Theory, Model, Method

Language and its varieties

The term language or human language is often mixed up with notions like dialect, varieties of language, accent, standard vs. non-standard language. These notions correlate with non-linguistic, mostly social factors like social class, ethnicity, age, or gender. They are rather specific concepts of language, which play an important part in the description of languages and dialects and in a scientific discussion of linguistic prescriptivism.

The traditional term for language variation within a speech community is dialect. According to geographical location, age, occupation, socio-economic status, ethnicity, there are many linguistic varieties. Dialects are often evaluated negatively following the prescriptive approach to language. Dialect speakers have been associated with cognitive deficits, minor education, etc. Standard language is the highly positivitely accepted variety and is related to good education, good general knowledge etc. From the perspective of descriptive linguistics, however, the term dialect has lost these connotations and is the term for the neutral or objective description of a specific regional variety which is actually used. Varieties that correlate with social class are often called sociolects, with gender genderlects, etc. Accents differ from dialects only in that they refer to variation in the pronunciation, whereas dialects include grammatical and lexical differences. A standard language is a specific variety (dialect or accent) which is highly accepted and estimated in a society or a culture (prestige) and which can usually be accessed through written documents like grammars, dictionaries, etc.

No single variety of English can be called the standard. To begin with, there are different national standards: standard British English, standard American English, standard Australian English, standard Canadian English, and so on. But there are several varieties of standard British English and several of standard American English and so on. Suffice it to note that many varieties of standard English can be identified.
(Source: Finegan, Edward (2004). Language: Its Structure and Use, Boston, Mass., Wadsworth, pp. 15)

It is not always easy to draw the line between dialects and languages, since everyone speaks a language and everyone speaks a dialect. Poltical or national borders are not sufficient to distinguish between language and dialect (or variety). Many languages can be divided into dialects that occur within one nationís borders, and many people can speak several varieties of languages which systematically differ from each other. They speak a dialect, not a language.

Some people seem to believe that other people speak a dialect, whereas they themselves donít: they think they speak a language or even the language. The truth is that everyone speaks a dialect. Native-born American speakers of English speak American English, and thatís a dialect. Native-born Australian speakers of English speak Australian English, and thatís a dialect. American English, Australian English, and British English are national dialects. Since the language can be thought of as a collection of dialects, anyone who speaks a dialect of English speaks the English language, and anyone who speaks the English language does so by using one of its dialects.
(Source: Finegan, Edward (2004). Language: Its Structure and Use, Boston, Mass., Wadsworth, pp. 15)

The crucial criterion for distinguishing between language and dialect is that of mutual intellibility, which means that speakers of different dialects of the same language are able to understand each other, because the differences are not as immense as those between languages. Speakers of different languages cannot understand each other - even if their languages are neighboured, belong to the same cultural area, or display linguistic similarities (from a typological point of view).