In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language Standardization

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals

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Linguistics Language Standardization
Robin Straaijer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0250


The term standardization is generally used within linguistics to refer to the process of bringing about a standard language. This process brings to a language a uniformity and consistent norm and form of writing and speaking, and the promotion of uniformity and consistency usually entails the reduction or elimination of variation. On a social level, the standard language is usually identified as the variety with highest prestige. Outside the linguistic community, the standard language—particularly the written mode—is usually considered an integral part of national (or supraregional) identity, being seen as the most widely used variety of the language, the official variety of the language, the national language, or even just as the language of that nation. The standard language is also seen as the most correct variety, what is called the “standard-bearing” component of standardization, which is its example-function that also paves the way to language purism. Linguists, however, usually see the standard variety of a particular language as one among many dialects of that language, and they often find it difficult to define what the standard is, partly because it is generally held that “standard language” is an ideology rather than a concrete reality. The sources cited in this article are both ones that discuss language standardization fairly straightforwardly as a process as well as those that discuss the concepts of standardization and the standard language ideology. In addition, it contains references for sources that discuss standard languages and language standards. Many of these sources often also deal, either directly or indirectly, with linguistic prescriptivism (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Linguistics article Linguistic Prescriptivism). It has been argued that language standardization as it is has come to be defined is a particularly Western phenomenon. Most of the readily available literature about standardization has been published in English, and most of this literature deals with European languages, and particularly with the English language. Consequently, despite efforts to avoid it, and partly because of the European concept of standard languages associated with nation-building, this article has an inevitable Eurocentric bias.

General Overviews

The modern study of standardization has its roots in the 1920s with Jespersen 2007 and the 1930s with the functional view of standardization of the Prague school, and it has received attention from several subdisciplines within linguistics, including dialectology and particularly sociolinguistics (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Linguistics articles Dialectology and Sociolinguistics). Standardization has also received interest from scholars with an interest in language from disciplines within the behavioral sciences, such as anthropology and sociology. At present, the most commonly adopted theories regarding the process of language standardization are those of Haugen 1997 and Milroy and Milroy 2012, which approach it from the perspective of sociolinguistics. Crowley 2003 and Joseph 1987 approach the same concept from a predominantly sociology of language perspective, and McWhorter 2007 approaches it from a dialectological one. Ayres-Bennett and Bellamy 2021 is a somewhat different publication in this section, as it is a reflection of classic ideas about language standardization combined with collected new research.

  • Ayres-Bennett, Wendy, and John Bellamy, eds. 2021. The Cambridge handbook of language standardization. 1st ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A collection of classic and more recent research on various subtopics of language standardization. In twenty-nine chapters, the volume includes chapters discussing models and theories of standardization, tensions between written and spoken, and national and transnational, varieties as well as issues of standardization and variation in minority languages and standard language and education.

  • Crowley, Tony. 2003. Standard English and the politics of language. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230501935

    Collects earlier work and discusses the history of a standard of English, the standard and literary language, and the standard in relation to nationality, class, social status, and education. Provides sociological and philosophical discussions on standard language, authority, identity, and origin. Originally published in 1989.

  • Haugen, Einar. 1997. Language standardization. In Sociolinguistics: A reader and coursebook. Edited by Nikolas Coupland and Adam Jaworski, 341–352. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-25582-5_27

    Proposes four aspects of language development to explain how a dialect or regional language is elevated to a standard language, separating form from function, and language-internal from language-external elements. The first widely accepted attempt at describing the process of language standardization. Originally published as “Dialect, Language, Nation,” American Anthropologist 68.4 (1966): 922–935.

  • Jespersen, Otto. 2007. Mankind, nation and individual from a linguistic point of view. London: Routledge.

    Jesperson’s pre-functionalist and pre-sociolinguistic treatment of the aspects and criteria of standardization was the first modern, systematic discussion of the subject. His discussion served as a sizeable input for the social analysis of standardization in Joseph 1987. Originally published in 1925 (Oslo, Norway: Aschehoug).

  • Joseph, John Earl. 1987. Eloquence and power: The rise of language standards and standard languages. London: Frances Pinter.

    A seminal work on the sociological aspects of standardization and standard languages. Provides enlightening overviews of historical work and of syntheses of theoretical currents in linguistics and philosophy relating to standards and standardization. Delimits clearly the social aspects of and preconditions for language standardization. Contains a wealth of relevant and important historical bibliographic references on the subject.

  • McWhorter, John. 2007. Word on the street: Debunking the myth of a pure standard English. New York: Basic Books.

    Draws on evidence from dialectology to argue that there is no such thing as a pure Standard English, but that it is one dialect among many, which collectively make up the language known as “English.” Roughly a third of the book deals with Black English in the United States.

  • Milroy, James, and Lesley Milroy. 2012. Authority in language: Investigating Standard English. 4th ed. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203124666

    Remains a foundational work on the theory of language standardization. Describes a process of standardization with six stages. The main innovation over Haugen’s theory was the inclusion of “prescription” as a stage in the process. There has been, however, some criticism that it may be less well suited to describe the development of a standard variety in languages other than English. Originally published in 1985.

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