What is language registers ?
Language registers allow us to categorize vocabulary, a grammatical aspect, a turn of phrase, an idiomatic expression that we can use according to a specific communication situation. They determine the level of language used.
Several parameters such as the presence of different social classes, France's rather turbulent history and the influence of other countries have given rise to these different language registers.
Officially, there are three language registers :
Familiar language :
Familiar language is a language used most often with family, friends, people close to us.
How to recognize familiar language?
→ use of "tu"
→ use of "on"
→ use of abbreviations : «Je suis prof » instead of «Je suis professeur»
→ The oral negative "ne" disappears : «Je sais pas» instead of «Je ne sais pas»
In familiar language, we can find two sub-categories :
- Vulgar language :
Vulgar language is not considered as a "beautiful" language. It can be insulting, rude. It is negative. You can hurt someone if you misuse vulgar language
- The slang language :
Slang is a vocabulary used by a particular social group that distinguishes it from others. Slang can be used by an professional category that has its own vocabulary or way of speaking, or by people from the same region or by people who share the same interests. For example, geeks or musicians have their own slang.
⚠️ Slang can be vulgar or familiar and vulgar language can be slang or not.
Common language :
Common language is the language we use the most : friends, family, colleagues, in a shop, at work, etc. It's generally the language taught in French schools and in French courses for foreigners.
It's neutral language. It's the safest if you're afraid of being too familiar or too sustained.
How to recognize common language?
→ use of simple, short sentences.
→ use of "tu" and "vous".
→ common vocabular
In the common language register, we can find a sub-category :
- The formal language :
Formal language is used in official situations, such as in political speeches, or in administrative procedures. Formal language is also used in correspondence you may receive from the French government. Formal language is not a language you will use in everyday life, but perhaps more in specific situations.
The sustained language :
Sustained language is used a lot in written and is often used by a high social class.
How to recognize sustained language
→ long and complex sentences
→ use of "vous"
→ rich, rare vocabulary : «demeure» instead of «maison»
→ use of reverse interrogation : vient-elle ?
→ using the simple past tense and the past tense
In common parlance, we can find a sub-category
- Literary language :
I will add literary language, very much like sustained language. As its name suggests, it is the language found in French literature.
In a nutshell :
How do I know when to use the right language register ?
Let's say that, in general, language registers correspond to specific contexts :
familiar language : use with family and friends. The people you will use "tu" with,
the common language for everyday life. You may as well use "tu" or "vous",
and sustained language where you will always use "vous", you will not use a lot of sustained language or at least in very specific situations
This is how we usually use the language registers.
However, it must be understood that a language register will depend on the context in which you are and the relationship you have with your interlocutor, but also on your social status and that of your interlocutor.
For example, in France, there are families who only speak in sustained language to each other and they call each other "vous". A child will say "vous" to his parents and vice versa. Usually, familiar language is used with friends and family, but in some families, not many, if you use familiar language it can be considered badly.
Another example, if you know former President Jacques Chirac, who died last year, he and his wife Bernadette used to call each other "vous" when they were married.
These are examples so that you understand that the language registers are based on several parameters. And in general, it depends on where you are, the relationship you have with your interlocutor and the social class to which you and your interlocutor belong.
My advice to know when to use the right language registers is to first observe the environment you are in, whether it's a fancy place for example or a supermarket. You need to observe how the other person speaks, whether they speak to you using "tu" or "vous", whether they have a rather familiar, common or sustained language and adopt the same language register as the person speaking to you.
Or the surest way to avoid making mistakes is to always use common language. And if you are in doubt about a word, if you think it is familiar or vulgar or too sustained, try not to use it and turn your sentence differently.
In a nutshell :
What do we do if we get the wrong language register ?
No, you don't have to worry if you use the wrong language register. The most important thing is not to insult anyone. Even if you use the wrong language register in the situation, people will understand and probably know that you are not French. They won't hold it against you.
In truth, it also happens to us, native French people, that we don't know which language register to use sometimes. This is something we also learn at school.
How do we know to which language regret our phrase or word belongs ?
First of all, when you learn a new vocabulary word, a new expression, a new grammatical structure, always check which language register they belong to. A French teacher, if he is good, will tell you every time, at least he will warn you if a word is considered vulgar or familiar.
The language register is always indicated in French dictionaries, as in the example below :
Source : dictionnairereverso.net
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The language registers now hold no more secrets for you!
I'll see you soon for new adventures in French, of course! 🇫🇷