The totalitarian mind vs. lexical register

Earlier today I posted a thread on Twitter in response to this tweet by Katherine Apostolacus


My response was eight tweets long, so I’ll present it here as ordinary text:

I sometimes think that there’s a totalitarian streak inherent in modernity that makes us uncomfortable with the whole concept of lexical register. Our rulers want us to behave as if there is no great gulf separating us from them, as if we all make up one big team.

The ability to alternate between formal and informal registers undermines this pretense. Formal registers do so by putting distinctions of status in the foreground. Informal registers do it by creating a space for subordinated groups to develop their own ways of speaking, thus demonstrating that they are not assimilated to the one big team. And of course when members of one group switch to an informal register rich in expressions specific to their group, they also signal to members of other groups that the conversation is no longer meant to include them and they put them at a disadvantage if they try to butt in.

Other alternations also challenge any group trying to represent its way of talking as the only way. Archaic registers remind us of a time before our rulers assumed their powers and suggest that events which took place then are still consequential now. Totalitarian leaders don’t like to be reminded of anything they can’t control, and therefore hate the whole idea of an unavoidably relevant past.

Technical registers may enforce the power of the members of the ruling elite who are proficient in them, but even as they have that effect they also make it clear, first, that expertise is in itself a source of power distinct from the hierarchy of the elite, and, second, there is an order of things which the people at the top of the system cannot alter to fit into the categories with which they are at home.