The designation folk speech is one of various terms that have been used to describe the language of ordinary people as used for routine purposes on the everyday level of face-to-face oral communication. Such variation refers to the pragmatic rather than to the grammatical aspect of language, that is, to the way language is used to communicate within the context of social interaction as revealed in different patterns of discourse, rather than to the internal structure of the linguistic code as seen, for example, in dialect variation.
Folk speech can be differentiated from two other major intralinguistic varieties: dialect and style. Following M. A. K. Halliday, we can say that dialect is linguistic variety according to users (regional populations or social classes) while style is variety according to use. Since folk speech is a natural product of face-to-face oral communication, it can co-occur with whatever dialect variation is natural to the speakers, thus the two varieties, folk speech and dialect, can be treated separately. Style can be defined as the intentional selection of alternative forms within the linguistic code for some specific communicative purpose. For example, “He regrets that he is unable to attend” and “He’s sorry he can’t make it” are denotatively synonymous, yet everyone recognizes at once that the first is formal while the second is informal in its occurrence. Stylistic variations of this kind, which mark different levels of formality, are called registers.
Other registers within the stylistic repertoire of a language correspond to different domains of use such as journalism, bureaucratic communication, sermons, lectures, and so on, as well as to the selection of alternative forms for esthetic effect in literature. In so far as the restricted mode is an automatic response to speaking conditions and not a matter of conscious choice, it is not “variety according to use,” as is style. If, however, style is defined in its most neutral sense as simply “a way or mode of doing something,” folk speech can be described as an informal register within the variegated functions of a complex speech community, unless the speakers master no other stylistic variants.
As a separate variety, we can describe folk speech as the restricted as opposed to the elaborated mode of language use. Borrowing terms from literary criticism, we might characterize the restricted mode as thinly textured discourse, since fewer of the grammatical and lexical resources of the language are employed than in the thickly textured discourse of the elaborated mode, in which the full grammatical and lexical resources of the linguistic code are employed. The restricted mode is thus the language of implicit meaning while the elaborated mode is the language of explicit meaning. The thinly textured discourse of folk speech is characterized by the use of simple verb constructions and preference for the active over the passive voice. Syntactically, folk speech is paratactic, that is, it is made up of simple sentences with only a few conjunctions used repetitively and with little subordination of clauses. Indeed, there is evidence that in the languages of some nonliterate, pre-industrial homogeneous societies there is no subordination at all. Another feature of folk speech is the avoidance of impersonal pronouns as sentence subjects. Thus, “Everybody knows he lives here” is used instead of “It is known that he lives here,” and “A man used to come to town all the time” instead of «There was a man who used to come to town all the time.” Also, ellipsis and unfinished sentences are frequent in folk speech. The syntax of the more thickly textured discourse of the elaborated mode is hypotactic, that is, it consists of complex sentences employing a wide range of syntactic devices for conjunction and subordination. The use of impersonal pronouns as subjects is also frequent, as is the use of prepositions to mark both temporal and logical relations. More frequent use is also made of complex verb phrases as well as of the passive voice.
On the lexical level, the restricted mode involves the use of a smaller vocabulary with a high proportion of words of emotional content as well as the frequent use of expletives. Folk speech is also characterized by the rigid and limited use of adjectives and frequent use of formulaic expressions such as “I mean” and “you know”—what Bernstein called sympathetic circularity. The elaborated mode, however, draws on a larger vocabulary with finer semantic distinctions on higher levels of abstraction. Another feature of the vocabulary of folk speech is that lexical precision is focused on those activities closest to the activities of local endeavor while other objects and events remain unlexicalized. For example, plants that were not useful to German rural dialect speakers, or that were not aesthetically pleasing or were particularly harmful to them, were simply referred to as “weeds,” while attributes of those plants of particular interest were lexicalized in detail.
Even the more highly lexicalized domains of folk speech are poor in abstract terms but rich in concrete, particular ones based on local experience. A study of one local German dialect revealed that out of a list of 4,470 words only 210 were abstract, and out of 3,300 nouns collected in another region all but 420 were semantically concrete. For example, in one dialect the abstract word for “basket” was never used. In its place were seven different terms for different kinds of baskets employed for different purposes. It was also noted that the semantic range of abstract words tends to be more restricted in local dialects than in the standard language. For example, the word Giite with the broad semantic range of “kindness, goodness, excellence, purity, quality” is restricted in folk speech to only the quality of merchandise.
Another example of the preference for the concrete in folk speech is the use of concrete descriptive phrases instead of more abstract single words. Thus instead of “on account of his poverty” one hears “because he’s poor,” and instead of “after sundown,” “after the sun went down.” One also hears such locutions as “he’ll be home by hog-killing time” instead of “he’ll be home by winter,” and “when it gets green” or “when the swallows return” instead of «in the spring.” Often preference for the concrete takes on an ironic twist. Instead of saying that someone has been executed on the gallows, one might say that “he didn’t drown in the Rhine.” An Ozark woman too proud to accept welfare was reported to have said, “I’d sooner get me a tin bill and pick manure with the chickens.”
A touch of humor is also often added, as when in the Ozarks a young man was described as being so drunk “he had to hold on to the grass to keep from falling off.”
All speakers use the restricted mode of speech since it is a natural result of face-to-face oral communication. This is why many of the discourse features of the folk speech of local German dialects were the same as those found in colloquial speech. In both cases, a high degree of shared background information among interlocutors, together with the context of situation and cues such as intonation, body language, eye movement, and so on, make it easier for hearers to infer the communicative intention of speakers with recourse to fewer lexical and grammatical resources, thus the thinly textured discourse of this form of speech. When interlocutors share little background information, greater weight in communication is shifted to the inner structural resources of the linguistic code, thus the more thickly textured discourse of the elaborated mode. These pragmatic features have led John Gumperz to conclude that the difference between restricted and the elaborated speech is simply the difference between two modes of “signaling or calling on background knowledge.”
Folk speech has long been of interest to folklorists who are less concerned about its nature than the way it reflects the shared local cultural experience of folk groups. Such scholars include nonstandard dialects in their study of folk speech along with the stock of proverbial comparisons, proverbial phrases, aphorisms, adages, sayings, and proverbs that comprise the phraseological level of language. They also include in folk speech the study of names (onomastics) and argots (special use of language by different groups) as well as occupational vocabulary as it appears on the folk level. The ethnography of speaking provides the broadest perspective for the study of folk speech since that line of research examines the linguistic resources available within a speech community and their use in socially situated discourse to form meaning patterns of language use in both speaking practices and esthetic expression.
Folk speech has also been exploited by writers for stylistic effect to evoke the impression of local color and a sense of time, place, and situation as well as in the development of character. For those purposes, features of folk speech can be used in dialogue within a narrative written in the standard literary language, or it can be used for the narrative voice as is the case of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The fact that folk speech contains such rich stylistic possibilities is one reason why it stands out as a definably different variety in the linguistic variation of a speech community.
- Brunvand, J. (1998). The study of American folklore (4th ed.). New York: W. W. Norton.
- Givön, T. (1979). On understanding grammar. New York: Academic Press.