Biber, Douglas, 1995:

Dimensions of Register Variation. A Cross-Linguistic Comparison

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xvi + 428
Hardback: ISBN 0 521 47331 37.50 (US$59.95)

reviewed by

Nigel Armstrong

Department of French Studies, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU
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First published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1996 Nigel Armstrong.

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In Dimensions of Register Variation Douglas Biber continues to develop the strand of functional stylistics that has come to be associated with his name, and which was previously reported most notably in his Variation across Speech and Writing. To deal at once with the venerable register/style terminological issue, Biber uses 'register variation' to refer to linguistic variation which is conditioned by situational context, that is broadly along the formal-informal dimension in a variationist analysis, though of course many other factors, both functional and social, also come into play. It is regrettable that usage should differ among linguists between style and register, although one can usually tell what is meant. Where Biber has 'register', in common with many other linguists I use 'style', reserving the former term to refer to the dimension of linguistic variation which responds to subject-matter: the register of law, of medicine and so forth. However, as it seems odd for a sociolinguist to be deploring linguistic variation, it may be as well to move on to substantive matters. In what follows I will adopt Biber's usage and refer to 'register'.

As indicated above, Biber is interested above all in the functional aspects of register variation. He sees production circumstances (situational context) on the one hand, and on the other communicative functions as the principal factors influencing variable language. Production circumstances include scripted vs. unscripted communication, personal vs. impersonal, proximal vs. distant, interactive vs. unidirectional and others; communicative function has to do broadly with the ideational/affective polarity of an interchange. The dimensions of register variation referred to in the book's title, used here in a multiple sense, are those which Biber has exploited in previous work, and include what he refers to as the Multi-dimensional (MD) framework of analysis.

We may mention as the first dimension the large number of linguistic features studied which vary across text types: for English, 16 grammatical and functional categories, ranging from tense and aspect markers through subordination features to negation, comprising a total of 67 features. Similar numbers are analysed for the other languages examined. This is the MD method: several linguistic features are studied in bundles, to overcome the problems of comparability raised by the structural differences between the very different languages studied here (see following paragraph). Thus MD analysis proceeds by looking first at function; for example, the focused presentation of information. Given that this (or any) function may be expressed using different structures across languages, this seems a principled way to proceed.

The second dimension concerns the cross-linguistic analysis. The functional/linguistic features referred to above are examined in computerised corpora of four very different languages: English, Korean, Somali and Nukulaelae Tuvaluan, the latter a language spoken on Nukulaelae, a small atoll of the Tuvalu group in the Central Pacific. A good deal of space in the book is devoted to detailed analyses of texts in the four languages. The interest of the enterprise is to see what similarities can be discovered in register variation across languages which differ considerably in respect of degree of standardisation and linguistic structure.

The third dimension studied is register. The text types studied include both written and spoken, ranging from informal conversation to formal writing. The range of texts in each language varies according to the degree to which the language concerned has undergone standardisation; in Nukulaelae Tuvaluan for example, a language spoken by 300-350 speakers on an isolated Pacific island, five spoken and two written text types were considered, while in British English, clearly a language that has undergone very considerable 'elaboration of function', nearly 30 written and over a dozen spoken text types are examined (in Biber's definition, register is the larger term which may subsume several text types). In addition Biber takes into account the fourth dimension of synchronic/diachronic variation.

Biber's programme is thus the search for functional universals of register variation which are valid across widely differing languages. One is tempted to say that it is unsurprising to find that involvement functions, for example, are found universally in informal registers; nevertheless Biber must be credited for having devised the MD framework which confirmed in a principled way the findings reported here. Like any good idea that seems obvious when clearly articulated, someone had to think of it first.

It is no doubt most profitable to regard Biber's essentially asocial approach to register variation as complementary to 'variationist' sociolinguistic perspectives, such as that formulated by Bell in his substantial and much-discussed 1984 article, on the basis of an extensive review of the variationist literature. Understandably there are in the present volume few references to variationist researchers, and indeed research on register within this paradigm is discussed on pages 1-4, then seen no more. Although Biber makes use of the immortal phrase 'sociolinguistic patterns', his understanding of it clearly differs from Labov's. The Labovian perspective on the relations between social and register variation can be viewed as an element in the variationist method, which aims to analyse the social group/register relation with a view to inferring what patterns of interaction between social and register variation are indicative of linguistic change in progress. As indicated above, Biber's programme is quite other; his view of the relation between social and register variation is broadly that middle-class speakers have in the nature of things occasion to use, and therefore access to, a wider range of 'elaborated' registers than working class speakers. Nevertheless Biber does recognise elsewhere in his work (Finegan and Biber 1994) the existence of purely symbolic linguistic variants which are involved in register variation and serve no functional purpose, and whose function is to signal formality of register through the fact of their deriving from prestigious social varieties.

In this latter connexion I would therefore question Biber's remark, advanced at the outset, that the striking characteristic of texts produced under virtually identical production circumstances is their sameness, irrespective of the social affiliation of the speakers involved. In spoken British English at least, locutors signal their adherence to social groupings through the variable use of largely arbitrary pronunciation features; this is a quite different matter from the reduced and elaborated forms which Biber sees as corresponding to the presentation of de/contextualised information expressed through register variation.

However, as indicated above, the variationist paradigm is one which is largely orthogonal to one single element of Biber's enterprise. This volume reports on a remarkably ambitious research programme; at the same time, as its author states, its findings represent only the initial stages of a highly original and promising enterprise.


Bell, A., 1984. Language style as audience design. Language in Society, 13/2.145-204.

Biber, D., 1988. Variation across speech and writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Finegan, E. and Biber, D., 1994. Register and social dialect variation: an integrated approach. In: D. Biber and E. Finegan (eds), Sociolinguistic perspectives on register. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press. 315-47.

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