Language Matters

This is an academic essay written for Language Matters, a unit undertaken in my first year.


Discuss the claim that the standardisation of language is an impossible goal

Debates about the standardisation of language feature prominently in the study of linguistics. There is support for and against standardisation, but what is clear is that standardisation of a language is not instantaneous but is an ongoing process. There are some who believe that the standardisation of language should be imposed while others argue that it is impossible to agree unanimously on what such a standard is and what it should be. This essay examines the standardisation of language and whether it is a possible, realistic goal.

The problem with language is that it is primarily a social construct and so is subject to the influence of social norms and standards which never remain constant. Milroy (cited Haugen et al, 1997, p75) writes “just as standardisation is a process, so linguistic change in general is a process”, as individuals constantly create and negotiate words and their meanings. Milroy continues:

“just as the norms of the standard undergo a process of selection and acceptance, so it would appear that nonstandard linguistic norms also undergo such a process (p75-76)”

The standardisation of a language is often done consciously, by sociolinguistics and socio-political institutions in an attempt to create norms and standards, but nonstandard language also changes and cannot be said to be constant. Social groups and speech communities will create and negotiate their own phrases, norms and standards. Standardisation is not an ongoing process against a static nonstandard language, because it can be argued that language as a whole is an ongoing process. Standardisation as a goal implies an end product, however because language as a whole continues to “undergo a process of selection and acceptance” both nonstandard and standard language cannot ever arrive at an end goal and will continue to be shaped, formed and negotiated by language users. To truly standardise a language all nonstandard uses of the language must be dropped, at a potential cost to the users. To view it in an “economic metaphor”:

“[adopting] a change involves a potential cost to the speakers, therefore a change will be successful to the extent that the speakers perceive the benefit of adopting it to be greater than the cost of adopting it” (Milroy p76)

Since language is shaped, formed and negotiated by language users, for language standards to become standardised a language and its norms must be accepted and used by a wide speech community. The economic metaphor Milroy suggests shows the implications of language change for users. Communities and localities have their own specific language terms, uses and phrases, and to change to standardised language would be at a cost to the user. The benefits of nonstandard language use include group identity for the users. The aims of standardisation include providing a sense of national identity, however this could come at expense of smaller regional/group identities that nonstandard language promotes. Even if a standardised version of a language was used, however, language users would still use or invent, even unconsciously, slang terms and locality specific phrases, and differing sounds and tones in their dialects. Therefore it is clear that to regulate or standardise a language is not a simple task, nor is it a task that can arrive at a specified end or finished product.

It can be difficult to agree on what is ‘standard’ and what is not even amongst linguists and prescriptivists. The formation of a standard leads to implications that all nonstandard language use and local dialect is wrong. As standardised language is seen as superior and ‘correct’, it leads to users of nonstandard language to be seen as lower class, which is often the case, leading to stereotyping and disadvantages. In reality, standard language is not better or higher than nonstandard language, it is only the socio-political ideology which promotes this view. Therefore standardisation can be detrimental to nonstandard users, and instead of changing to standard language use, it could lead to nonstandard speech communities strengthening their group identity further. This leads back to the cost-benefit structure of changing language, and whether the language user would have more to lose by switching to a standard version of the language than remaining with nonstandard aspects.

“The process of language standardisation involves the suppression of optional variability in language and that, as a consequence, non-standard varieties can be observed to permit more variability than standard ones (e.g. in pronunciations of particular words).” (Milroy et al, 1985, p8)

This further shows the detrimental effects that language standardisation can have. Standardisation effectively limits and refines language speech, cutting down variety and imposing a standard instead of regional and social varieties. Instead of adding a multitude of words and norms, standardisation removes many differing nonstandard words and norms and replaces them with standardised language. Again this links back to the economic model of language change, as changing to a standard language would mean a cost to the speaker in terms of variety and regional/group identity. Standardisation is an impossible task because there would never be a unanimous agreement to switch to a standard language at cost to nonstandard variability of language and the regional/group identity that ensues from nonstandard language use and localised accents.

As noted by Milroy (2001: 539) (cited Deumert, A., et al, p463) language standardization “is not a universal” and the languages of many speech communities do not exist in a standardized form. As standard language emerges from these non universal speech communities, it can be impossible to say what is standard and what is nonstandard, or which is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. As both nonstandard and standard languages continue an ongoing process of development, it is an impossible goal for supporters and instigators of standardisation to expect a finished ‘end’ language, and then to expect to superimpose the standardised language on all speech communities. Language users continuously develop and negotiate language norms and standards, so it can be argued that the only finished or truly standardised languages are dead languages, where there are no more language users to continue the process of development and negotiation.

Standardisation has useful aspects especially in political and educational contexts. It is important because it becomes embedded in our culture and in our political, educational, legal, social etc. systems. However it is very important that the standardisation process continues without discrimination and prejudice. It is evident that standard language becomes seen as “the right way” to use language, which leads to nonstandard language users being ostracised or viewed as unintelligent or “lazy”, when in fact nonstandard language use is often as valid as standard. It is not beneficial to argue for standardisation from the moral viewpoint that a standardised language is “better” than nonstandard use, or that nonstandard users are lower than standard users. To do so negates any benefits that nonstandard language use brings, for example group identity and variability of language.

In conclusion, standardisation is an ongoing process which can never reach a finished end. Therefore as a goal, standardisation is impossible. As stated, language is a continuous process whereby language is developed and negotiated by its users over time, and never ‘completed’. To create a finished, completely standardised language would be limiting as new language norms and values would never be created, removing the variability of different language standards. As a process, standardisation is possible and is beneficial, providing that it does not become superimposed universally, thus removing nonstandard language use. Standard language is useful for comparison and for utilising in the political-social institutions, but would be limiting if its use was universal. Linguists and language users in general cannot agree on what is ‘standard’ or ‘correct’, so universal standardisation is an impossible task, with limitations and negative outcomes.


Milroy, J., Milroy, L. Exploring the Social Constraints of Language Change. In: Haugen, E. I., Eliasson, S., Jahr, E. H., 1997, p75. Language and its ecology: essays in memory of Einar Haugen. Publisher: Walter de Gruyter. Ed. Illustrated.

Milroy, J., Milroy, L., 1985. Authority in Language: Investigating Language Prescription and Standardisation. Language, education and society. Publisher: Routledge.

Deumert, A., Vandenbussche, W., 2003 Research Directions in the Study of Language Standardization. Germanic standardizations. 455-459


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