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Social Register: Say What?

When we communicate, we give away more about ourselves than we imagine: through our choice of words, through the way we pronounce them, and through the general references that we litter our speech or writing with, we betray quite a lot about who exactly we are.  In language, such revelatory clues take on different forms, and can be grouped under different titles.  Here, we will explore the idea of “social register,” one of the most precise and narrow categories of linguistic style.

It is important to differentiate social register from either sociolect or dialect.  Basically, we can think of the latter two being necessary, though not sufficient elements of the former.  Social register is the style of speaking that helps us narrow down the speaker to a very limited and specific social grouping, whereas sociolect doesn’t hone in quite as far (and dialect, even broader still, with additional contemplations of region that don’t play as much of a role in determining social register).

In order to come up with a fairly accurate characterization of a given speaker/writer, we must not only ponder the choice of vocabulary—lots of slang and curse words will obviously point towards young, urban, or lower class individuals, to speak broadly—but furthermore the references and clues left during the course of the discourse or text.  In this sense, frequent mention of malt liquor and motels will point towards the stereotype of the unskilled, undereducated and probably young menial laborer, whereas a high frequency of “tea and crumpets” will point in quite the opposite direction, evincing the stereotype of the high society dandy.  Ultimately, the practice of detecting social register is a double-edged sword, with the potential to punish the translator that fails to exercise due diligence.  Though it may be regrettable to many people, we can think of it as a necessary evil, as identifying social register—approximately, at the very least—makes the work of translators a lot easier, grounding them in a tangible stereotype…even if it’s a grossly exaggerated one.