linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Friday 25 January, 2013]
Most of the time, in language work, we study the features of language which people have in common - the rules of grammar, pronunciation, and so on which enable people to communicate with each other. From time to time, though it is important to study a person’s idiolect - those features which distinguish that person from others in the community. Examples include the forensic investigation of someone’s spoken or written language, as part of a police enquiry, and the analogous stylistic detective work which has to take place when critics wish to establish who was the author of a particular literary work (did Shakespeare write all those plays? did St Paul write all those letters?). The study of language-disordered people, both children and adults, can also require a detailed study of individual patterns of ability and disability. But literary stylistics is the domain most involved in the idiolectal use of language. ‘Style is the man.’
There’s no reason why students shouldn’t get involved in some elementary language detective work. Each of a group could write an account of something, using two separate pages. The pages are mixed up, and people have to try to work out who wrote what. The handwriting usually gives the game away. To eliminate this, get the accounts typed, and see how far everyone gets. Some students will have linguistic fingerprints which stand out a mile. Others will be difficult to separate. The same exercise could of course be done using literary samples, but that would probably be a more advanced task, as the language involved would usually be rather more complex.
CEL 8, 12

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