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5.5: Language Variation

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    Languages Versus Dialects

    The number of languages spoken around the world is somewhat difficult to pin down, but we usually see a figure between 6,000 and 7,000. Why are they so hard to count? The term language is commonly used to refer to the idealized “standard” of a variety of speech with a name, such as English, Turkish, Swedish, Swahili, or Urdu. One language is usually considered to be incomprehensible to speakers of another one. The word dialect is often applied to a subordinate variety of a language and the common assumption is that we can understand someone who speaks another dialect of our own language.

    Definition: language

    An idealized form of speech, usually referred to as the standard variety.

    Definition: dialect

    A variety of speech. The term is often applied to a subordinate variety of a language. Speakers of two dialects of the same language do not necessarily always understand each other.

    These terms are not really very useful to describe actual language variation. For example, many of the hundreds of “dialects” spoken in China are very different from each other and are not mutually comprehensible to speakers of other Chinese “dialects.” The Chinese government promotes the idea that all of them are simply variants of the “Chinese language” because it helps to promote national solidarity and loyalty among Chinese people to their country and reduce regional factionalism. In contrast, the languages of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are considered separate languages, but actually if a Swede, a Dane, and a Norwegian were to have a conversation together, each could use their own language and understand most of what the others say. Does this make them dialects or languages? The Serbian and Croatian languages are considered by their speakers to be separate languages due to distinct political and religious cultural identities. They even employ different writing systems to emphasize difference, but they are essentially the same and easily understandable to each other.

    So in the words of linguist John McWhorter, actually “dialects is all there is.”[3] What he means by this is that a continuum of language variation is geographically distributed across populations in much the same way that human physical variation is, with the degree of difference between any two varieties increasing across increasing distances. This is the case even across national boundaries. Catalan, the language of northeastern Spain, is closer to the languages of southern France, Provençal and Occitan than any one is to its associated national language, Spanish or French. One language variety blends with the next geographically like the colors of the rainbow. However, the historical influence of colonizing states has affected that natural distribution. Thus, there is no natural “language” with variations called “dialects.” Usually one variety of a language is considered the “standard,” but this choice is based on the social and political prestige of the group that speaks that variety; it has no inherent superiority over the other variants called its “dialects.” The way people speak is an indicator of who they are, where they come from, and what social groups they identify with, as well as what particular situation they find themselves in, and what they want to accomplish with a specific interaction.

    How Does Language Variation Develop?

    Why do people from different regions in the United States speak so differently? Why do they speak differently from the people of England? A number of factors have influenced the development of English dialects, and they are typical causes of dialect variation in other languages as well.

    Settlement patterns: The first English settlers to North America brought their own dialects with them. Settlers from different parts of the British Isles spoke different dialects (they still do), and they tended to cluster together in their new homeland. The present-day dialects typical of people in various areas of the United States, such as New England, Virginia, New Jersey, and Delaware, still reflect these original settlement sites, although they certainly have changed from their original forms.

    Migration routes: After they first settled in the United States, some people migrated further west, establishing dialect boundaries as they traveled and settled in new places.

    Geographical factors: Rivers, mountains, lakes and islands affected migration routes and settlement locations, as well as the relative isolation of the settlements. People in the Appalachian mountains and on certain islands off the Atlantic coast were relatively isolated from other speakers for many years and still speak dialects that sound very archaic compared with the mainstream.

    Language contact: Interactions with other language groups, such as Native Americans, French, Spanish, Germans, and African-Americans, along paths of migration and settlement resulted in mutual borrowing of vocabulary, pronunciation, and some syntax.

    Have you ever heard of “Spanglish”? It is a form of Spanish spoken near the borders of the United States that is characterized by a number of words adopted from English and incorporated into the phonological, morphological and syntactic systems of Spanish. For example, the Spanish sentence Voy a estationar mi camioneta, or “I’m going to park my truck” becomes in Spanglish Voy a parquear mi troca. Many other languages have such English-flavored versions, including Franglais and Chinglish. Some countries, especially France, actively try to prevent the incursion of other languages (especially English) into their language, but the effort is always futile. People will use whatever words serve their purposes, even when the “language police” disapprove. Some Franglais words that have invaded in spite of the authorities protestations include the recently acquired binge-drinking, beach, e-book, and drop-out, while older ones include le weekend and stop.

    Region and occupation: Rural farming people may continue to use archaic expressions compared with urban people, who have much more contact with contemporary life styles and diverse speech communities.

    Social class: Social status differences cut across all regional variations of English. These differences reflect the education and income level of speakers.

    Group reference: Other categories of group identity, including ethnicity, national origin of ancestors, age, and gender can be symbolized by the way we speak, indicating in-group versus out-group identity. We talk like other members of our groups, however we define that group, as a means of maintaining social solidarity with other group members. This can include occupational or interest-group jargon, such as medical or computer terms, or surfer talk, as well as pronunciation and syntactic variations. Failure to make linguistic accommodation to those we are speaking to may be interpreted as a kind of symbolic group rejection even if that dialect might be relatively stigmatized as a marker of a disrespected minority group. Most people are able to use more than one style of speech, also called register, so that they can adjust depending on who they are interacting with: their family and friends, their boss, a teacher, or other members of the community.

    Linguistic processes: New developments that promote the simplification of pronunciation or syntactic changes to clarify meaning can also contribute to language change.

