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25 Jan

Language and Society- Language Varieties

Language and Society

Varieties of Languages

                         Language is a human phenomenon which is as complex as human relationships in a society. It cannot be studied in isolation because there is a deep relation between language and society. Factors such as region, education and social standing, subject matter, attitude, purpose etc. affects the use of language. There are many sociological and psychological factors to be taken into account when we study language. This would make the study of languages more comprehensive


             The variety of language used by a particular group of individuals is called a dialect. The study of dialects is known as dialectology. Dialectal differences are mainly in the phonological areas of pronunciation, stress, intonation, etc. Differences also exist in other areas like morphology, syntax and semantics. The dialect spoken in a particular geographical area is called a regional dialect. The Thrissur and Ernakulam dialects of Malayalam are examples.

               In England, each county is said to have its own dialect. Every dialect is a potential language. Sometimes due to socio-political factors, a dialect attains the status of a prestige dialect. It is emulated by speakers of other dialect and in due course the prestige dialect acquires the status of the standard language. For example,the dialect of south east England became the ‘standard English’.

             Dialectal distinctions can be plotted on a map. The lines on the map dividing geographical areas or the basis of distinct linguistic features are called isoglosses. Bloomfield defines isoglosses as:

“ Lines drawn between places which differ as to any feature of language.”

             An isogloss is a line marking the boundaries within which the same given linguistic features can be observed.

            Dialects based on social stratification are called social dialects  (sociolects ) which may be class dialects (based on the social class) or caste dialects ( as in Indian context ).

Eg. The cockney dialect used by Eliza, the flower girl in Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’.

             Each individual has his own idiosyncratic speech habits, which characterize his speech from others. The entire speech habits of an individual is called an idiolect. A collection of similar idiolects make up a dialect. A collection of similar dialects make up a language.

Standard dialect

             The dialects of a language are generally  considered not quite respectable and the standard variety is looked upon as ‘correct’. This is a misconception. All the dialects are equally efficient for the communicative purposes of their speakers. However, most often one of the dialects acquires greater prestige than the others in course of time, for various linguistic reasons. It is usually the dialect of the politically and socio-economically powerful community that thus acquires prestige and becomes a status symbol so that the speakers of the other dialects try to emulate it. Often the social prestige of the speakers or the region is transferred to dialect. Such a dialect is called the standard dialect which later becomes the standard language. The evolution of standard English is an example. A prestige dialect is a dialect emulated by speakers of other dialects. Eg. BBC English (in due course the prestige dialect acquires the status of the standard language)


          No two speakers use language exactly in the same way. Ach speaker has his own peculiar speech habits which characterize his speech. In  other words each individual each individual has his idiolect.

            The term idiolect (‘idio-’ = individual and ‘-lect’ = variety of language) signifies the entire speech habits of an individual. It is a variety of language used by one individual speaker including peculiarities of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary etc. Idiolect is the individual’s personal variety of the community language system.


         Registers are the varieties of language according to use. It is co-related with the performer’s social role on a given occasion. Each profession tends to develop its own linguistic peculiarities. The legal register, the journalistic register, the medical register, etc. are examples. Every register is characterized by the predominance of a particular type of technical terms. Registers are situationally conditioned. They are varieties of language determined by the context. Register may be classified by the subject matter or the field of discourse, the relationship between the participants and the mode or medium of discourse.


          They are social dialects or class dialects used by the members of a particular group or stratum (level) of a RP is mostly used by the upwardly mobile stratum of the society where as cockney is categorized as the speech of the lower classes.

Dialects based on social stratification are called social dialects  (sociolects ) which may be class dialects (based on the social class) or caste dialects ( as in Indian context ).

Eg. The cockney dialect used by Eliza, the flower girl in Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’



Dioglassia refers to the coexistence of two varieties of the same language throughout a speech community.  It is a linguistic situation where two or more dialects or even languages are in regular use in a community. (eg) RP  and the cockney speech of the lower stratum of the society in England. In most diglossic communities one of the dialects or languages will attain a superior position and will be used for the major purposes like media, government, education, literature etc. In Sri Lanka  we find the existence of two languages, Simhali and Tamil, the former spoken by the upper classes or the Sri Lankans and the latter by the Tamil immigrants.

Dead languages

It is a language which is no longer spoken. It disappears as a mother tongue because its speakers have abandoned it in favor of other languages. An unknown number of European languages (including gaulish in Gaul  and Iberian in Spain) disappeared in favor of Latin during the roman empire. Sanskrit is another example of a dead language. A language can be said to be alive only if it is used for communication by its members in the spoken or written form.



                  An auxiliary language created by people with no language in common. Many a tims in human history people with no language in common, have found themselves thrown together and obliged to deal with one another. In such a situation, words from one or more of the languages will be taken and stitched together into crude ways of communication. This is a pidgin. A pidgin is nobody’s mother tongue; it is not a real language at all. It has no recognizable grammar. It is very limited in what it can convey and the different people speak it differently, still for simple purposes it does work. Several pidgins were created along the east and west coasts of Africa to facilitate trading among Africans, Europeans and Arabs. The sugar plantations in Hawaii, attracted workers from many countries in Asia and the Pacific and this led to the creation of yet another pidgin. There are several possibilities for a pidgin.

  1. Eventually it may drop out of use.
  2. It can remain in use for generations.
  3. It turns into a mother tongue.

If a pidgin establishes in a multilingual society, eventually, a generation of children would have only the pidgin to use among themselves. Then the pidgin will be turn into a real language, complete with a large vocabulary and a rich grammatical system. This new natural language is called  creole and the children who create it may be the first native speakers of the creole. This process of turning a pidgin into a creole is called creolization.


Neethu Tessa Baby

Assumption College Changanacherry

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