Formality Follow-Up

The points that Jeremy raised in last week’s post are worth weeks of exploration, and I am so grateful for his courage and his insight in bringing his curiosity to this forum. I wanted to stumble my way into this socio-philosophical hall of mirrors with my own questions to bounce around in some attempt at securing my epistemological footing.

In June, I taught an Experiencing Speech with Master Teacher Andrea Caban, and we bumped up against this same issue as we neared the end of the six-day intensive. While the group was quite comfortable with Dudley’s “Principles, Perhaps …” and we were able to jettison (mostly) the unhelpful rhetoric of Standard Speech, we did still have to pause and circle and snipe and pause again when discussing “formality.” I presented the graphs I made at our Teacher Cert (June 2016), with the two-axis, graphed averages of multiple perceptions of one audio sample; I hoped to show that there were multiple ways that we, as humans, could collectively perceive formality.

While the students at that most recent ES understood the point I was making with my ad hoc Excel charts, they took the most issue with (and, yes, I pointed out the quotes!) the “folksy” and “fancy” axis. What we finally agreed upon, after some prodding and elucidation, was that the quotes indicate the context that must always be defined, thoughtfully and carefully, in these discussions. Indeed, it is that context that is often missing from the very concept of “formality.”

Which brings me to my next thought, which is that we haven’t really defined “formality.” What is it? What is this thing to which we are aiming/aspiring/avoiding? In Speaking with Skill, around pages 237 and 238, Dudley brilliantly avoids cornering himself into a definition of this slippery concept. While establishing a firm basis for his separation between prescriptive and descriptive speech, Dudley explains “formal” and “informal” speech based on the contexts in which we might use them — and his hedging around that “might,” with function-based definitions of “formal” and “informal,” leaves us grasping at the clear distinction between the two. The two-axis graph came into being — and our conversation continues — because we haven’t really put this debate to bed yet. In fact, we’re still wrestling with the philosophical challenges posed by prescriptive models while also trying to reach audiences who have been reared on the expectations of prescriptive pedagogies.

So that leaves me with my initial question: what is “formality,” really? What is “formal” speech, how does it arise, and how do we define “formal” speech in different contexts? I think Dudley was writing (quite consciously) to the assumption that “formal” speech is meant to suit the needs of older theatrical standards, attached to all of the historical biases inherent in that paradigm. But can there be “formal” speech amongst familiars? Does formality tie into an awareness of audience (while still allowing integrated and authentic communication), such that formal speech is consciously activated to achieve intended communicative goals while informal speech is that which is unconsciously or habitually enacted (though, mushily, perhaps subconscious activation of formality could still occur)? Can someone use speech, informally, that sounds formal to others (and perhaps not to themselves)? The diagonal line on Jeremy’s final graph is reminiscent of Dudley’s orientation toward a “formal”/”informal” scale that reflects upon the context he was raised in and eventually fought against. I’m inclined to get rid of any such vestige of the Old Ways, but I also crave the simplicity of a horizontal axis that supersedes the “folksy”/”fancy” scale. I’m imagining some sort of social scaling — and buying myself a world of eventual hurt — whereby the listener gauges the speaker’s location on a “Perceived Target Audience” scale, ranging from “idiolectal” to “widest possible audience” (based on the speaker’s perceptions, and not on some “objective” standard).

It’s so complicated that it’s worth sussing out, and we may not get to have our clean, horizontal axis until we’ve banged our heads against the wall a few more decades. But I think we can get there, and I definitely think it’s worth the struggle.


2 thoughts on “Formality Follow-Up

  1. I have so many thoughts about this! First, I have heard Phil define “formal” in the context that Dudley uses it in Speaking with Skill as being of the dictionary pronunciation form. So, the more “formal” the pronunciation, the closer to how its pronunciation is described in a dictionary.

    When I teach formal/informal speech, I only include linguistic detail in my definition of it. The more linguistic detail, the more differentiation of vowels, the more formal. The more fluency strategies, the more informal. After learning the skills of formal speech and the fluency strategies of informal speech, my students and I talk about – and do several exercises to explore – how different degrees of linguistic detail applied to different pieces of text are received by audience and scene partner(s). In those conversations and physical explorations, status and tactics come up as a result of speech choices.

    1. The thoughts! The thoughts! They keep coming for me, too, Julie!

      It’s funny — I find the dictionary to be one of the more troublesome resources to which my accent acquisition clients often turn. Whether it’s the fact that Merriam-Webster refuses to use the IPA or the fact that Longman’s “US” pronunciations stray (with some regularity) from expected GenAm realizations, I often spend more time explaining the dictionary’s shortcomings than using it as one source amongst many. I think that even the dictionary arrives as another context-specific tool, one whose “formality” is intrinsically tied up in historical and cultural biases. And that’s not even including the fact that I need to use the self-declaredly “informal” Urban Dictionary to understand the context clues I lack in enjoying an author such as Junot Díaz, whose mastery of English prose is formidable (and has hints of “formality” in my reading).

      I also wonder about linguistic detail in terms of formality. Is [ɡɛtʰ hɜ˞ dɐːn] more formal than [ɡɪdə˞dəːːn]? How do we make that call? Where does that “standard” arise? I agree with you, in that those questions become the most important ones that we can ask in our work with students. Our ability to experiment with language, to apply it live to varying communicative contexts, is what allows us to interrogate our preconceptions and those of our students. Questioning and juxtaposing our expectations, perceptions, and insights line the path forward to a better understanding of “formality.”

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