    Definition: register

    A style of speech that varies depending on who is speaking to whom and in what context.

    These factors do not work in isolation. Any language variation is the result of a number of social, historical, and linguistic factors that might affect individual performances collectively and therefore dialect change in a particular speech community is a process that is continual.

    Try This

    Which of these terms do you use, pop versus soda versus coke? Pail versus bucket? Do you say “vayse” or “vahze” for the vessel you put flowers in? Where are you from? Can you find out where each term or pronunciation is typically used? Can you find other regional differences like these?

    What Is a “Standard” Variety of a Language?

    The standard language is simply one of many variants that has been given special prestige in the community because it is spoken by the people who have the greatest amount of prestige, power, and (usually) wealth. In the case of English its development has been in part the result of the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth-century and the subsequent increase in printed versions of the language. This then stimulated more than a hundred years of deliberate efforts by grammarians to standardize spelling and grammatical rules. Their decisions invariably favored the dialect spoken by the aristocracy. Some of their other decisions were rather arbitrarily determined by standards more appropriate to Latin, or even mathematics. For example, as it is in many other languages, it was typical among the common people of the time (and it still is among the present-day working classes and in casual speech), to use multiple negative particles in a sentence, like “I don’t have no money.” Those eighteenth-century grammarians said we must use either don’t or no, but not both, that is, “I don’t have any money” or “I have no money.” They based this on a mathematical rule that says that two negatives make a positive. (When multiplying two signed negative numbers, such as -5 times -2, the result is 10.) These grammarians claimed that if we used the double negative, we would really be saying the positive, or “I have money.” Obviously, anyone who utters that double-negative sentence is not trying to say that they have money, but the rule still applies for standard English to this day.

    Definition: standard language

    The variant of any language that has been given special prestige in the community.

    Non-standard varieties of English, also known as vernaculars, are usually distinguished from the standard by their inclusion of such stigmatized forms as multiple negatives, the use of the verb form ain’t (which was originally the normal contraction of am not, as in “I ain’t,” comparable to “you aren’t,” or “she isn’t”); pronunciation of words like this and that as dis and dat; pronunciation of final “–ing” as “–in;” and any other feature that grammarians have decreed as “improper” English.

    Definition: vernaculars

    Non-standard varieties of a language, which are usually distinguished from the standard by their inclusion of stigmatized forms.

    The standard of any language is a rather artificial, idealized form of language, the language of education. One must learn its rules in school because it is not anyone’s true first language. Everyone speaks a dialect, although some dialects are closer to the standard than others. Those that are regarded with the least prestige and respect in society are associated with the groups of people who have the least amount of social prestige. People with the highest levels of education have greater access to the standard, but even they usually revert to their first dialect as the appropriate register in the context of an informal situation with friends and family. In other words, no language variety is inherently better or worse than any other one. It is due to social attitudes that people label some varieties as “better” or “proper,” and others as “incorrect” or “bad.” Recall Language Universal 3: “All languages are systematic, rule-driven, and equally complex overall, and equally capable of expressing any idea that the speaker wishes to convey.”

    In 1972 sociolinguist William Labov did an interesting study in which he looked at the pronunciation of the sound /r/ in the speech of New Yorkers in two different department stores. Many people from that area drop the /r/ sound in words like fourth and floor (fawth, floah), but this pronunciation is primarily associated with lower social classes and is not a feature of the approved standard for English, even in New York City. In two different contexts, an upscale store and a discount store, Labov asked customers what floor a certain item could be found on, already knowing it was the fourth floor. He then asked them to repeat their answer, as though he hadn’t heard it correctly. He compared the first with the second answers by the same person, and he compared the answers in the expensive store versus the cheaper store. He found 1) that the responders in the two stores differed overall in their pronunciation of this sound, and 2) that the same person may differ between situations of less and more self-consciousness (first versus second answer). That is, people in the upscale store tended to pronounce the /r/, and responders in both stores tended to produce the standard pronunciation more in their second answers in an effort to sound “higher class.” These results showed that the pronunciation or deletion of /r/ in New York correlates with both social status and context.[4]

    There is nothing inherently better or worse in either pronunciation; it depends entirely on the social norms of the community. The same /r/ deletion that is stigmatized in New York City is the prestigious, standard form in England, used by the upper class and announcers for the BBC. The pronunciation of the /r/ sound in England is stigmatized because it is used by lower-status people in some industrial cities.

    It is important to note that almost everyone has access to a number of different language variations and registers. They know that one variety is appropriate to use with some people in some situations, and others should be used with other people or in other situations. The use of several language varieties in a particular interaction is known as code-switching.

    Definition: code-switching

    Using two or more language varieties in a particular interaction.

    Try This

    To understand the importance of using the appropriate register in a given context, the next time you are with a close friend or family member try using the register, or style of speech, that you might use with your professor or a respected member of the clergy. What is your friend’s reaction? I do not recommend trying the reverse experiment, using a casual vernacular register with such a respected person (unless they are also a close friend). Why not?


    1. John McWhorter, The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language (New York: Times Books, Henry Holt, 2001), 53.
    2. William Labov, The Social Stratification of English in New York City (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1964).

    Adapted From

    "Language" by Linda Light, California State University. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2nd Edition, Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    5.5: Language Variation is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.