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.

M is for Memorization

8 04 2011

What lessons can psychology teach us about second language instruction?

In a recent book on the psychology of second language acquisition, Zoltán Dörnyei (2009) draws six practical implications from current research findings, one being that instruction “should be meaning focused and personally engaging” (p.302). Nothing surprising about that, perhaps, but what about his claim that instructed SLA should incorporate an element of rote learning?

Reviewing this book in the latest ELT Journal, Steven McDonough asks “Surely he is not suggesting that learners should learn grammar rules by heart?” (McDonough, 2011, p. 195). Since I don’t yet have the book, I have no way of checking. But in an earlier work on the same subject, Dörnyei (2005) traces the history of rote learning and its relation to aptitude, starting with Carroll’s (1981) claim that language aptitude comprises four constituent abilities, one of which is “rote learning ability”. This is “the ability to learn associations between sounds and meaning rapidly and efficiently, and to retain these associations” (Carroll, 1981, p.105). Accordingly, the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT), which Carroll had a hand in, includes a rote learning component: “Students have a total of four minutes to memorize 24 Kurdish/English word pairs. Retention is tested by means of a multiple choice test…” (cited in Dörnyei, 2005, p. 37). (Easy if you’re Kurdish, of course!)

Subsequently, Skehan (1998), in his own model of language aptitude, retains an important role for memory, and notes that “memory, although traditionally associated with the acquisition of new information, is also concerned with retrieval, and with the way elements are stored… Fast-access memory systems… are what allow output to be orchestrated into fluent performance” (p.204). It’s not enough to know a lot of words, obviously. You have to be able to retrieve them, and at speed.

Skehan also reviews some case studies of exceptional language learners, and concludes: “To be exceptionally good at second or foreign language learning seems to require possession of unusual memory abilities, particularly the retention of verbal material. Exceptional L2 ability does not seem to rest upon unusual talent with a rule-based aspects of the language, but rather on a capacity to absorb very large quantities of verbal material, in such a way that they become available for actual language use” (p.221).

If memorizing large quantities of ‘verbal material’ is a characteristic of exceptional learners, can less exceptional learners be trained to get similar results?

In a fascinating study of three Chinese learners of English, all of whom were rated as having achieved a high degree of communicative proficiency, Ding (2007) tracks the role that the rote-learning of huge quantities of text played in their linguistic accomplishments. As the abstract reports, “The interviewees regarded text memorization and imitation as the most effective methods of learning English. They had been initially forced to use these methods but gradually came to appreciate them.” What they memorized, as part of their conventional schooling, were entire coursebooks (New Concept English by Louis Alexander, in one case) as well as the screenplays of whole films: “Some of them said that when they speak English, lines from movies often naturally pop out, making others think of their English as natural and fluent “. As one of the subjects reported, “through reciting those lessons, he gained mastery of many collocations, phrases, sentence patterns and other language points”.

Now I have to declare an interest here: my conviction that the role of memory – including memorization – in language learning has been sorely neglected led me to commission a title for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers (of which I’m the series editor), and I’m pleased to say that the book has just been published. It’s by Nick Bilbrough, and called Memory Activities for Language Learning. I have to say that the book has exceeded my expectations, and triumphantly fulfils its back-cover promise: “Memory Activities for Language Learning explores the cognitive processes of memory and provides a bank of activities to facilitate their development”.

I’m hoping that Nick’s book will (re-)awaken interest in the crucial role that memory plays in second language learning.


Carroll, J.B. 1981. Twenty-five years of research in foreign language aptitude. In K.C. Diller (ed.) Individual differences and universals in language learning aptitude. Rowley, MA.; Newbury House.

Ding, Y. 2007. Text memorisation and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System 35: 271-80.

Dörnyei, Z. 2005. The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDonough, S. 2011. Review of Dörnyei (2009) in ELT Journal, 65/2, pp. 194-6.

Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Teaching.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Hamilton, J. 1946. Método de Inglés (Tercer Libro) Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Progreso.