I is for Idiolect (and Intimate discourse)

24 09 2017


hotel el muniria

The Hotel Muniria, Tangier, where Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch

A weekend in Tangier prompted a re-reading of the letters of William Burroughs (Harris 1993) , the US writer who lived there in the 1960s. Apart from their intrinsic interest, there were a number of linguistic oddities that caught my eye. As well as some idiosyncratic spellings (anyhoo for anyhow, innarested for interested), there were some curious non-standard constructions, including at least two instances of I look forward to see you, and these present perfect ‘simplifications’:


A Turkish bath [in London] beats anything I ever see for nightmarish horror.
Tanger is as safe as any town I ever live in.
Venice is perhaps the greatest place I ever see.
See you in Paris which I hope has more innarest than what I see already.

Burroughs was born and brought up in St Louis, Missouri, and these non-standard features might well be characteristic of the local variety. On the other hand, they could also be distinctive features of Burroughs’ own ‘idiolect’, where idiolect is defined as ‘a term used in linguistics to refer to the linguistic system of an individual speaker – one’s personal dialect’ (Crystal, 2003, p.225).   Elsewhere, Crystal (1987, p. 24) elaborates on this definition:

Probably no two people are identical in the way they use language or react to the usage of others. Minor differences in phonology, grammar, and vocabulary are normal, so that everyone has, to a limited extent, a ‘personal dialect’. It is often useful to talk about the linguistic system as found in the single speaker, and this is known as an idiolect. In fact, when we investigate language, we have no alternative but to begin with the speech habits of individual speakers: idiolects  are the first objects of study. Dialects can thus be seen as an abstraction, deriving from an analysis of a number of idiolects; and languages, in turn, are an abstraction deriving from a number of dialects.

As with dialect, the notion of idiolect is suggestive since it challenges the perception that there is one, monolithic, immutable and standard version of a language.

Equally interesting are the other kinds of ‘lect’ that develop in small speech communities, such as the under-researched language spoken within families (a ‘famililect’?). In her 1963 novel, appropriately titled The Family Lexicon, the Italian novelist Natalia Ginzburg captures this familiar phenomenon (cited in Parks 2017):

My parents had five children. We now live in different cities, some of us in foreign countries, and we don’t write to each other often. When we do meet up with one another we can be indifferent or distracted. But for us it takes just one word. It takes one word, one sentence, one of the old ones from our childhood, heard and repeated countless times… If my siblings and I were to find ourselves in a dark cave or among millions of people, just one of those phrases or words would immediately allow us to recognise each other.

Ginzburg’s mention of the countless repetitions that established this mini-variety reminds me of Guy Cook’s (1994) description of what he called ‘intimate discourse’, defined as ‘discourse between people in a minimal power relations which they would not wish to share with outsiders’ (p.134). This includes what Barthes (2010, p. 1) calls ‘a lover’s discourse’:

This discourse is spoken, perhaps, by thousands of subjects (who knows?), But warranted by no one; it is completely forsaken by the surrounding languages: ignored, disparaged, or derided by them, severed not only from authorities but also from the mechanisms of authority (sciences, techniques, arts).

Cook characterizes such discourse as being – among other things – repetitive and highly redundant, neologistic (i.e. it involves the creation of completely new words), nonsensical, figurative and ‘oriented towards form rather than meaning’ (1994, p. 135).  I would also add – from my own experience – that it is frequently macaronic, i.e. it incorporates the playful mixing of different languages.

the tangerinn

Former ‘beat’ bar in Hotel Muniria


I’ll spare you cringe-inducing examples of my own, but this example from a letter by the writer Christopher Isherwood (‘Kitty’) to his partner Don Bachardy (‘Dobbin’), gives a flavor (Bucknell 2013, p. 17):

Dearest Angel –

I miss you so much. I think of you all the time and long so to be back in my basket, close to Dobbin.… I just want to work. That and being with Dobbin are all that matters to Kitty, and being with Dobbin matters more than anything….

Cook argues that ‘intimate discourse’ is under-researched (by definition, it’s almost impossible to collect), but that it has a lot to teach us about how language is used – and learned – not least in the way that such frequently occurring discourse is form-focused, non-transactional, ritualized and highly repetitive. Shouldn’t we therefore be including more repetition and rote-learning in our methodology? asks Cook.

I have another question: if Burroughs’ idiolect includes non-standard forms – but was presumably understood and tolerated by his interlocutors  – shouldn’t we also consider the learner’s developing interlanguage (frequently non-standard) an idiolect in its own right, and be equally tolerant?

tangiers view rooftop

‘There is no town like Tanger town’ (Burroughs)



Barthes, R. (2010) A lover’s discourse: Fragments. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bucknell, K. (ed.) (2013) The Animals: Love letters between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Cook, G. (1994) ‘Repetition and learning by heart: an aspect of intimate discourse and its implications’. ELT Journal, 48/2.

