Halliday Register Variations

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Halliday, on Register Variation

Halliday discusses the term Register in some detail towards the end of Chapter 3. This term refers to the relationship between language (and other semiotic forms) and the features of the context. All along, we have been characterizing this relationship (which we can now call register) by using the descriptive categories of Field, Tenor, and Mode. Registers vary. There are clues or indices in the language that help us predict what the register of a given text (spoken or written) is. Halliday uses the example of the phrase "Once upon a time" as an indexical feature that signals to us that we're about to read or hear a folk tale.

In this section of the chapter, Halliday devotes some space to what he calls closed registers and open registers. This is actually a continuum of registers in which language choices range from being constrained to more flexible with regard to language choice. The examples he offers illustrate the point well and give you a sense of register variation.

Halliday also distinguishes between register and another kind of language variety, dialect. For Halliday, dialect variety is a variety according to the user. Dialects can be regional or social. (I provide more information about dialects below.)

Register is a variety according to use, or the social activity in which you are engaged. Halliday says, "dialects are saying the same thing in different ways, whereas registers are saying different things." (See the Table 3.1 in the reading for a summary of the differences.) A speaker can use both a dialect and a register at the same time. Imagine a speaker from the USA's "Deep South" engaging in talk in situations where certain registers are required. For example, a speaker from Alabama speaks with her southern pronunciation, while the topic she discusses is the latest programming language of her dot-com firm (register).

Language Choice

Given all these varieties of language available in the communicative repertoire of a community, speakers must know which to select in given circumstances. (We call this ability communicative competence). Much research is done to account for the rules or system for such decision-making.

Some Features of the Various Modes

There are features of language we can look for to discuss web sites in terms of Mode. Meaning is realized differently in different modes. (Some study the modes separately; others— I for one—maintain that they have to be understood in they way they are evoked socially-situated interaction.) Features can suggest the affordances of different modes. Speaking/writing/gesture are temporal and sequential (logic of time). Images are conceptual (logic of space).

Spoken mode

Code—including languages and language variations



Voice and pronunciation

Nonverbal signal

Written mode

Code—including languages and language variations



Paragraphing—i.e.,rhetorical structure

Punctuation and other mechanics

Gestural mode


Sign language


Image mode

Drawing/diagram Photo






Three-dimensional representation

About Dialect

Definition: A variety of language, either regional or social, set off from other varieties of the same language by differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. The term accent is not a synonym of dialect. Everyone has an accent, and linguists describe pronunciations which distinguish people regionally and socially. However, dialect studies include studies of differences in grammar and vocabulary as well.

The following example of regional dialect differences comes from an introduction to linguistics by Yule:

"You don't know what you're talking about"

This utterance can be said with different accents. But the speakers are using standard English forms.

Now, look at this utterance said by someone from Scotland:

"Ye dinnae ken whit yer haverin' aboot"

This utterance has the same meaning, but along with pronunciation differences there are examples of different vocabulary (ye, ken, haverin') and different grammatical form (dinnae).

Social dialects are studied by linguists who compare language use between different groups. Comparison of the language use of ethnic groups has been studied extensively, and Black English (also termed African American vernacular English or (lately) Ebonics, has been one of the most studied varieties. But social dialects can be examined according to other groupings: class, education, occupation, age, sex, to name a few.

Speaking a different dialect is in no way a reflection of intelligence. The dialect enables persons to get along with other members of their social or geographical group.

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