Standard English: Definitions


Having standards is seen as something desirable for a range of things – we now take the notion of standard time, standard measurements, standard CD sizes, standard tyre sizes, standard bulb sizes, standard bathroom fittings or (more-or-less) standard shoe sizes for granted. Are standards always necessary though?

            The problem is that language is a little bit like those other things (standard time, measurements, etc.) which are used for academic or more learned purposes where exactness, economy and non-ambiguity are highly desirable. But language is also used for other things like play, informal communication, artistic and cultural expression where the notion of a standard sits less comfortably.

            So what is a standard language? Tentatively, we can say that it is the language that is associated with important and careful contexts of use – such as literary writing, learned writing, legal writing or the Bible – and enjoys a high degree of prestige. (Notice that we tend to think about the written rather than the spoken variety when we discuss the standard.) It also tends to be the version of the language that is taught to foreigners.


Here are some definitions

  1. ‘the process of one variety of a language becoming widely accepted throughout the speech community as a supra-dialectal norm – the “best” form of the language – rated above regional and social dialects’ (Ferguson 1968)
  2. ‘the codification and acceptance, within the community of users, of a formal set of norms defining “correct” usage’ (Stewart 1968)
  3. ‘a codified form of the language accepted by and serving as a model to the larger speech community’ (Garvin and Mathiot 1968)
  4. a prestige variety of a language used within a speech community. “Standard languages/varieties/ dialects” cut across regional differences, providing a unified means of communication, and thus an institutionalised norm which can be used in teaching the language to foreigners, and so on. Language forms which do not conform to this norm are then referred to as sub-standard or (with a less pejorative prefix) non-standard . . .’ (Crystal 1985)
  5. we shall see standardisation as a project, which took different forms at different times. It is only with hindsight, after all, that we can interpret the process at all: things may have felt very different in the past. One thing we can be clear about is that the process of standardisation cannot be seen as merely a matter of communal choice, an innocent attempt on the part of society as a whole to choose a variety that can be used for official purposes and, in addition, as a lingua franca among speakers of divergent dialects. It involves from the first the cultivation, by an elite, of a variety that can be regarded as exclusive. The embryonic standard is not seen as the most useful, or the most widely-used variety, but as the best’ (Leith 1997: 33).


Note the notions being appealed to.

1.      Commonality: the notion of it being a lingua franca among speakers of divergent dialects.

2.      Prestige: the notion of it being the ‘best’, ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ and set apart from other regional and social dialects. It is also used in highly regarded writing.

3.      Prescriptivism: it is the version that is set in grammar books, dictionaries and style guides (therefore codified) and the version of the language taught.

4.      Yardstick or benchmark: it begins to serve as the point of reference when comparing dialects.



Crystal, David (1985), A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (Oxford: Blackwells).

Ferguson, Charles (1968), ‘Language development’, in Joshua A. Fishman et al. (eds), Language Problems of Developing Nations (New York: John Wiley), pp. 27-35.

Garvin, Paul L.; and Madeleine Mathiot (1968), ‘The urbanization of the Guarani language: a problem in language and culture’, in Joshua A. Fishman et al.  (eds), Readings in the sociology of language, (The Hague: Mouton), pp. 365-74.

Dick Leith (1997), A Social History of English, 2nd edn (London: Routledge).

Stewart, William A (1968), ‘A sociolinguistic typology for describing national multilingualism’, in Joshua A. Fishman et al. (eds), Readings in the Sociology of Language (The Hague: Mouton), pp. 531-45


B. Processes of standardisation

C. The development of Standard English

D. The development of academic writing