Crystal, D. (1987) The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (2003) A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (5th edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Harris, O. (ed.) (1993) The letters of William S. Burroughs: 1945 to 1959. London: Picador.

Parks, T. (2017) ‘Keep the ball rolling’: A review of The Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg, trans. by Jenny McPhee, NYRB 2017, in London Review of Books, 39/13.



28 responses

24 09 2017
Justin Willoughby

Just with regards to non-standard forms, I tend to use them myself on occasion. Just this week, I included the following when I commented on Scott’s last blogpost:” …the student will not be able to transfer his language knowledge….¨. I probably should have used ‘their’ rather than ‘his’ as the student in this context could be either male or female. I guess I was in a hurry to get words on paper (so to speak), and I neglected to edit my discourse properly before hitting post. Even so, I think the message was intelligible enough. The only thing that bothers me with this is perhaps the impression I have left on my peers, considering that target readers are mostly linguists and English language teachers. I definitely think we should be tolerant of students’ developing interlanguage, but at the same time we should help them notice the gaps as unfortunately in real-life usage you will be judged more on your accuracy than you will be praised for your complexity.

24 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

“…in real-life usage you will be judged more on your accuracy than you will be praised for your complexity.” Ay, there’s the rub!

24 09 2017

Burroughs’ “linguistic oddities” quoted here were an affectation, as I’m sure you appreciate. You read his letters, so you know he’s perfectly capable of unmarked tense use when it suits him. Add to this that he came from a very rich family, and it seems unlikely that the non-standard features you allude to have anything to do with his place of birth. So I think the difference between a learner’s developing interlanguages and other idiolects is that the learner wants to “progress” to some more standard version, while Burroughs and families and lovers choose to express themselves in that way. Just BTW, Burroughs was a disgrace who deserved to be permanently locked up for all the cruel, careless, ruinous things he did to vulnerable boys, girls, men and women. I fail to see how people still call this self-absorbed, murderous weirdo the king of cool.

As for Guy Cook’s “argument”, how do the characteristics of ‘intimate discourse’ lead to the conclusion that we should include more repetition and rote-learning in our methodology?

24 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Geoff.

What you call ‘affectation’ is the pejorative equivalent of what some sociolinguists call ‘styling’, i.e. performing one’s identiy through language: ‘Speaking is not merely acting out a linguistic programme following rules, but every moment actively and creatively selecting from a range of available linguistic resources that have social meanings to re-build one’s social world and all the relations it contains … All speech is constructed, styled to the occasion.’ (Jaspers, J. 2010, ‘Style and styling’ in Hornberger and McKay, (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Language education, Bristol: Multilingual Matters, p. 191).

Regarding Cook’s promotion of rote-learning and repetition, I admit that the link seems tenuous, but it is more thoroughly and coherently elaborated in his subsequent book Language Play, Language learning (Oxford 2000), e.g. ‘There is certainly a case to be made, based upon an understanding of language play, for an informed reconsideration of explicit attention to rules, deductive teaching, manipulation of forms, repetition and rote learning, translation, literature teaching, and encouragement of competition between students’ (p.182).

As for Burroughs’ morals I cannot vouch. A superficial reading of his letters suggests that the main object of his abuse was his own body. Meanwhile he railed against pedophiles and the US political-military complex with equal ferocity.

25 09 2017

Hi Scott,

3 rejoiners:

1. OK “styling” then; the point is that Burrough’s “curious non-standard constructions” are intentional and chosen; and that’s what makes them different from the unintentional non-standard forms that L2 learners exhibit. Idealects are fascinating, but I don’t see the connection with SLA.

2. Guy Cook says there’s a case to be made for rote learning, etc. based upon an understanding of language play, but you don’t tell us what it is. I wonder if Cook himself does.

3. Burroughs accidently shot his wife dead in Mexico at a drunken party doing “the William Tell trick”, escaping back to the US after his brother bribed the Mexican authorities. He paid pimps in Morocco, Mexico, Panama, France, the UK and the USA to supply him with male prostitutes, many under 16 and many of whom prostituted themselves because they were penniless, and he boasted to friends about the degrading things he made them do. When he was in Tangier, he stayed in a house owned by an American who was well-known for supplying homosexual prostitutes for visiting American and English men. He described Tangier as a “promised land flowing with junk and boys”.
In his biography of Burroughs, Barry Miles tells how Burroughs and David Woolman exploited two boys in Tangiers. At one point, Burroughs doubts that the boys will do the awful things they’re asked to do, but Woolman is confident and reasurres him with the words: “They’re hungry,”

Burroughs was an inveterate liar; a deluded, gullible, fool; a mean, immoral, thoroughly rotten creep. You say “he railed against pedophiles and the US political-military complex with equal ferocity”, so we can add “hypocrite” to the list.

