How would you classify language as being used by a single individual? As an individual's language is formed from a unique combination of sociolect, dialect and idiomatic influences.

Do idiolects even exist and if so, how do other people understand them if it is unique to that individual?

Furthermore, idiom is defined a "a form of figurative expression that is particular to a certain person or group of people."

According to my poetry teacher, Seamus Heaney uses idiolects:

By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.

Would the noun phrase 'old man' be an idiolect here? (I've heard Americans use 'old man' or 'pops' on television before). And, would the idiom here be, 'the old man could handle a spade'?

  • Idiom (general linguistic sense) is defined in a way conflicting with your highlighted sense, requiring a certain frequency of use, by for instance AHD, Collins, and RHK Webster's. You need to add references. And I think you're confusing the 'idiosyncratic string' sense with the wider sense here. They don't correspond very well. Oct 12, 2017 at 22:06
  • I did do research, like this website wikidiff.com/idiolect/idiom but, if you look closely at the first definition they're very similar. Plus I can't seem to find the distinction: "the main difference is that idiom is a way of expressing one's self; idiolect is language particular to specific person" @Edwin Ashworth
    – aesking
    Oct 13, 2017 at 5:42
  • 'You need to add references [to your question]' and 'You need to do research' aren't strictly synonymous. AHD includes the definitions << 3. Regional speech or dialect. 4. A specialized vocabulary used by a group of people >> (bolding mine). Oct 13, 2017 at 10:40

1 Answer 1


You're asking about two words, each of which has multiple distinct (but related) meanings, and these two sets of meanings only vaguely overlap. But for the example you're talking about, simply a repeated noun phrase, neither idiom nor idiolect apply.

Idiom can mean:

  • an idiom = a common phrase that has come to mean more than the logical combination of its parts, possibly not grammatical according to the rest of the speech habits. 'a whole nother thing' is an idiom
  • idiom = how the locals generally speak.

Idiolect can mean:

  • a technical term for the special ways a special group of people talk, especially a single person's individual eccentricities.

So to answer your individual questions:

  • Yes, idiolects exist. That funny way your uncle always says 'ovah heeyah' instead of 'over here' is one feature of his idiolect.
  • Other people understand eccentric idiolects because as idiolect isn't like speaking a foreign language. It's mostly the same stuff but with a few special changes that are easily understood even if a little different.
  • yes, an idiolect might be characterized by a particular set of idioms (sayings), but most likely there are other things like small changes in phonology or syntax.
  • no , a noun or noun phrase or any kind of phrase is not an idiolect. An idiolect is all of the language characteristics of an individual put together.
  • 'the old man could really handle a spade' doesn't sound special to me so is probably not an idiom. Sounds like pretty natural GenAmE.

So maybe 'By God' is the idiom? It's not particularly common and may be definitive for an Irish style of speaking English?

  • Ah, I see thanks! But I beg to differ that nouns can't be idiolectal, then again I never said all nouns or noun phrases were. E.g. "in his strange idiolect, he preferred to call angels ‘angelicals’" and I mean idiolect in literature: how am I supposed to know the word 'over here' meant 'ovah heeyah' unless it was spelled out directly like that? Furthermore I think that would be more dialect/socialect as I've heard a few people say over here like that, so it's not really specific to an individual.
    – aesking
    Oct 12, 2017 at 19:14
  • Sure, nouns can be idiolectal. But a noun is not an idiolect by itself. A single strange way of speaking one noun may be a sign of an idiolect but is not an idiolect all by itself.
    – Mitch
    Oct 12, 2017 at 19:46
  • Re: 'how am I supposed to know' - I'm not sure I understand what you're getting at. Can you elaborate in your question?
    – Mitch
    Oct 12, 2017 at 19:47
  • 1
    I'd adjust to an idiom = a common phrase [string is less ambiguous] that either has come to mean more than ('kick the bucket') / other than ('throw a party') the logical/literal combination of its parts, or uses unusual words ('spick and span') or grammar ('by and large') or both ('a whole nother thing'). Oct 13, 2017 at 11:03
  • 1
    But ELU aims to be accurate and definitive rather than a Q & A service. Oct 13, 2017 at 15:25

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