Register approaches to language variation and change in English(es)

Conveners: Elena Seoane (University of Vigo, Spain) and Douglas Biber (Northern Arizona University, US)

Registers, defined by Neumann (2013: 16) as “types of instantiated texts reflecting a similar situation”, are shaped by their situational context, communicative purpose, social function and intended audience. As such, they encapsulate what Bybee and Hopper call “the pressure of discourse” (2001: 3), which itself serves to determine the structure of grammar. Whereas the existence of register differences has always been an underlying assumption in work on language variation and change, a number of recent studies have shown how register is an essential predictor of language change (among others, Biber 2012, Biber and Egbert 2016, Biber and Gray 2013, 2016); as a consequence, they have highlighted the importance of controlling for register variation in the analysis of synchronic and diachronic variation, in that it is a potentially distorting factor (Mair 2015: 126; Hilpert and Mair 2015: 181). This has been demonstrated empirically in various studies that identify register-dependent variability as a “confounding factor” (Mair 2015: 141) that needs to be included in any multivariate analysis of variation (e.g. Szmrecsanyi and Hinrichs 2008 on genitive variation in CSAE, FRED the Brown family of corpora, and Mair 2015 on modality in the latter).

Variationist studies such as these, which use register as a predictor variable, differ from – and are complemented by – text-linguistic studies, in which the primary goal is to describe the registers themselves by providing quantitative analyses of their linguistic features, including patterns of register variation (cf. Biber 2012: 12-17; Biber and Gray 2013: 122; Biber et al. 2016). Text-linguistic studies shed light on two crucial questions about grammatical change, especially change in the recent history of English, which is more quantitative in nature: when and where (in what particular register(s)) did it take place?

Against this background, the workshop aims to bring together researchers who use electronic corpora to explore grammatical variation and change across the English-speaking world by adopting a variationist design to examine register-dependent variability, and/or a text-linguistic design, as a means of enhancing our knowledge of registers and their role in language change.



We welcome contributions that:

  • Examine the role of register in the diachronic evolution of linguistic phenomena
  • Explore synchronic register differences in one or more varieties of English
  • Compare register variability across different varieties of English
  • Describe the functionally motivated distinctive discourse conventions of particular registers
  • Challenge stereotypes about particular registers, both offline traditional registers and “new” online registers (e.g. blogs, tweets, Internet forums)
  • Question the spoken vs written dichotomy as a predictor of variation in favor of register-dependent developments
  • Address quantitative and qualitative methodological issues regarding the study of register variation across different varieties and across different periods of time
  • Discuss optimal corpus design for register studies and review the suitability of current corpora for register research
  • Approach language acquisition, learning, teaching and description from a register perspective



Deadline for abstracts: 15 December 2018, to be routed through the conference’s submission system. Max. length: 500 words (including bibliography)

Notification of acceptance by 10 January 2019



Biber, Douglas. 2012. Register as a predictor of linguistic variation. Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 8(1). 9–37.

Biber, Douglas and Jesse Egbert. 2016. Register variation on the searchable web: A multi-dimensional analysis. Journal of English Linguistics 44(2). 95-137.

Biber, Douglas, Jesse Egbert, Bethany Gray, Rahel Oppliger and Benedikt Szmrecsanyi.  2016. Variationist versus text-linguistic approaches to grammatical change in English: nominal modifiers of head nouns.  In Merja Kytö and Päivi Pahta (eds.), Cambridge Handbook of English Historical Linguistics.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 351-375.

Biber, Douglas and Bethany Gray. 2013. Being specific about historical change:  The influence of sub-register. Journal of English Linguistics 41. 104– 134.

Biber, Douglas and Bethany Gray. 2016. Grammatical Complexity in Academic English. Linguistic change in writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bybee, Joan and Paul J. Hopper. 2001. “Introduction to frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure.” In Joan Bybee and Paul J. Hopper. (eds.) Frequency and the Emergence of Linguistics Structure. Amsterdam: Benjamins: 1-26.

Hilpert, Martin and Christian Mair. 2015. “Grammatical change.” In Douglas Biber and Randi Reppen (eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of English Corpus Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 180-200.

Mair, Christian. 2015. Cross-variety diachronic drifts and ephemeral regional contrasts. An analysis of modality in the extended Brown family of corpora and what it can tell us about the New Englishes. In Peter Collins (ed.), Grammatical Change in English World-Wide. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 119-146.

Neumann, Stella. 2013. Contrastive Register Variation: A Quantitative Approach to the Comparison of English and German. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt and Lars Hinrichs. 2008. Probabilistic determinants of genitive variation in spoken and written English: A multivariate comparison across time, space, and genres. In Terttu Nevalainen, Irma Taavitsainen, Päivi Pahta and Minna Korhonen (eds.), The Dynamics of Linguistic Variation. Corpus Evidence Past and Present. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 291-309.