IDIOLECT. An “idiolect” is, by definition, a linguistic entity that may be contrasted with the “dialect.” Dubois et al. (1973, p. 144) wrote, “The ‘dialect’ is a form of a language which has its own lexical, syntactic and phonetic system, and which is used in a more restricted environment than the language itself.” Thus, every dialect appears in the form of a “system.” On the other hand, they added (p. 249, slightly modified on the suggestion of Vergote; cf. Kasser, 1980, p. 78), “By ‘idiolect’ we denote the totality of the data produced by a single person, established by reference to linguistic constants which subtend them, and which are envisaged as specific idioms or systems; the idiolect is then the totality of the uses of a language peculiar to a given individual at a fixed time.” Thus, despite the preferential uses that can be observed in it, always fluctuating and essentially transitory, the idiolect does not present itself to the observer in the form of a stable system; it is, rather, the accidental and nonsystematic combination, by a single individual at a fixed ime, of elements deriving from authentic systems (dialects). One may then say that these systems “subtend the idiolect, but they never succeed in really regularizing its expression to the point of making a system of it.
l’o grasp firmly the phenomena “idiolect” and “dialect” in their apparent complexity, one must endeavor to perceive the chief psychological motivations of their users. It is known that a language is essentially an instrument of social relations, a means of communication between people; that is why the users of a language try in principle to speak or write an idiom comprehensible to their interlocutors, as far as possible the same idiom, the very language of the group to which the latter belong, and this all the more when the interlocutor in view is not simply the intended recipient of a letter (i.e., an individual whose idiolect is possibly to some extent known) but is, on the contrary, indeterminate or collective, as is the totality of the readers of a book, for which its author wishes a very wide diffusion. Of course, each individual, tempted to obey the “principle of least effort,” will have a natural tendency to express himself in an idiolectal manner, but he will combat that tendency as soon as he wishes to facilitate the effective diffusion of his thought, conscious of the fact that in intellectual communication between people the dialect is a road where the idiolect is an obstacle. One could not then imagine that a reasonable author would voluntarily choose to express himself in an idiolect, which is peculiar to himself alone, rather than in the dialect of his interlocutors (a dialect that may on occasion be the idiom of a quite small group, like the semisecret language that allows the members of a minority to communicate among themselves, sheltered from the indiscretions and the threats of the surrounding world, but nonetheless a dialect because it is the language of a group in the course of a period of its history and not simply the idiolect of a strictly unique individual at a strictly unique moment of his life).
Thus, even if each or nearly every person at certain moments of his daily life, following unconsciously his natural tendency, in speaking or even in writing, departs more or less seriously from the dialect to fall into the idiolect, this deviation is rarely conscious and in all cases always involuntary.
Several causes may provoke the formation of idiolects (Chaîne, 1933, p. xxiii; Till, 1955, pp. 36-37; Kasser, 1964, pp. xi-xiv). Probably among those most current in Coptic Egypt (and even in the modern world) was the literary productions of a man of letters speaking from birth a certain dialect and then carrying on his activity in a region where another dialect was the natural speech. In a more general way, one may recall the phenomena of linguistic hybridization that irresistibly develop in any territory that has its own autochthonous dialect, on which is superimposed (in certain social classes, generally influential) an immigrant dialect (see DIALECT, IMMIGRANT), dominating its area, and becoming in a way there and in the adjacent regions their vehicular language.
If, then, the dialect is a linguistic phenomenon whose immediate origin is collective and relatively simple—a convention that is fixed by a group and to which the individual adheres insofar as he is capable of overcoming his individual tendencies by means of sufficient intelligence and an effort of his will—the idiolect is, in contrast, a phenomenon whose immediate origin is strictly individual and clearly complex; that is, it arises from the relative and involuntary incapacity of an individual to overcome his individual tendencies in order to adhere to a given dialectal convention, whether from serious intellectual inadequacy, which prevents him from mastering even his mother dialect, at least in its conventional written expression and apart from any influence of other dialects, or from a moderate inadequacy, in the context of an insufficient knowledge of various dialects (his mother dialect, that of his place of work, that of the text to be copied, etc.), which prevents him mastering them so that he does not confuse them in oral or written expression.
In either case, what subtends the idiolect is the elements that are opposed one to another, whose presence creates a state of tension in the text (whether oral or in writing). In fact, if it has been thought possible to differentiate two “dialects” from one another in Coptic, a dead language, it is because in them can be distinguished two (orthographic, morphosyntactic) systems, which because of their reciprocal oppositions cannot as a whole be reduced one to another, and the copyist who is subjected (unconsciously) to the contradictory influence of these two dialects finds himself in a state of tension, of linguistic instability (and so also if he attempts to conform to a single standardized dialect, but does not know very well the standardized orthography of this dialect). One might then say that “the idiolect is the result of a tension provisionally resolved.” It is a point of balance achieved today (different from the balance achieved yesterday or the one that will be achieved tomorrow) between (1) what the individual has of necessity had to learn, or may have learned, of the dialect of the society in which he lives (a dialect related to his mother dialect and in which he intends and thinks to express himself) and (2) what he has for the moment ceased to learn, because his vernacular form of expression (his mother dialect) is sufficient for him to make himself understood by the society, to some extent alien, in which he lives.
Most frequently, this state of tension remains unknown to the conscious subject, so that it should rarely be understood as a state of crisis, painful and dramatic. Indeed, with a Shenute, a very strong personality, one may imagine a calm assurance and a kind of pride in speaking and writing Sahidic with some touches of Akhmimic, which make this language, already vigorous on his lips, even more lively. Each case of an idiolect is the result of a personal situation, and there are as many such situations as there are individuals. If, then, the language of Shenute is an idiolect (weakly idiolectal), so is that (often very idiolectal) of many nonliterary documents of the Theban region and of the copies of literary works that have survived; for example, the majority of the Bodmer papyri are not very idiolectal, but the Nag Hammadi manuscripts and other literary copies from the fourth and fifth centuries are generally much more so. At any rate, the orthographic anomalies in these copies (in relation to one or another of the dialects that have been, or are on the way to being, standardized) are never truly systematic, so that it would be a mistake to classify the linguistic expression of these texts among the “dialects” or subdialects, all of which require the presence of a minimum of systematization.
Thus, an idiolect by its nature has several components, of which one is the mother dialect of the individual. Another may be either his profound ignorance of any particular dialectal orthographic convention (including that of his mother dialect) or his knowledge of other dialects combined with his inability to master this knowledge to the point of sufficiently distinguishing them in their conventional written expression.
Theoretically, the oral and written expression of an individual can only be idiolectal, in varying degree. But in texts written by individuals with adequate intellectual capacity and strength of will, the idiolectal proportion (in relation to the dialect chosen as the means of expression) is so weak that it may be neglected; there the idiolect in no way obscures the dialect, which can be sufficiently known through these texts (if they are long enough and varied enough). Here one may speak of a “transparent” idiolect. In other texts, the idiolectal expression is more “opaque.” It then demands from the investigator an effort of analysis to decode what is hidden by the phenomena of hypocorrection and hypercorrection, in particular, and to succeed in identifying the components of the idiolect, among which he will be specially interested in the dialects that subtend the idiolect.
It will be convenient to designate idiolectal lexemes by indicating, first, their principal component with an italic capital and then their secondary component(s) with an italic lower-case superscript; for example, Sa signifies Sahidic influenced phonetically (and to some extent, but irregularly, phonologically) by Akhmimic.
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