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What is a standard language?

If you travel by train from Amsterdam to Antwerp, which takes about two hours, one of the things you will notice is that the language in the two cities sounds different. The same will be true if you take the train between London and Birmingham, or between Paris and Lyon. People from different places within the same language area use different pronunciations. Often they also use different words and sometimes even different grammatical structures. In many countries difficulties arising from such differences in dialect are overcome by the existence of a standard language.

According to a popular saying amongst linguists, a standard language is a dialect with an army. It is rarely the case that brutal force has been used to impose a standard language, although linguistic issues can arouse passion and occasionally violence. More often, however, the imposition of a standard language happens through more subtle means. Economic circumstances seem to play a very important role in this. People regularly choose to adopt a standard (or even an entirely different) language because they see benefits. By using a standard language rather than a local variety, for example, you will invariable reach a much wider audience.

Typical characteristics of a standard language include several of the following:

  • An authoritative dictionary which records the vocabulary of the language (in Dutch, for example, the Grote Van Dale (@link) dictionary [Dutch-language website of Van Dale Taalweb. The site allows its users to search the online version of the dictionary Grote Van Dale]);

  • An authoritative grammar which records the forms, rules and structures of the language (for example the Dutch Algemene Nederlandse spraakkunst (@link) [Electronic version (in Dutch) of the Algemene Nederlandse Spraakkunst (General Dutch Grammar) at the site of the Catholic University Nijmegen]

  • A recognized standard of pronunciation;

  • Mention of the language in legal documents (for example the constitution of a country);

  • The use of the language throughout public life (for example in a country’s parliament) and its formal instruction in schools;

  • A body of literary texts;

  • Formal instruction of and research into the language and its literature in institutions of higher education;

  • An institution promoting the use of the language and its formal instruction in educational institutions abroad (for example the Nederlandse Taalunie (@link) [Multilingual website of the Nederlandse Taalunie or Language Union, which promotes the cooperation between The Netherlands, Belgium and Surinam on issues such as language policy, teaching, literature etc. The site offers interesting information on Dutch language, spelling, literature etc] in the Low Countries, the French Académie française, or the German Goethe Institut);

  • Translations of key religious texts such as the Bible or the Koran.

Question 1:

Why would a speaker of a dialect want to adopt a standard language?

Check your answer (>link)

Question 2:

Thinking about your own language, how many of the characteristics mentioned apply to it? To what extent does your own language qualify for the label ‘standard language’?

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Question 3:

Which of the characteristics mentioned do you think is the most important?

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Click (>link) to read more about the Dutch language area.


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