An informal chat with a friend or a formal presentation to the CEO at work are two extremes in the conversational spectrum. Depending on the purpose of communication, the social status of the participants and the setting, speakers make choices in e.g. pronunciation, word choice or grammar. This linguistic variation is highly systematic and can be described in terms of register.
An important dimension of variation between registers is formality. Earlier research mainly defined formality from the speaker’s point of view, but how does the listener distinguish between formal and informal speech?
In 2011 I started my PhD project, supervised by Margot van Mulken and Mirjam Ernestus, on the subject formality. Since mastering register differences is especially challenging for non-native listeners, but crucial for participating in varying communicative situations, we will also investigate whether non-native listeners process formality differently compared to native listeners.
First, we will identify phonetic, lexical and pragmatic characteristics of formality. Therefore, a corpus is recorded, containing speech of native Dutch speakers retelling short movies in either the formal or the informal speech register. To elicit speech in both registers, formal as well as informal looking confederates acted as listeners. Secondly, the corpus will form the foundation for perception experiments with native and non-native listeners. Variables considered relevant are level of speech reduction, pausing, intonation, word classes (nouns/adjectives are expected to be more frequent in formal registers and adverbs/verbs more frequent in informal registers) and differences in word choice such as the informal ‘maar’ (Eng. ‘but’) versus the more formal word ‘echter’ (Eng. ‘however’).
I’m looking forward to finding lots of interesting results that help us understand better which challenges the (non-)native language user faces when communicating in various registers.