The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, December 13, 2019

Lexical layers 1: register and genre

One of my pet hates when it comes to vocabulary teaching is when I see materials that don't venture beyond the basic denotational meaning of a word or phrase – that is, the thing or idea it refers to in the real world. So, we could say that purchase is another word for buy, that wonga is money or that built like a brick shithouse means large. But that's really only the first layer of meaning peeled off and in many cases, is not enough to really understand what the speaker intends by their choice of word(s) and is nowhere near enough to know when and how you can use it yourself.

I especially come across this on social media with posts from all kinds of sources (trusted and less so) offering fun words of the day or sets of useful phrases or lists of synonyms, all aimed directly at learners but invariably explaining nothing at all about when or where or to whom the words would be appropriate. And, to be honest, conventional published materials don't always fare much better either, with the teaching of idioms being an area liable to see me sinking my face into my hands in despair.

In ELT, it's an issue that tends to get increasingly relevant as students work their way up the levels. A lot of the vocabulary we teach at the lowest levels is the very high-frequency words. Many of these tend to be fairly neutral; there's not much more to say about table, pencil, car, walk or blue. As students expand their vocabulary beyond the basics though, the picture gets less clear. Yes, there are still plenty of neutral words, especially simple concrete nouns like tunnel, stadium, fennel or sieve, but there are many more words with multiple layers of meaning that we really need to be getting across to students so that they properly understand the language they read and hear, and perhaps more importantly, so they don't go around inadvertently giving the wrong impression or making dreadful faux pas.

Register and genre

The concept of register in language teaching, if it gets covered at all, tends to get reduced to 'formal' and 'informal'. You might come across a lesson on formal and informal messages in which Yours faithfully is labelled as formal and love from as informal. Register, though, goes much further than that. Here's a definition from Oxford Dictionaries:

register: linguistics
A variety of a language or a level of usage, as determined by degree of formality and choice of vocabulary, pronunciation, and syntax, according to the communicative purpose, social context, and standing of the user.

Let's start off by just focusing on words that are typically used in particular contexts or genres (types of text or speech). The most obvious of these are labelled in learner's dictionaries. So, you'll find that purchase is labelled as formal because it's not a word we typically use in everyday, informal conversation. At the other end of the scale, wonga is likely to be labelled as informal or slang. How far learner's dictionaries go with other register labels varies, but you might come across a word like herewith labelled as law/legal, kinetic might appear as specialized or technical or have a science label, and elegiac will likely be shown as literary. Of course, you could dig around in any genre and turn up a whole host of typical vocab that would seem odd used elsewhere:

Business jargon: core values, scalable, going forward, think outside the box
Tabloid journalism: mum-to-be, blonde bombshell, love rat, (jobs) axed
Football commentary: play to the whistle, against the run of play, hit the woodwork, handbags
Academia: epistemological, existential, ibid, give rise to, allude to
Official announcements: Kindly refrain from …, Bags must be stowed …, Please proceed to …, Alight here for …

As proficient speakers of English, we mostly don't notice these choices until there's an obvious mismatch. My favourite example of this (apologies if you've seen me quote this before!) is from a television advert from a few years ago for a job search website. A primary school teacher is seen speaking to a class of five-year-olds … name that register!

I put it to you that on the morning of the 17th you did enter the Story Time Corner and with malice aforethought you did inflict grievous injury upon one Mr Boo-Boo Bananas.

Then there's the distinction between language in current use and words or phrases that are falling out of use or have become 'marked' because they no longer feel contemporary. In a dictionary, you might find labels indicating language that's dated (used within living memory, but not current: phone box, discotheque, groovy), words that are old-fashioned (the fair sex, gramaphone, wedlock) and old use (only really found in literature from centuries past: thou, smite).

Of course, these are very broad distinctions which any proficient English speaker could refine into scales of formality, of datedness or of specialization. And exactly where the boundaries lie are grey areas that will vary between speakers – a point I'll return to in a later post.

