What Is An Idiolect?

Each and every one of us has our own idiolect. And that makes language all the more complicated.
Two young women sitting on a stoop, talking in their idiolects

Every single person speaks differently. Sure, we speak the same languages as each other — communication would be impossible if we didn’t — but like snowflakes, no two people’s way of talking is the same. That means you could say that there are over 7 billion languages out there, and each of these tiny languages is called an idiolect. The idea of zooming in on language to such minute detail can seem like a waste of time, but understanding idiolects is key to understanding the human nature of language.

The Definition Of Idiolect

An idiolect is the specific way that a single person speaks. This includes a person vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and anything else that affects the way words come out of their mouth. It comes from the Greek idio- meaning “one’s own” and -lect which technically comes from Greek, but has just become a common linguistic ending because of the word “dialect.” The prefix idio- isn’t super common, but you can also see it in the word “idiosyncrasy.”

Idiolects are really unlike any other grouping in linguistics. When researchers look at dialects, they are studying how people in a specific group — whether that’s determined by geography, age, class or however else you might divide people up — tend to use language. Within every geographical dialect, for example, there is variation. Yes, linguists could say that people in the southern United States are more likely to say “y’all,” but that doesn’t mean every single person does. Idiolects, on the other hand, do lend themselves to more definitive statements. When you’re describing the way a single person talks, you can indeed say “this person pronounces this word a certain way” or “this person never says this word.”

Still, your idiolect changes constantly. Every time you learn a new word and start to use it, that affects your idiolect. If you move to a different part of the United States or anywhere else, it affects your idiolect. Even aging can change the way you talk to some degree (but you can learn more about that by looking at sociolects). The people around you affect your idiolect and you affect the idiolects of the people around you.

Why Study Idiolects?

If idiolects are so unstable and changeable, then studying them poses a conundrum: what can one person’s language really tell us? There’s an argument you could make that because language is always a way of communicating from one person to another, it might not be possible to isolate the way a single person speaks or writes. Despite that argument, there are proven uses of idiolects.

Forensic Linguistics

The idea of solving crimes with language might sound like the setup for a TV show, but forensic linguistics is a real field. Most often, it comes into play when investigators study a piece of writing to see if it matches a suspect’s idiolect. This isn’t very common, yet it has come into play in very important cases.

The most famous example of forensic linguistics was during the hunt for the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, who killed three people by sending explosive devices around the United States. Law enforcement agents were pretty lost until the Attorney General decided to publish one of the Unabomber’s essays. Kaczynski’s brother happened to read the essay and recognize the writing style, which led to a tip that eventually led to the Unabomber’s arrest. There’s some irony that one of the most famous cases involving forensic linguistics didn’t involve professional forensic linguists, but it does show how an idiolect can be a giveaway. 

Forensic linguistics also doesn’t always have to involve legal matters. The tools have been used to identify many anonymous authors. In 2013, a series of mystery books were published by an author named Robert Galbraith. For some reason, forensic linguists decided to compare the writing style to other authors and discovered that Galbraith was most likely J.K. Rowling using a pen name (she later confirmed this). Similarly, historians looked at the anonymously published Federalist Papers — a series of essays meant to defend the Constitution of the United States — and they were able to determine which founding father wrote which essay.

An important note about idiolects, especially in forensic linguistics, is that the giveaways are usually subtle. You can’t discover the identity of an author based on a single word, for example. Most scientific studies tend to look at words and features you don’t even think about, like prepositions and punctuation, to compare texts using complex algorithms. If you zoom in close enough, your language is like a fingerprint — individual to you.

Understanding Language

Now we slide from the concrete uses of idiolects to a slightly more theoretical view of language. Sometimes, language is treated as though it’s something separate from humans. It’s an idea that you’re taught in school, really. You are born and then you have to learn a language that is outside of you. You can be “better” at language or “worse” at language depending on how closely you match certain standards. But that is not true.

Instead, you are born and you start to create language. People do have to agree on the rough principles of language — otherwise, communication is impossible — but it’s necessary to see that language doesn’t exist separate from its speakers. When people get riled up about something like “irregardless” being added to the dictionary, it’s because they think that there is objectively correct or incorrect language. But no, language is only a set of agreed-upon vocabulary and grammar that changes as often as people change.

Understanding idiolects, then, changes the idea of language from top-down to bottom-up. We may think that there is some Platonic ideal of English that we are all taught (top-down), but really English is nothing but a group of mutually intelligible idiolects (bottom-up). This incredible complexity is too much to ever capture — that’s why linguists study languages in groups rather than in individuals — yet it’s important because it shows how language changes with the people who speak it.

When a language has no more native speakers, it’s called a “dead language,” and for good reason. Language is only as diverse and vibrant as its speakers. While you can’t necessarily change the definition of a word on a whim, each time you speak your idiolect is contributing to what a language is and can be.

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