Lexical Markers

The type of speech situation (formal/informal) has an influence on the choice of words used in this situation. Take, for instance, the case of someone who has had too many alcoholic drinks...

Example: pickled, high, drunk, intoxicated

These lexical terms differ in their grade of formality and their use depends on the formality of the speech situation. Not every term is suitable for use in all social situations.

Likewise speakers choose between different forms of addressing others depending on the degree of formality of the speech situation: first or family name (Billy or Mr. Smith), family name plus preceding title, second person pronoun, deferential terms (Sir, Madam), but also terms showing disrespect (bastard etc.).

Some languages like German or French make explicit use of a specific deference system (Fr.: tu/vous; Ger.: Du/Sie) in order to indicate and acknowledge the social relations between interlocutors in different speech situations.

The following example of a courtroom dialogue illustrates that a particular type of speech situation is associated with the choice of a characteristic linguistic variety, i.e. register:


I see the cops say you were pickled last night and were driving an old jalopy down the middle of the road. True?


Your honour, if I might be permitted to address this allegation, I should like to report that I was neither inebriated nor under the influence of an alcoholic beverage of any kind.

(Source: Holmes, 2008: 247)

A law court is a formal, institutional setting with clearly defined social roles of the interlocutors and a use of language that corresponds to these roles and the character of the situation. This includes the choice of specific vocabulary. While the defendant uses very formal vocabulary in a rather exaggerated way (allegation, inebriated, alcoholic beverage), the judge is far too informal than is usually expected (cops, pickled, jalopy). The varieties of both judge and defendant are inappropriate in this type of situation.

(Information adapted from Finegan, 2004)

Slang and Jargon