15 February 2009

Idiolect – It’s the way I speak, innit?

I’ve long been aware of idiolect, or personal vocabulary, and fascinated by it. Not so much words or phrases which are unique to somebody – they’d obviously be part of it, but are only a tiny percentage – but what makes your vocabulary yours. Constructions, choice of words, aberrations, idioms. Shibboleths come into it, too, obviously: many English-speaking Canadians pronounce the word ‘about’ as ‘aboat’ for example, to the extent that if I do hear it I find I’m usually listening to a Canadian, or at least a person who has lived in Canada or spent a lot of time with Canadians. Speaking of which, a former colleague of Keith’s, who was a translator and linguistics expert, once said to me that he would always have known that I was East Anglian. Well, OK, I though, but you have been told, and you’re East Anglian yourself, so that’s hardly surprising. Then he went on to ask – at which point I nearly yelled with surprise, since he had no way of knowing that – “How come you’ve spent so much time with Irish people?”

I do draw the line at pulling out a notebook and writing down what people are saying to me, as was the practice of a German room-mate I once had. Still, that was a question of trying to improve her vocabulary in a foreign language, which is perhaps a bit more understandable (I wonder if she still remembers an expression our Welsh room-mate used of the doctor’s receptionist “Oh she’s a real nasty old piece of knitting”?). That Civil Service hostel I inhabited in my middle twenties certainly had a varied and changing population, and my idiolect still carries some of the souvenirs, such as the useful verb ‘to broddle’ (to dig/ poke about in order to find something), as contributed by my Yorkshire-born friend Sheila Mary.

I’m not sure that that one hasn’t passed into the ecolect (what the household speaks), actually. In almost thirty years it’s inevitable that Keith and I have caught usages such as ‘a driddle’, ‘never ask’, ‘meesen’ (mice), ‘chop chop’ and ‘no-brainer; from each other, and coined a few between us. “What is Termite soup?” asked our friend Victor, looking bemusedly at the joint shopping list. But then Victor himself was one of those astonishing people who not only speak several languages, and manage to keep them separate, but can just switch in and out of them. My spoken idiolect has too much mixing of languages in it, and definitely too many bastardisations (even if they are deliberate). Trouble is, these things can be surprisingly memorable. Typos from letters of enquiry, for example, such as musume, everlope and samp. And then there are the ones which start as mis-read words and then stick – that’s a category all on its own, though I know I’m not alone there. Yesterday a friend mis-read ‘Pie of the Day’ as ‘Pig of the Day’ on a menu, for example, and we all agreed that his version sounded much better…


Jilly said...

My favourites picked up from other people are 'getting your knickers in a knot' instead of the more usual 'knickers in a twist'.
Biscuits are always biccies - whoever I'm talking to and that came orginally from my sister and stuck with everyone in the family.

NAM said...

Yes, the alliteration of the knotted knickers is more fun (as well as saying something a bit different).

I more often refer to biscuits as 'bikkits', and I can't remember where that came from - and no, not from my childhood. As you can imagine, my mother didn't exactly encourage that sort of thing.

kcm said...

Well now! (As one of my colleagues starts every email and conversation.)
I know that I both speak and write some rather idiosyncratic English (you only have to read this message to know that). And given that I spend a lot of my work time dealing with overseas colleagues whose first language isn't English I'm sure I confuse the hell out of half of them -- tho' I do try to speak simple for them, at least if I get an inkling I need to. I also try to take some interest in their language and culture, if only knowing things like the date of Diwali or how to greet them in their lingo.
Oh and for the record: 'no brainer' comes from my work; American corporate well versed in neologistic non-speak. And 'chop, chop' is from my mother; I remember it well from being a snotty kid, dawdling along -- you know, the way kids do.
Chin, chin!

kcm said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NAM said...

Yes, and better be pouring a chota peg now the sun is over the yard arm, if we're going to speak period English... wot a language, eh?

I used to know a museum curator who started every sentence with 'Well now' - very infectious, along with 'Of course'!