In the 2012 presidential debate with Mitt Romney, President Barak Obama referred to “folks who mess with Americans” and also said “we tortured some folks.”
Several journalists had misgivings about the use of the word “folks”, which they found offensive. There may not be anything wrong with the word, if used in certain contexts, and in fact many people who watched the debate did not even notice its usage. However, I argue (as many American journalists did) that when speaking or writing, people are expected to use appropriate register in appropriate contexts. When people fail to use the correct register, we often feel disappointed, disconcerted and even offended.
The concept of register is typically concerned with the way language varies when used in different situations for different purposes. Effectively, different situations and people call for different registers. The kind of language used is usually determined by the subject matter and the relationship between the participants (Americans would certainly have had no qualms with Obama using the word “folks” while speaking to his friend Soros, or wife Michelle).
Thus, choosing the more appropriate register in the correct context to the correct people is an essential cornerstone of courtesy and effective communication. It would certainly be inappropriate to use language and vocabulary reserved for one’s boyfriend or girlfriend in a classroom setup, or formal meeting. Therefore, the appropriate language register depends on the audience (who), the topic (what), the purpose (why) and the location (where).
We use different language registers for different types of writing and when we speak to different people. One would definitely not speak to the president in the same way they talk to their friend. To a friend one would say: “What’s up?
It’s awesome that you came to visit!”, but to the president, the same person would say: “Good morning Mr President. We appreciate your visit.”
The difference in word choice implies that when speaking in a formal situation we need to refrain from words considered non-standard and informal. Accordingly, registers are about appropriateness and context, rather than grammatical correctness of words.
Generally, registers are not well mastered by second-language English speakers to the extent that few people can identify them. There are five types. Each type has an appropriate use determined by differing situations. The first is called an intimate register. This is reserved for close family, or intimate people, such as husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, siblings, parents and children.
The second type of register is the formal register. This is the language used in formal settings. The use of formal language usually follows a commonly accepted format, which is impersonal. This is used in speeches, sermons, rhetorical statements and questions, pronouncements made by judges and announcements.
The third type is an informal register, also known as casual register. This is used by peers and friends. Slang, vulgarities and colloquialisms characterise informal register. Under this type of register words and phrases, such as “bro, chick, awesome, cool, okay/ok, ain’t, check it out, moment of truth, and kicked the bucket,” are common. It is possibly the most popular and frequently used register.
The fourth type is called consultative register. This is used in professional discourse usually between a superior and subordinate, doctor and patient, lawyer and client, lawyer and judge, teacher and student, or counselor and client. As the name suggests, this register is used when consulting an expert.
Finally, there is static register, a style of communication that rarely or never changes. Static register is “frozen”, or fixed in time and content. Examples of this register are the pledge of allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, a bibliographic reference and laws. This type of register is often learned and repeated by rote. Clearly, we do not need to worry about this register, as it poses no challenge to our conversations and writing.
All five types of registers imply the choice of language should always change to suit different contexts. It is apparent that knowledge of these registers enhances politeness or etiquette in speech. If one register is expected and another is presented, the result can lead to offense taken by the recipient, as illustrated by the Obama example above.
In African traditions, registers are inextricably conjoined with manners. They are connected to ‘Ubuntu’. As such, we see today’s youth as disrespectful and ill-mannered, because they either misuse or have not been trained in registers. Largely, they use informal language, even in formal settings. As a result, adults are often offended by the way the youth speak.
Adults feel the youth cannot use appropriate language in the right situation, which is often construed as being rude. To this end, the question is: how do we promote proficiency in registers among children and youth?
One possible solution may be to emphasise the use of registers in the school curriculum as part of the English syllabi. Although registers are presently taught at schools their emphasis in the English curriculum may turn out to be an intelligent and effective way to counter the problem of inappropriateness.
Generally the English syllabi put emphasis on the teaching of grammar, comprehension and composition writing, while the register aspect does not receive the same degree of interest. The effect of this on registers in the curriculum has been the dearth of knowledge about how learners can handle appropriacy problems. However, ensuring that registers are included in each section of the syllabi, as well as examining them in equal weight to grammar and comprehension, will teach our children not only good English, but also good manners.
In conclusion, I say the importance of registers in speech and writing needs not be over-emphasised. It is important for every one of us to master appropriacy – to be able use the right words at the right time and the right words to the right person or audience.
To master registers, we could start by increasing their prominence in the school syllabi. The mastery of registers will allow speakers to move from one register to another with ease. Once we know which word to use in the right context we will come out as polite and will get our message across without offending its recipient. Undoubtedly, registers are entwined with politeness, Ubuntu and effective communication and, therefore, highlighting them in our English school syllabi may be long overdue.
* Mercy Chiruvo Mushonga is a Master of English degree student at the University of Namibia. firstname.lastname@example.org