Linguistics Idiolect
by
David Wright
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0225

Introduction

“Idiolect” refers to an individual’s unique variety and/or use of language, from the level of the phoneme to the level of discourse. This meaning is reflected in the etymology of the word: the two morphemes idio- and -lect. Idio- is of Greek origin, and means “own, personal, private, peculiar, separate and distinct,” while -lect refers to a “social variety of a language.” The theory holds, therefore, that no two people who share a common language have exactly the same linguistic repertoire. In the same way that the variation exhibited in a person’s language production is influenced by their dialect(s), sociolect(s) and by register, so too is it influenced by their personal, idiosyncratic, often habitual linguistic preferences—their idiolect. A person’s idiolect is all encompassing in that it includes linguistic features related to dialect and sociolect, for example, while also being influenced by a wide range of other sources of variation, such as their life experiences; language encounters; what they have read and listened to; where they have been schooled; jobs they have had; their favorite hobbies and pastimes; and their parents, friends, and teachers. An idiolect, therefore, is not stable in its entirety. While some elements may persist throughout a person’s life, others may drop out of favor, while new patterns, preferences, and features may be acquired over time. Despite being generally accepted in linguistics, the concept of idiolect has received relatively little rigorous or systematic research attention. However, since its introduction in linguistics in the late nineteenth century, the notion of linguistic individuality or the role of the individual in language, if not explicitly the term “idiolect,” has sporadically been the focus of discussion across a range of disciplines in linguistics. This includes debates over whether idiolect resides in the overall linguistic system of an individual or in their patterns of usage, or whether the individual plays a role in language change. In some fields, the advent of large collections of texts has facilitated a testing of the theory of idiolect. Nevertheless, the concept of idiolect is familiar and mysterious in equal measure in the linguistics literature. It is a term that has a passing mention or glossary entry in most introductory textbooks in linguistics, yet it is a theory that is not easily observable or measurable, and for which there is little agreement and even less empirical evidence.

Origins of the Term “Idiolect”

Notions of linguistic individuality can be traced back to the earliest formalized discussions of language and linguistics. The most notable of such early studies is Paul 1888, in which all language originates in an individual mind, and therefore the individual should be the focus of scrutiny. The role of the individual is also highlighted in Saussure 1983 in the distinction between langue and parole. Saussure argues that the execution of language is always individual, and refers to this as speech (parole), therefore distinguishing the language system itself (langue) from speech actually produced by individuals. In doing so, the work highlights that we can distinguish what is general and social from what is individual. Sapir 1927 presents individual linguistic variation as a window through which to analyze personality traits of speakers. This work seeks to disambiguate elements of speech that are social norms and those that are reflective of individual expression and personality. Contemporary to that work, Bloomfield 1933, also draws a distinction between the speech community as a collective and the individuals of which it is comprised. Bloomfield notes that one of the difficulties in determining which people belong to the same speech community is that no two people speak exactly alike. The term “idiolect” is widely accepted to have been first used in Bloch 1948, to refer to “the totality of the possible utterances of one speaker at one time in using language to interact with one other speaker” (p. 7). The article specifies that an idiolect is not merely what a speaker says at one time: it is everything that he could say in a given language at that specific time. Since Bloch 1948, definitions of idiolect have varied, as some refer to the language system available to the individual and others to the samples of language actually produced by the individual. Hockett 1958, for example, is similar to Bloch in defining idiolect as “the totality of speech habits of a single person at a given time” (p. 321), distinguishing habits from observable behavior. On the other hand, Martinet 1961 defines idiolect as “the language as spoken by a single individual” (p. 105, emphasis not in the original).

  • Bloch, Bernard. 1948. A set of postulates for phonemic analysis. Language 24.1: 3–46.

    DOI: 10.2307/410284E-mail Citation »

    The work in which the term “idiolect” was coined. In this article, which is primarily focused on characteristics of spoken language, Bloch lays the theoretical foundations for the concept of idiolect that have been the basis for discussions in the decades since. It is widely cited, given its debuting of the term.

  • Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

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    One of the most important works in linguistics published in the twentieth century. Linguistic individuality receives a passing mention as a problem for defining and identifying homogenous speech communities. However, this mention demonstrates how “the individual” came to be discussed in contrast with “the group.”

  • Hockett, Charles F. 1958. A course in modern linguistics. New York: Macmillan.

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    An important work in linguistics that aims to present “the generally accepted facts and principles” (p. vii) of the field of linguistics. Idiolect is most prominent in chapter 38, in which it is discussed alongside concepts of “dialect” and “language.”

  • Martinet, A. 1961. A functional view of language. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Although idiolect only receives brief attention in this book between pages 104 and 108, it is worth noting as Martinet discusses idiolect from a functional perspective of language, and therefore offers an interpretation of idiolect as relating to language production rather than language systems, which differs from others writing at the time.

  • Paul, Hermann. 1888. Principles of the history of language. Translated by H. A. Strong. London: Swan, Sonnenschien, Lowrey.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of the earliest and most important works in linguistics, which puts the individual and the individual mind at the center of language study. Although the ideas in this book foreshadow many of the later discussions of the individual in linguistics, following the work of Saussure and subsequent directions in grammatical theory and variationist sociolinguistics, Paul’s work and its focus on the individual has been, to some extent, buried.

  • Sapir, Edward. 1927. Speech as a personality trait. American Journal of Sociology 32.6: 892–905.

    DOI: 10.1086/214279E-mail Citation »

    A seminal work in which Sapir separates out notions of group norms and linguistic individuality. In the same way as Paul 1888, Sapir traverses the intersections between psychology and language. The individual features throughout this work.

  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1983. Course in general linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Translated and annotated by Roy Harris. London: Duckworth.

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    The original version of this work, written in French and published in 1916, is widely regarded as the foundational cornerstone of modern-day formal linguistics. The distinction drawn between language and speech has defined the directions and trajectories of different fields of linguistics for over a century. This work is important for idiolect as it argues that it is only through individuals that language systems are manifest and observable.

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