that “Hey” is the best default address to professors unless they have indicated its acceptability. Am I getting old?Email this Post