Formal-informal speech distinction

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Formal-informal speech distinction

Post by Alessio » Tue 10 Oct 2017, 19:39

I'm a native speaker of Italian, and throughout the past few years I've realized that my language has a strong distinction between formal and informal speech. Formal speech is used by the media, on most newspapers and in all public signs and laws, whereas informal speech is used for everyday communication.
I noticed this distinction when I was driving on a highway, seeing an Italian/English bilingual sign that said this:

Divieto di transito in corsia di destra
Keep right lane free

The Italian part can be translated as "Prohibition to travel on the right lane". If they put a literal translation of the English version, which would be "Lascia libera la corsia di destra", it would sound weird if not rude. This applies to most signs, really, and all laws, public speeches and newspaper articles are written in this way. Different terms and different structures are used, to the point that some sentences change completely; for example, the imperative is generally avoided and rephrased in some other way (take the example I gave before).

Here are some terms that may change across the two forms of speech (informal-formal-English):

Diverso - Differente - Different
Capire - Comprendere - To understand
Fare - Realizzare - To make
Succedere - Avvenire - To happen
Andare - Recarsi - To go
Pian piano - Progressivamente - Progressively
A voce - Oralmente - Orally
Perciò - Pertanto - Thus
Guardare - Osservare - To look at
Dire - Affermare - To say, to state

Some terms change for political correctness:
Cieco - Non vedente - Blind
Sordo - Non udente - Deaf
Handicappato - Disabile (or diversamente abile) - Handicapped*
Gay/Lesbica - Omosessuale - Gay/Lesbian
Zingaro - Rom/Sinti - Gipsy
and, my favorite of all,
Clandestino - Migrante - Illegal immigrant (changed to just "migrant")

*handicappato is considered extremely offensive nowadays, so disabile is slowly replacing it, with diversamente abile being the version preferred by the media.

Here are some different terms for school grades:
Scuola elementare (or just elementari) - Scuola primaria - Primary school
Scuola media (or just medie) - Scuola secondaria di primo grado - Secondary school
Scuola superiore (or just superiori) - Scuola secondaria di secondo grado - High school

Finally, there are some terms that I would avoid altogether in informal speech, such as interlocutore (the party you're talking to), esposizione (the act of talking about a work you've done, eg. an essay) and so on. I got all these terms by simply picking a newspaper article and selecting the most interesting ones, although I must say that nowadays some newspapers have switched to a more informal speech, and so have the TV media, or at least some of them.

I've seen this distinction marginally for Romance languages and a lot for Russian (to the same extent as Italian, I'd say), but not all thaaat much in English. Whenever I read a newspaper article I do find differences from everyday English I read all over the rest of the Internet, but they're not nearly as evident as in my language. So I was wondering, which languages do this distinction in a consistent and extensive way, to the point that changing registry would sound inappropriate?

I bet 130 yens that Japanese does.
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Re: Formal-informal speech distinction

Post by Ahzoh » Tue 10 Oct 2017, 20:00

East-Asian and South-East Asian and some others basically.
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Re: Formal-informal speech distinction

Post by Salmoneus » Tue 10 Oct 2017, 20:25

English is a good example of this - assuming we talk about English prior to, say, 1990, and, even more so, before 1960. If you go and read literature from the late 19th, early 20th century that stuck to a conventional English, and compare it to authors from the era who actually tried to capture English-as-she-was-spoke (I'm thinking here of, say, Kipling in the UK, and Lewis in the US), there's a huge difference (the colloquial style is at times almost incomprehensible for modern readers). But more generally, the news media until relatively recently had quite a distinct style - and even more so for public signs.

Even today, it's not rare to find signs like "Smoking Prohibited" (normal English: "don't smoke"). And in legal or bureaucratic contexts?

Over the last few decades, style has dramatically shifted toward colloquial expressions - part of a general revolt against traditional markers of class (perhaps because the class system has become more entrenched and extreme over the last few decades, so people are more sensitive about it).
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Re: Formal-informal speech distinction

Post by Creyeditor » Tue 10 Oct 2017, 20:41

I feel like this is also more of a thing with pluricentric languages. It exists in Indonesien definitely, where its is Bahansa Indonesia yang baik dan benar versus what is used in any other context. Also in German it is still very much so.
On the other hand I think that formal-informal is of course a simplification, because it actually might depend on other properties of the situation than just a fromal-informal distinction.
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Re: Formal-informal speech distinction

Post by Iyionaku » Wed 11 Oct 2017, 10:35

One notable example is Tamil, where (apparently; haven't studied it) the formal and colloquial language differ so strongly that you could easily say it's two different languages - that is because the written language hasn't changed for centuries or even a millenium. Mandarin used to be very similar to that, but since WWII a more contemporary written language has been proposed.
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Re: Formal-informal speech distinction

Post by Davush » Wed 11 Oct 2017, 14:41

I think most of those distinctions do occur in English as well, especially in academic writing, some of which seems to avoid colloquial sounding language like a plague...

To understand/comprehend
To make/to effect
To happen/to occur
Little by little/progressively
To look at/to observe (although this could also have a slightly different nuance)
To say/to state

Interlocutor exists in English as well. I think the distinction between formal/informal in general media probably isn't as great as in Italian, but it certainly exists. I think for road signs in the UK at least, they tend to be as brief as possible. I.e. I think such a sign would say something like 'no access' or 'keep left' or 'right lane closed ahead' etc.

You could argue that Arabic also has a strong distinction, but really that is the same situation as Tamil more or less.
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