25 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that clarification, Geoff. In future I will try to choose my linguistic data from more respectable sources. The Collected Works of Enid Blyton, perhaps?

25 09 2017

No offence intended to anyone, but I think you’ll find that Enid Blyton is just as objectionable – I seem to remember Noddy washing the golliwogs with soap and water to make them clean. And a painted doll standing outside the dolls’ house, whom Noddy invites for a ride in his car. And as for his relationship with Big Ears … although perhaps that is more acceptable today.

24 09 2017
Neil McMillan

I once tried to argue the case for adopting Burroughs’s fatal re-enactment of the William Tell thing as a form of error correction (“Make a mistake with the past simple and I’m taking a pop at the apple, but I warn you I went drinking last night”), but it didn’t go for some reason. Thought it was a good way to reinforce the target language.

In all seriousness, there have been a great many morally reprehensible people who were still fantastic writers/producers of idiolects. I’m not sure Burroughs is one of them, but I agree with Scott that the letters are worth reading. In contrast to the drab UK kitchensink movement of the time, at least the Beats had ideas, and the letters offer a window on to that.

25 09 2017

Of course the letters are worth reading. The letters of Elizabeth Bathory are worth reading too. Caravgagio was a great artist. Etc.. But I think it’s important to remember that whatever merits Burroughs might have had as a writer (and I see few), he remains a dispicable louse.

25 09 2017

If you’ll allow me a final comment, Scott, I’d like to make it clear that I have no objection to consenting adults getting as high as kites and doing anything they fancy to satisfy their sexual appetites, just as long as nobody else gets hurt. What I object to about Burroughs is that he exploitated the poor and the vulnerable, and that he and others seem to think it’s OK because he was an interesting character and a great writer.

24 09 2017

What’s happening Scott, reintroducing grammar, translation, the mother tongue, and now repetition and rote learning!

Yes I certainly agree with the usefulness of all those things in the right context.

The notion of “interlanguage” however has no pedagogical value for me, particularly in the light of the fiasco about the “natural order of acquisition”.

I recently came across Pit Corder’s original paper on learner error and it seems pretty sensible, modest and tentative. Who’d have thought it would be become the raison d’etre for a generation of academics of a certain persuasion.

Must be nice to be able to pop over to Tanger for the weekend!

24 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Patrick. Not sure why ‘interlanguage’ has no pedagogical value. Sure, you can’t teach to it, as if it were a pre-determined syllabus, but you can invoke it to account for why your teaching doesn’t always (ever?) match what learners actually learn.

25 09 2017

The way I see it Scott is that ‘interlanguage’ is one of the uglier of many unnecessary neologisms invented by academics, presumably to give them a sense that they are forging a profession: there are plenty of plain English alternatives.

Yes you can invoke it as a reason for accounting for the mismatch between teaching and learning/acquiring. But there are a thousand and one other potential reasons for the mismatch that have nothing to do with ‘interlanguage’.

But the main reason that I dislike it so much is that it is so tightly bound up with the notion that languages are learnt via mechanistic pre-programmed stages. The much-touted initial research on this was a travesty, both in terms of its design and its interpretation. And although these initial errors were highlighted and debated over an extended period of time, and refuted by subsequent research, the fact that they still persist in some quarters indicates that they are ideologically driven.

From memory, Rod Ellis gives a pretty even-handed account of this fiasco, and probably Norbert Schmitt too, but many of the academics writing in that particular field seem happy just to perpetuate unanalysed myths.

I hope this doesn’t sound too aggressive, it’s early here and I still haven’t had that all important first coffee!

24 09 2017

Never heard of a (‘famililect’), but perhaps the lexical forms arise as a form of institutionalised hypocorism? And of course many institutions deliberately introduce and implement special words (or special meanings of words) as a bonding mechanism for their employees, so, for example, a meeting becomes a ‘bleat session’. Enjoyed the article.

