An idiolect is a variety of a language unique to an individual. It is manifested by patterns of word selection, vocabulary and word lexicon, grammar, or words, phrases, idioms, or pronunciations that are unique to that individual. Every individual has an idiolect; the grouping of words and phrases is unique, rather than an individual using specific words that nobody else uses. An idiolect can easily evolve into an ecolect—a dialect variant specific to a household.

Forensic linguists can use idiolects to decide if a certain person did or did not produce a given piece of writing (or transcribed speech). The supposed confession of Derek Bentley was inconsistent with his idiolect, and modern analysis of the confession led to a posthumous pardon. The family of the Unabomber recognized his idiolect and informed the police of their suspicions.

While often passing unnoticed in speech, some idiolects, particularly unusual ones employed by famous individuals, are immortalized in the form of nicknames. A famous example is the nickname of Willie Mays ("the Say-Hey Kid"), who frequently used "say hey".

Idiolect and language

Depending on whom you ask, either idiolects are derived from abstract, standardized language ideas, defended by "authorities" (such as dictionary editors), or languages are congruences of idiolects and thus exist only in the intersection between individual speakers. Each proposition adumbrates a different model for language analysis. A more traditional scientific approach is encapsulated in the first sense. The second sense of the idiolect has become a base for investigating language evolution on a genetic model: the existence of the species (individual language) is extrapolated from a multitude of organisms (idiolects) with common features. Each species evolves through changes in the individual organisms. Idiolects change through contact with other idiolects, and change throughout their lifetime as well as from generation to generation. Overall, languages must select for compatibility with the learning capacity of immature human brains. Idiolects, however, have such a large capacity for change, particularly in the current era with increasing contact between many different people, that the systematic aspects of language that are the traditional arena of linguistic study are constantly in flux.

As of yet, there is no general theory of communication based on idiolects. Most importantly, however, whether language is a pre-determined convention or a fluid construction of each moment of communication, there are general cognitive abilities that all humans share in order to communicate. These tools, inherent to symbolic communication, include the ability to assess a situation and provide appropriate information, access to both short and long term memory functions, the ability to differentiate and conceptualize past, present, and future, and the ability to recognize that other human brains also use these and other tools to represent their internal states and understand the representation of others' internal states.

See also


  • Johansson, Sverker 2004. "The Individual and the Species in the Cultural Evolution of Language." presented at Evolutionary Epistemology, Language & Culture Brussels, May 2004 (see
  • Mufwene, Salikoko S. 2002. "Competition and Selection in Language Evolution." Selection 3 (1), pp. 45-56
  • Penco, Carlo 2004. "Idiolect and Context." The Library of Living Philosophers: Micheal Dummett(see
  • Zuckermann, Ghil'ad 2006. "A New Vision for 'Israeli Hebrew': Theoretical and Practical Implications of Analysing Israel's Main Language as a Semi-Engineered Semito-European Hybrid Language", Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 5 (1), pp. 57-71.

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