Standard and Prestige

The standard variety or simply the standard of a language is the variety which enjoys the highest status and the highest prestige in a speech community. ‘Prestige’ is the social value which is ascribed to a linguistic variety. A prestigious variety is one that is socially widely accepted and most highly valued.

The standard variety of a language is generally codified, i.e. written down. Codification includes the description of a number of linguistic norms in dictionaries and grammar books which officially define the correct usage of the standard variety, both written and spoken. This prestigious, codified variety becomes the legitimized standard. Moreover, the language as a whole is thus regularized and standardized, whereas varieties with less prestige become marginalized.

The standard is usually the institutionalized variety of a language. That is, it is used for official purposes (law, politics…) and in the media.

Although other varieties of a language may be regarded as less prestigious than the standard, they are not inferior to the standard, neither are they of less quality. Usually, one variety has become the standard because of various external, non-linguistic reasons (e.g. political, social or historical circumstances).

The term ‘Standard English’ resists easy definition. English is spoken in many countries all over the world. In all English-speaking countries, different local standards have emerged and can be distinguished. They exist alongside British Standard English and American Standard English.

Click here for some of the characteristics of British Standard English and American Standard English

Other than the standard variety of a language, dialects are often stigmatized. They are regarded in a rather negative way as deviant cases of speech and are accredited with low prestige. Labels of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English reflect the general attitude towards standard and non-standard varieties of the English language.

‘Prestige’, however, is not entirely equal to ‘Standard’. In fact, any language variety, be it standard or non-standard, can have prestige among its speakers. Sociolinguists make a distinction between ‘overt prestige’ and ‘covert prestige’ to denote the degree of overall social acceptance of a speech variety:

Overt prestige: the standard usually has overt prestige; it is generally socially acknowledged as ‘correct’ and therefore valued highly among all speakers of the language.

Covert prestige: Non-standard varieties are often said to have covert prestige ascribed to them by their speakers. A specific, small group of speakers shows positive evaluation of and orientation towards a certain linguistic variety, usually without the speakers' awareness. The variety is usually not accepted in all social groups (e.g. youth language).