Unscripted Linguistics; the Traveller’s Idiolect.

During my time travelling independently, many things became clear to me;

  1. Garnering a multitude of  new and diverse experiences through travelling is probably the best, most engaging and most formative thing I could have spent my summer doing.

  2. The seemingly most rural, most empty corners of the Earth harbour a rather badly guarded secret… They are in fact a massively diverse melting pot of long term travellers (who can normally be found avoiding the buzz of traditional tourism at all costs).

  3. These longer term travellers are generally wonderfully surprising people, with a plethora of unique skills and talents-

  4. And, strikingly, an  idiosyncratic vocabulary that could rival the likes of Shakespeare. 

I am unsure whether to class the traveller’s approach to the English language as a Sociolect, as of course travellers tend to come from all walks of life. There’s no classism at work here. and no socioeconomic factors acting upon the person specifically because they are a traveller. It is simply just a statement of fact that long term travellers, as a group of people, tend to have highly unique idiolects.

When the jolt of reality that is returning home finally came in, it became highly apparent to me that my own spoken idiolect had altered quite dramatically, to the point where I had to mentally keep myself in check from using certain words that only I and a few random globe trotters (currently based in Bavaria, Spain and Chile) would understand.

The question is, however, why does this happen?

First and foremost we must understand what an Idiolect is.

Beyond the person’s understanding of “micro language”, (which can only be described as the syntax which tells a person whether a phrase sounds “right” or “fluent” in their native tongue), many factors influence a person’s own idiolect.

These vary greatly in weighting from person to person, but include everything from the grammatical construction of their native language and the etymology of its’ Lexicon to the person’s dialect, their sociolect, and even the phrases native only to their family and friends or the living/working environments they have passed through.

In such a way, everyone’s idiolect is entirely unique, although some are far more closely related than others (an example would be shared vocabulary within a set regiolect – e.g. cockney slang – or within a specific familial group – e.g.  the remote control being “the telly watcher”.)

It could be argued that a person’s grasp on English is entirely based off the influences of other people’s own idiolects, and that their preferences to what they believe is “correct English” is simply based off the frequency with which they have encountered the linguistic construct, and how positive their associations are with it. In this way everyone’s English appears quite subjective and fractal, and the level to which travellers are influenced by their peers begins to make far more sense.

Perhaps the most fitting definition for a traveller’s bizarre idiolect (or at least for the elements within my own) is an idioglossia, an idiosyncratic language understood by only a few people, in this case most likely other travellers who passed on their own linguistic quirks.

Interestingly enough these idiosyncratic languages are normally formed by twins or close siblings, which doesn’t necessarily parallel with the travellers experience of developing a more personal idiolect; however idioglossias are also heavily associated with children growing up in multilingual environments, which would certainly support the theory of multilingual experiences leading to highly unique idiolects.

An obvious feature of travel and cultural exchange is the diversity of people and their own idiolects encountered by the traveller.

A good example here would be a Dane I met whilst travelling, who sounded more American than Danish due to learning English from American films; this peppering of Americanisms and slang was then layered with the tonal register and slang of a group of thickly accented Irishmen he had lived and travelled with, topped off with the slang of a fellow brit (with a heavy northern accent) and my own accent and slang, which is marginally more comparable to “Queens English”.

This led to a spectacular mismatch of accents and vocabulary resulting in an already highly idiosyncratic vocabulary- and that was before the joking began.

As frivolous as it may sound, phrases and words derived from humour and “inside jokes” are possibly the most easily adopted pieces of vocabulary into a person’s own idiolect, perhaps because of the positive associations and the continual reference back to aforementioned jokes.  Obviously this occurs (at least in my experience) heavily with the people you live with, so for many people that would be their family members.

Now consider that the “family” you live with whilst travelling is multi lingual, transglobal, and under the influence of a much wider range of affecting factors due to the difference in environments; even before sharing personal vocabulary and quirks, the idiolect of a foreign traveller is vastly different in comparison to a native speaker of your language, or someone who was raised in your home country. Just like a family conversing at home, new phrases and vocabulary that appear during memorable and humorous conversations with other travellers are often accidentally adopted into one’s own idiolect.

Another unexpected side effect of  meeting a diverse array of travellers, particularly those who aren’t native English speakers, is that you tend to spend rather a lot of time talking about (and comparing) languages.  Due to the frequency of which these conversations occur it becomes a real struggle not to adopt the slang or dialects of your own language that you have been discussing (and most likely complaining about); once again this points to the   theory that the more you hear something, the more you normalise and accept it as standard English.

An example of this is the fact that I now say “innit” seriously. Not sarcastically, as I once did; I actually mean it.

If altering your idiolect within the confines of the travellers’ own language wasn’t enough, consider throwing a second language into the mix. This leads to a plethora of mispronunciations and mistranslations, either due to unsurety about the new word or an issue with forming sounds that aren’t normally used within the travellers native language (examples from my trip include the pronunciations of ‘necessary’ to ‘nececelery’ and ‘probably/possibly’ to ‘probisbly’, in addition to the infuriatingly impossible to pronounce additional vowels within the Scandinavian alphabet).

This again lends into the “humorous new experiences and discoveries helps cement idiolects” theory, as these linguistic missteps become incredibly memorable for the travellers involved.

In addition to literal mistranslations, travellers experience an unusually large influx of logical missteps as well; that is to say, when a stand-alone idiom is introduced to a non-native speaker, there is a high likelihood that they will try to apply it to other situations, which of course appears completely wrong to a native speaker with an ingrained grasp on their correct syntax.

This in itself can prove highly entertaining and memorable, both of which greatly influence a person’s idiolect. The most fantastic example from my travels wold have to be the fact that, when confronted with the idiom ‘it’s all gone tits up’ and it’s negative connotations of a minor disaster/problem, the aforementioned Dane decided that the next logical step would be too describe positive situations as “tits down”, changing his own idiolect, and mine, forever.

The continual perversion and dilution of Standard English that occurs whilst travelling would be regarded with horror by traditionalist supporters of preserving the English Language; however I would argue strongly against a point of view that encourages stagnation rather than change.

The travellers’ ability to develop this sort of “mutt” English into an idiosyncratic register that could only be classed as “of undetermined origin” is a fascinating and wonderful achievement; By sharing lexicons and expanding idiolects, travellers are not only growing their own knowledge but also exchanging cultures, increasing interconnectivity, and blurring the differences between “us” and “them” in a world that seems set on increasing the boundaries, rather than lessening them.

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