Elmo want to know, “What is a register?”
All of us learn ways that certain bits of language (sounds, words, phrases, other things) are associated with certain kinds of people. This association is the phenomenon Joey tried to exploit in the Media Dictionary entry for indexicality. Registers are models of those associations between bits of communication and qualities of people or communication. These models are flexible. Your idea of what it means to sound like you’re angry, or a nerd, or a vampire can be different from others’ ideas, though often they’re mostly the same. Also, we don’t all have models for the same types of people. For example, I have models of how to tell different kinds of linguistic anthropologists apart based on how they speak and write–most people do not.
Anyway, these models turn out to be a really, really important part of how we do almost anything with language. One reason is because we can use registers strategically to try to be recognized as certain kinds of people. As Robin Williams shows off to Elmo:
I am getting the feeling that Sesame Street will be very well-represented in the Media Dictionary of Sociolinguistics.
In this video, Robin Williams is recognizable as inhabiting various roles because he and his audience (the viewers at home as well as Elmo) share enough of a model of what those roles are like. Viewers might not feel confident in their ability to sound like an English military officer, but many people seeing the video would still get a clear picture of what kind of person Williams was pretending to be.
Not everything in this frenetic performance is a great example of a register. We have the very register like: John Wayne / cowboy, English officer, dancer, and poolshark. And the less register-like: javelin thrower, Gene Shalit, Pinocchio. Whether these things are equally register-like is not an issue the Media Dictionary can settle. It’s interesting to note that even the most seemingly insignificant or natural noises or gestures can suggest a context in which they could be understood. For example, Williams’s javelin-flying-through-the-air-in-slow-motion noise sounds to me like the one in The Six-Million Dollar Man, a television show that maybe I never saw, or maybe saw 20 years ago and can only remember that sound, or (most likely) have just seen reinterpretations of the show that include the iconic sound.
Another notable quality of registers that the video shows is that they often involve more than just language. Williams includes physical and embodied movement in his performance. He shows there are ways to be recognized as moving your body like a cowboy in addition to sounding like one.
The main thing that separates this video from what we usually we do with language is that we know Williams is performing–he is playing pretend with a furry red monster. But in the rest of our non-pretend social life, we are just as immersed in registers as he is.