We often hear and use colloquial language in our everyday conversations with our friends and family. Colloquial language is also considered to be a literary technique, so is used by authors. When characters use colloquialisms in their dialogue, they may seem more authentic and relatable to the reader as individuals with unique social and cultural backgrounds. 

Colloquialisms Colloquialisms

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Table of contents

    This article will explore the meaning of colloquial language and take a look at some examples from both everyday life and literature. It will also consider the reasons why colloquial language is used and the effects it has.

    Colloquial language meaning

    The term colloquial relates to colloquial language, which means informal language typically used in casual conversation.

    Colloquial language is similar to slang. It varies according to the geographical location in which it is used, and the period of history in which it is spoken. For example:

    • Depending on where you are in England, instead of being invited for a cup of tea, you may be invited for a 'cuppa' or a 'brew'.
    • What was considered colloquial in Shakespearean England may not be considered colloquial today.

    Colloquialism examples - everyday language

    There are many different types of colloquial language, as it differs based on your geographical location and your dialect. You've probably heard of or used some or many of the examples below:

    • Wanna - want to
    • Gonna - going to
    • Yeah - yes
    • Thanks - thank you
    • Y'all - you all
    • Kid - child
    • Bruv - brother

    These examples of colloquial language may be confused with examples of slang or jargon. However, colloquial language is different from those terms - read on to find out how!

    Colloquialisms synonym

    Synonyms are words that have the same or similar meanings, for example, 'happy' is a synonym of 'joyful'. However, more often than not, synonyms do not have identical meanings.

    If you look up the synonyms of 'colloquialisms', you will find the words 'jargon' and 'slang'. However, although colloquialisms can include slang and jargon, they are not the same thing. Let's take a look at the differences:

    Jargon describes the technical language associated with a particular profession or workplace. People who do not work in particular industries will find it difficult to decipher jargon particular to these areas.

    A nurse may not understand office jargon, such as 'take it offline', but an office worker may not understand medical jargon such as 'polypharmacy'.

    Slang differs from colloquial language in the way that it places emphasis on language used in friendship groups, or between people who know each other well.

    Slang words, such as 'stan', 'flex', or 'salty' are used a lot when they first emerge but they start to die out after a while. In contrast, colloquial language is permanent, it simply refers to informal conversational language.

    When do we use colloquial language?

    • On social media, such as Instagram and Twitter.

    • In conversations with friends. It is quicker and easier to communicate on an informal basis with those we are close with.

    Can you think of some examples where you would not use colloquial language?

    Colloquial expressions in literature - why do authors use colloquialisms?

    Possible reasons authors use colloquial language include:

    • To make characters appear authentic and genuine
    • To make characters/speakers appear more relatable
    • To reflect the setting in text
    • To reflect social demographic
    • To reveal a time period

    To make characters appear authentic and genuine

    Colloquial language is influenced by time, culture, and social settings. Because of this, using colloquialisms in literature can make characters appear more authentic, as readers who are familiar with the character's background will be able to identify with the language that is used.

    In the following example, the narrator in The Black Flamingo (2019) by Dean Atta uses colloquial language in a monologue. How does the colloquial language help readers to connect with the speaker and understand more about his character?

    I come from a British passport and an ever-ready suitcase. I come from jet fuel and coconut water. I come from crossing oceans to find myself. I come from deep issues and shallow solutions.

    In this passage:

    • Atta uses simpler language than a lot of other poetry which requires reading between the lines, which allows readers to align themselves with the protagonist and tap into his character. The repeated use of 'I come' is easy to digest as a reader and reiterates the fact he is talking about his origins.

    • Atta uses well-known symbols like a suitcase, coconut water, passport, and jet fuel, to illustrate the collage of culture that makes up the speaker's character. Through these well-known symbols and colloquial language, readers are able to understand more about the speakers' journey and he appears a more authentic character.

    To make characters/speakers appear more relatable

    Colloquial language is a technique used to make characters appear more relatable to readers. This is because they use language that a reader may be familiar with.

    For example, Wendy Cope in her poem 'Message' (1986) uses colloquial language in a humorous way, discussing a scenario many readers can relate to:

    Pick up the phone before it is too late / And dial my number. There's no time to spare - / Love is already turning into hate / And very soon I'll start to look elsewhere.

    In this passage:

    • Similarly to Atta, Cope does not use flowery language. This makes Cope's work more accessible for readers. The speaker's desperation for the person to call her is evident through her instructive tone asking them to 'pick up the phone before it's too late'.

    • The accessibility of the text (due to its colloquial tone) means that the reader is more likely to be able to relate to the content, in this case, the humorous familiarity of the speaker's desperation.

    To reflect the setting of the text

    Whether in descriptions of locations or dialogues between characters, colloquialisms can help to build up the setting of a text in a raw and realistic light, as a place that readers are more likely to be familiar with.

    Colloquial language in descriptions

    In the following passage from Kayo Chingonyi's poem 'Andrew's Corner'(2017), colloquial language is used to describe an urban environment that many readers could relate to.

    Where alleyways wake up to condom wrappers, / kebab meat, a ballet pump, last week / a van pulled up and it was blood. Today: / joggers dodge a dead pigeon.

    In this passage:

    • Similar to Atta in The Black Flamingo (2019), Chingonyi's use of colloquial language helps readers to imagine the space by incorporating imagery that readers can easily envision, such as 'condom wrappers', 'kebab meat', 'joggers' and 'a dead pigeon'.

    Colloquial language in dialogue

    The language characters use can also reflect their physical location if they are speaking in a certain dialect, as this implies that the text is set in the area in which a particular dialect is common.