In the classroom, I think the thing to remember is that context is key. If you come across a new word or phrase in a reading or listening text, by all means look at the (denotational) meaning to help students understand the text, but don't then take it out of context and slot it into a productive activity or add it to a words-to-learn list without considering any restrictions on its use. Encourage students to note who used it and where it came from, to look out for it in future and again, notice the context. Help them avoid rushing to use newly-learned vocabulary where it doesn't really fit. To take a recent example I came across online offering alternatives to please for asking for things politely, just adding kindly to a request probably isn't going to go down well. As most learner's dictionaries note, it's either used in very formal, usually official instructions - We kindly request you read the following information carefully - or it's actually a tetchy, passive-aggressive show of annoyance – Kindly move your car immediately!

In my next post, I'll be looking at another lexical layer: connotation.

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Blogger Kerstin Sandstrom Okubo said...

Great that you're pointing out the distinction between useful words and those that are not. I think the teacher plays a crucial role in helping students discern this, and should not just let the students choose their own vocab for focus. It's also challenging to make the leap to practicing new words in production in authentic ways that focus on both form and use. Looking forward to the next post!

1:24 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for commenting Kerstin. Once again, I think it comes back to distinguishing between receptive and productive vocab ... if students come across an interesting word or quirky expression in a text and want to note it down, then that's fine. What we shouldn't be doing though is wasting class time getting students to write their own sentences using some list of ridiculous idioms that are only ever used by journalists and old folks just because they all rather neatly feature parts of the body or the word 'blue'! Expanding students' productive vocab should be about encouraging them to use of wider range of words they've already got to know (receptively) but aren't yet making the most of, not random new stuff. I'm almost coming round to thinking you can't have productive vocab activities that involve target vocab only target communicative goals.

1:50 pm  
Blogger Leo said...

Enjoyed reading your post, Julie! Naturally I agree with every word. I totally share your sentiment* about ELT materials - especially the ones found online - not going beyond denotational meanings of single words or occasionally infrequent idioms.

I find your examples of genre-specific lexical items very helpful and would like to share them with a group of editors I'm teaching. We've started exploring genre and the choice of lexis can of course tell a lot about genre differences.

Looking forward to other posts in the series!

Best wishes for 2020.

* Interestingly LDOCE notes that 'In everyday English, people usually say feeling rather than sentiment' :)

11:26 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks, Leo. Be interested to hear what your editors make of the genre-specific lexis - I'm sure they'll generate a few disagreements ... which of course, proves that these things are never black-and-white!

12:06 pm  
Blogger Ian said...

"I'm almost coming round to thinking you can't have productive vocab activities that involve target vocab only target communicative goals."

This really struck a chord! It reminded me of a rather unpleasant lesson I sat through once. We were going through a (Mongolian) vocabulary book that was basically a collection of lists of idiomatic, colloquial expressions, organized not by theme but by the metaphorical words (an English equivalent might be for example LEG: 1. break a leg, 2. cost an arm and a leg, 3. pull someone's leg, etc.) Each entry would have an English translation and a Mongolian example sentence. The lesson consisted of me reading a whole entry out loud, then being asked if I understood what it meant, then being asked to come up with a new sentence in the L2. I remember feeling quite frustrated and trying rather unsuccessfully to explain to the teacher that actually, a lot of the time I couldn't even answer her question about whether I understood the expression or not, let alone come up with a meaningful sentence. In fact, I could probably have come up with sentences that would've satisfied her, but not me! It was a deeply unsatisfying exercise because for many of the words it felt like we were just dancing around the meaning, with all its layers, and I remember thinking that I'd need a lot more exposure to the expression being used in context before I'd be able to say that I "get it". Before that time comes, please don't ask me to use it!

1:25 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Absolutely, Ian. ... Mostly though, I'm just super-impressed that you were learning Mongolian!

4:49 pm  

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