Bill Long 10/19/04
Idiolect and Idioglossia and Idiomorphic
Words combined with idio are, I think, among the most unexplored and undiscovered words in the English language. For all our emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, we have not developed our vocabulary of idios very significantly to meet the rising demand by individualism. This essay is meant to aid that process. Let's begin with idiolect.
Idiolect is defined as the "linguistic system of one person, differing in some details from that of all other speakers of the same dialect or language." The word recognizes that when we speak, we not only speak English (or whatever our language is) but our own English. We make up the language as we go along. You can carry this too far, of course, but it illustrates a profound truth about life, that "Idiolectical diversity is an inevitable result of the ..productivity inherent in every single individual's linguistic habits." So an idiolect is a personal dialect, our own way of speaking the language.
Once we realize that "the totality of the possible utterances of one speaker at one time in using a language to interact with one other speaker" (a slightly different definition of idiolect) is our own creation, our own product, we are confronted with one of the more profound questions of personal philosophy. How and to what extent is life a process of discovering the self (if there is such a thing as "the self") and how and to what extent is it to be a "fitting in" to the categories, languages and communities which we inherit? Do we discover the self by fitting in? independently from the group? What role does language play in our fitting in? in our quest for independence? Is it possible to listen to our own heart by hearing our own language or, like scratching parts of the back, can this only be done by someone else?
If God created the world by language ("Let there be light") and redeemed the world by the Word, to what extent does our language create not simply our own mental universe but the world as we experience it? To what extent should we encourage the development of idiolect? Does the development of idiolect strengthen or weaken a community? Thus, the cry of one aware of his/her idiolectic capacities is "Give me words and I will give you a world."
So we can go to similar words. Idioglossia (again not in the OED) is not only the name of a witty 2001 novel by Eleanor Bailey about one family's attempt to resist a legacy of madness but is a term which means a "secret language [or possibly a language of lunatics]." The term is often associated with the speech of young children: "The boy gave up his idioglottic endeavors and soon spoke impeccable Queen's English." Like many other characteristics and activities, we tend to try to drive out a child's idioglossia so that s/he will make her way in the "real" world.
A recent movie highlighting the issue of idioglossia, without using the term, is the 1994 movie Nell, starring Jodie Foster. The "tagline" promoting the film talks about "Language beyond understanding. Life beyond words...Discover..." Nell is raised in the backwoods of North Carolina, and never meets anyone but her mother, whose speech was distorted by a stroke. When her mother dies, Nell is left to fend for herself with her incomprehensible language. You just have to watch the movie to see how it works out!! Maybe I should offer a seminar sometime entitled "Rediscovering Idioglossia." Ah, maybe not. I might attract a crowd of Pentecostals to the meeting, who think I will be speaking about glossolalia. But, then again, maybe I would be doing so.
The word idiolalia appears to be a neologism, having arisen in the last 10 years or so, and seems to mean, in fact, not simply one's own private or unique speech but new speech or new words. One web site talks about the idiolalia of snowboarders at the 2002 Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City, but it goes on to list a number of new terms coined by participants, probably because the sport was new in that (Olympic) venue. I will probably stick with a definition of this word identical to idioglossia. If idioglossia or idiolalia is language unique to an individual, cryptophasia is the secret language commonly used between twins.
Here is the definition from the OED: "having its own characteristic form; specifically, having its characteristic crystallographic faces." Another definition is: "A synonym of automorphic, originally proposed by Rosenbusch in 1887 to describe individual euhedral ["well-faced"] crystals. Though the term lacks priority, it is not commonly applied to the igneous-rock texture characterized by such euhedral crystals, especially in US usage." So, Rosenbusch coined the term in 1887 [the 19th century saw literally the explosion of terms to describe the natural world] to indicate, as another dictionary has it, "that a mineral forming part of a rock-mass has the crystalline faces which belong to it as a species, and that it has not been forced by the other minerals with which it is associated to take their form more or less completely." I get it now.
The idio or auto part of the word means that the crystal or mineral faces are comprised of similar types of minerals and not those of other sorts. The OED helpfully says under its definition of automorphic that the latter term means the same as idiomorphic but was coined in its geological sense two years earlier by Rohrbach. Is this then just an example of competing Germans in the same years that Bismarck was gathering the world to the Berlin Conference to divide the world among the Western powers? That is, if Germany was the place where the world was to be divided, why not make it the place where the world was named, even if the Germans disagreed among themselves? Well, to be German is to often to disagree among yourselves. That is what I learned in my studies there.
A Humanistic Conclusion
But let's leave this term by proposing (or adopting) a humanistic reading of it. Herbert Spencer, in the 1870s, used the term automorphic differently than its 1885 geological usage. He said, "The conception which anyone frames of another's mind, is inevitably more or less after the pattern of his own mind--is automorphic." So, we interpret other people automorphically or, in my usage, idiomorphically--according to the shape of ourselves. This is a useful insight, which saves us from the delusion of "objectivity" which has been foisted upon generations of unwitting college students.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long