    For example, this conversation between Dan and Malachy in Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (1996) indicates that the novel is set in Ireland, suggested by the use of Irish colloquialisms, which are highlighted in bold:

    'There's a knock at the door, Mr. MacAdorey. Oh, Malachy, for God's sake, it's three in the morning. You have the whole house woke with the singing.'

    'Oh, Dan, I'm only teaching the boys to die for Ireland.'

    'You can teach them to die for Ireland in the daytime, Malachy'

    'Tis urgent, Dan, tis urgent.'

    'I know, Malachy, but they're only children. Babies. You go to bed now like a dacent man.'

    To reflect social demographic

    So, we have seen that colloquial language can be used to position a character within a certain location. However, it can also be used to place characters within a particular social demographic, too. Colloquialisms in dialogue can reveal a lot about a character's social demographic, such as age, gender, class, ethnicity, and education level, as well as their physical location.

    We can see an example of this in the novel Lara (1997) by Bernadine Evaristo, as the colloquialisms used by the characters reflect Lara's working-class status and young age.

    'You're too wild, that's your trouble. Pass the fag, meanie. / What's it like then? / Nothing much / You'll get preggers.'

    In this passage:

    • The word 'fag' (meaning cigarette) demonstrates the girl trying to sound older than her age by smoking a cigarette and using slang associated with the act, but her use of the word 'meanie' exposes her youth as this is a word used typically amongst children.

    • The use of the word 'fag' for a cigarette is typically used by more working-class individuals.

    • The colloquial phrase 'You'll get preggers' trivialises pregnancy, suggesting the girls are too young to understand the real possibility of getting pregnant and the difficulties this would bring into their lives.

    • 'You'll get preggers' similarly demonstrates the speaker trying to talk about something 'grown-up', like smoking a cigarette, but her choice of slang once again reveals her youth.

    To reveal a time period

    What is considered colloquial changes over time. Because of this, the time period in which a piece is set can be revealed by using colloquial language that would have been commonly used at the time. Colloquial language can also be used to communicate popular ideologies from a particular point in history to the reader.

    Colloquialisms, Ruined Maid Example, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ruined maid.

    For example, in Thomas Hardy's poem 'The Ruined Maid' (1886), he uses colloquial language throughout as the poem is written in a conversational tone. The colloquial language reveals the popular view on women and virginity within society at the time:

    "O 'Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?" —"O didn't you know I'd been ruined?" said she.

    In this passage:

    • The word 'ruined' in Melia's comment 'didn't you know I'd been ruined?' refers to the loss of her virginity. Her use of this colloquialism exposes the fact that unmarried women who were not virgins were viewed as 'ruined' and of less value to society and men.

    Why is colloquial language important?

    Colloquial language is an important literary technique as it can be used for many reasons as we have seen in the examples. For example:

    It can represent the ideologies of a period of time.

    By using certain colloquialisms authors can save time representing the values and beliefs of a place or time period.

    In 'The Ruined Maid' (1886) Hardy does not specifically say that society frowned upon women having sex before marriage, or that society valued women less after they had lost their virginity. But, the fact that the maid uses the colloquial expression that she has been 'ruined' as a way of saying she has lost her virginity informs readers of the societal beliefs at the time.

    It can help the text become more accessible

    Colloquial language can make it easier for more readers to engage with the text and relate to the characters.

    The colloquial language used by Cope and Atta allows people who may not be particularly interested in poetry or literature to enjoy their work. This is because the meaning of the language they use is direct and, therefore, easier to understand than a lot of other poetry. For poetry fans, there are also many hidden symbols in their work to try and get to grips with! However, their use of colloquial language acts as a gateway into their poetry and makes characters more relatable to readers.

    It can represent the setting of a text

    Because colloquial language is so dependent on culture and location, including colloquialisms specific to particular dialects in a text can make it clear where it is set even without directly stating the name of the place.

    • If a character was to use the phrase 'apples and pears' it would suggest they are from London, as 'apples and pears' is cockney rhyming slang for 'stairs'.
    • Similarly, if a character used the words 'owt' or 'mardy' it may suggest they are from the North of England.

    Colloquialisms - Key Takeaways

    • Colloquialism is a term for informal language - colloquial language describes the informal language used between friends and people who know each other well in conversation.
    • Colloquial language can tell readers about the regional area of a character or the setting of a text - colloquialisms are specific to regional dialects and time periods, therefore, examining colloquial language can reveal further information about the area in which the text is set, the views of society at the time, and where the character is from.
    • Colloquial language is similar to jargon and slang but it is not the same - jargon is specific to professional environments and slang is ever-changing, whereas colloquial language refers to the informal language used in conversation.
    • We use colloquial language on a daily basis but it is a literary technique - whilst we use colloquial language every day, writers use it to make their characters appear relatable and authentic, to hint at their age, where they are from, and where the text is set.

    • Colloquialisms can save authors time establishing setting and character traits - including informal language within character dialogues is an economic way of hinting at where they are from and where the text is set, etc.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Colloquialisms

    Why do authors use colloquial language?

    Authors use colloquial language as a literary device to make their characters seem authentic and relatable.

     What can colloquial language reveal about someone's upbringing?

    Often colloquial language mimics a regional dialect which can reveal where they were brought up or where they developed their speech habits.

    What is colloquial language?

    Colloquial language refers to informal language used in conversation between people who are familiar with each other.

    What does colloquial mean?

     Colloquial means informal communications.

    What is colloquialism?

    Colloquialism is non-literary language used in everyday conversation between friends and online on social media.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

     True or false?Colloquial language is considered to be a literary technique.

    True or false?Colloquial language is an efficient way of revealing more about a character.

    True or false?Colloquial language is often used in everyday conversations.

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