Move back one step  Move forward one step 
Larger font Smaller font Default font

Linguistic terms and varieties of English

What is meant by ‘variety’?

In present-day linguistics the term variety is used to refer to any variant of a language which can be sufficiently delimited from another one. The grounds for such differentiation may be social, historical, spatial or a combination of these. The necessity for a neutral term such as variety arose from the loaded use of the term dialect: this was not only used in the neutral sense of a regionally bound form of a language, but also with the implication that the linguistically most interesting varieties of a language are those spoken by the older rural (male) population. This view is understandable given the origin of dialectology in the nineteenth century, that is in the heyday of historical linguistics. Nowadays, sociolinguistic attitudes are prevalent and the need for a term which can include the linguistic investigation of urban populations, both male and female, from a social point of view became evident. The neutrality of the term variety must be stressed. It simply refers to a distinguishable variant of a language. This means that there are a large number of varieties of any given language. The sole criterion to be fulfilled by a particular variety is delimitation vis à vis other varieties. Dialects within a variety framework are frequently referred to as regional varieties and sociolects as social varieties, though the label dialect can be retained if used objectively.

The notion of ‘dialect’

1) Dialect Strictly speaking the term dialect refers to a geographical variant of a language. However, it is used loosely, not only by non-linguists, to talk about any variety of language. For sociolinguistic purposes one must distinguish various sub-types of dialect.

The term dialect is used to denote a geographically distinct variety of a language. There is no reference to the social dimension of language here. It is also important to stress that the standard of a language is nothing more than a dialect which achieved special political and social status at some stage in the past and which has been extensively codified orthographically.

a) koiné This is a term deriving from ancient Greek ‘common’ and refers to the situation where, in a group of dialects, one is predominant and used outside of its natural boundaries as a means of inter-dialectal communication. This was the case with Athenian Greek and the remaining dialects in Classical Greece and - at least for writing - also held for West Saxon vis à vis the other dialects of English in the Old English period.

b) patois This is a French term which refers to a dialect which is unwritten and as such without a literary tradition. The (French) term dialecte conversely refers to a geographical variety which has an associated literature. This use is to be found in other countries of Europe as well, such as Sweden.

2) Standard and non-standard In a country whose language shows a long written tradition it makes sense to talk of a codified standard. By implicit or explicit comparison with this standard one can then classify other varieties as non-standard (though not substandard, this is a loaded term). Countries usually have a term for their standard. In England there are various terms such as The Queens English, Oxford English, BBC English, Received Pronunciation. Only the last of these finds favour with linguists. Although the laypersons may use these terms indiscriminately and although they may not be able to be precise about what they mean by them, they are always able to recognise them and may not infrequently be in a position to imitate them also. Here one sees that the receptive ability of speakers is greater that their productive ability.

There are a number of further labels which are used to refer to language variation along various axes. Students should be aware of at least the following three terms.

Diatopic Refers to variation in language on a geographical level.
Diastratic Refers to variation in language between social classes.
Diachronic Refers to variation in language over time.

3) Vernacular This is a term which refers to the language spoken naturally by the inhabitants of a country as opposed to a possible classical language which may have a position of dominance in cultural or ecclesiastical spheres.

4) Mutual intelligibility of dialects This consideration helps to distinguish between language and dialect and to broach the related problem of how to decide what a language is. One way of characterising ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ is to regard a language as a collection of mutually intelligible dialects and a dialect as a recognisable variety within this group.

Unfortunately, the criterion of mutual intelligibility is not entirely successful. One common problem with this criterion is that some languages like Norwegian and Swedish are usually considered different languages, for political reasons, but speakers of these languages can generally understand and communicate with each other. It may also be that dialects belonging to the same language lack mutual intelligibility. German, for instance, would be considered a single language because some types of German are not intelligible to speakers of other types. Furthermore, mutual intelligibility may not be equal in both directions. It is said, for instance, that Danes understand Norwegians better that Norwegians understand Danes.

5) Polylectal grammars Obviously, speakers of different dialects are able to understand each other more or less. This can be seen with speakers of English and other languages such as French, Italian or German. The reason is that the linguistic systems involved do not differ fundamentally. The understanding of different dialects implies that the speakers know the overall system of the language (group of dialects). This view is what is called polylectal, from ‘lect’, meaning form of language. However, there is reason to question the knowledge of common underlying forms. The phenomenon of hypercorrection shows that underlying forms are not present for all speakers. For instance, some speakers use an /r/ in the first syllable of lager /lɑ:ɻgəɻ/, i.e. they introduce an /-r/ because they feel the back pronunciation /ɑ:/ implies a following /-r/ which is true of r-ful dialects but not of those without syllable final r.

6) Dialect continua In many parts of the world, if we examine rural areas, we recognise a geographical dialect continuum. There are differences between dialects, some large and some small, but the further we get from a particular starting point in an area, the larger the differences become. The striking point is that a chain of mutual intelligibility links all the dialects spoken throughout the area. At any point on this extensive continuum, speakers of one dialect can understand speakers of other dialects who live in adjacent areas, that is there is a chain of mutual intelligibility. At no point is there a complete break, but the cumulative effect of the linguistic differences will be such that the greater the geographical separation, the greater the difficulty of comprehension. This situation is clearly illustrated by German dialects which form an uninterrupted continuum from the Dutch border in the north west to the Hungarian border in the south-east. The varieties in these extremes are not mutually intelligible but at any two points on the continuum they are.