24 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for introducing me to this term, Martin. For those, like me, for whom this was new:

A hypocorism is a nickname that shows affection or closeness. If your dog’s name is Buster but you tend to call him “Sweetiecakes,” you’re using a hypocorism. A pet name is a hypocorism, and so is the addition of a diminutive suffix to the end of a name, like when you change the name “Bill” to “Billy.” (https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/hypocorism)

24 09 2017

“Dialects can thus be seen as an abstraction, deriving from an analysis of a number of idiolects; and languages, in turn, are an abstraction deriving from a number of dialects”. The definition given to differentiate idiolect, dialect and language is linguistically true. Comprehensibility is another criterion which should added to this definition. However, except for the idiolect which is mainly related to individuals, the definition of language and dialect is largely influenced by social and political considerations. In some countries, in order to consolidate the status of the official language, local languages, incomprehensible to the speakers of the official language, are also considered dialects. For example, in Iran Persian is the official language. Local Lorish, Turkish, and Kurdish, spoken by ethnic groups, are regarded as dialects although they have characteristics which categorize them as distinct languages.

24 09 2017
Lexical Leo

Enjoyed this!
Would you indulge us with a couple of cringe-inducing examples of your own in the comments at least?

25 09 2017

As for my idiolect, I keep using certain catchphrases in my own mother tongue. For example, i use the word ‘ajab’ meaning “strange” to express surprise. There are many more of course. That individuals’ catchphrases are repetitive supports the view mentioned in the article of scott’s.

24 09 2017
Kyle Dugan

Lovely article, Scott. I really enjoyed your pulling from a variety a non-academic sources to make your point. But I’m still a bit puzzled, like Geoff (your further comment notwithstanding) as to why an understanding of intimate discourse would lead you to the conclusion that rote learning is necessary.

24 09 2017
Scott Thornbury

Hi Kyle…thanks for the comment. And, just to reiterate – it’s not MY conclusion that rote learning is necessary, but Cook’s. Nevertheless, I find his argument compelling, i.e. that a good deal of real language use (perhaps much more than is captured in corpora) is ludic, ritualised, non-communicative, repetitive, and that language learning (of an L1) is facilitated by engaging with activities that include these ludic, ritualised etc features, e.g. in the form of nursery rhymes, chants, prayers, games and so on. If so, then maybe there should be a place in second language learning for similar activity types. Rote learning, after all, is a well established feature of many educational systems, often with impressive results. See, for example, the post on memorization at https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/04/08/m-is-for-memorization/

25 09 2017
Jeff Buck

This post reminded me of the issue regarding the use of “ain’t”. It’s my understanding that ancient grammarians banned the use of this contraction altogether because of it’s over use. But the ban ain’t been too effective as it’s still used by many people for all subjects with “be” and “have” and also for “there” and “be.” It seems that there ain’t no way to get rid of this contraction. The problem with banning this form is that it’s needed to form a tag question for “I am”. I’m right about this point, aren’t I? I ain’t gonna deny that I hate saying both “aren’t I?” and “am I not?” Well, I ain’t holding my breath waiting for grammarians to come to their senses on this one. Cheers.

25 09 2017

Jeff, too bad you aren’t Canadian. We’ve replaced all the tags with the word ‘eh’! So much easier to say and teach, eh?!? Half kidding of course, we do use it a lot but occasionally need a proper, rule based tag.

26 09 2017
Jeff Buck

Hi, Jenn. Yeah, I hear “eh?” a lot from my Canadian colleagues. And I remember my grandmother, who was from PEI, used to say things such as “It’s a good job…” instead of “It’s a good thing…” and that things were “as big as Fan McCoo”. I’m not sure how to spell that or who exactly that character was, but it was funny hearing her say it.

26 09 2017
Jessica Mackay

Did she have Irish/Scottish roots? My dad (a Scot) would say something similar. He was talking about the legendary Celtic warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool in English)

28 09 2017
Jeff Buck

Hi, Jessica. Yes, she was a MacPhee. Thanks for the information.

25 09 2017

Bravo for daring to step outside the dry dull world of the standard fare pontificated upon in these places… even if you do like to bathe a little too much in your own idiolect sometimes!
Bit mystified by the debate over the lifestyle of WB. Not sure how relevant that is to the topic, and it did take up an awful lot of space…

27 09 2017

I think we can be tolerant.
Scott, thank you very much for the article!

You know, I am Russian and I mostly teach English to Russian students. And there exist this kind of dialect between Russian speaking students. They can create new words, add some endings, connect two words together. And they understand each other. They understand the meaning of such words, they understand the humor of those words, even the students who has never seen each other. It’s very interesting!

29 09 2017

Re rote learning, I’m sure there are more than a few readers who are a bit skeptical, but…

Professor Paul Nation gives a clear description of many types of teaching procedures in “Learning Vocabulary in Another Language” 2013, including procedures for rote learning, applicable to phrases as well as individual words. All supported by a wealth of research.

This really is a fantastic reference for teachers, as are Nation’s other books. Definitely one for my desert island collection.

The payback from rote learning can be huge and the procedures are simple in the extreme. But like anything else, it should be part of a healthy balanced diet.

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