language variety (sociolinguistics)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The Complete How to Speak Southern by Steve Mitchell and S.C. Rawls (Bantam, 2006).


In sociolinguistics, language variety is a general term for any distinctive form of a language or linguistic expression.

Linguists commonly use language variety (or simply variety) as a cover term for any of the overlapping subcategories of a language, including dialect, idiolect, register, and social dialect

In The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), Tom McArthur identifies two broad types of language variety: "(1) user-related varieties, associated with particular people and often places, .

. . [and] (2) use-related varieties, associated with function, such as legal English (the language of courts, contracts, etc.) and literary English (the typical usage of literary texts, conversations, etc.)."

See examples and observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "[A] 'variety' can be regarded as a 'dialect' for some purposes and a 'language' for others, and casual ambivalence about such matters is common worldwide. . . .

    "[L]anguage scholars have in recent decades used the term variety to label a subdivision within a language. Varieties may relate to a place or community (as with Indian English and two of its subvarieties, Anglo-Indian English and Gujarati English), to uses (as with legal English and advertising English), and to combinations of the two (as with British legal English and American advertising English). . . .

    "In recent years, variety has proved to be a fairly safe term, allowing language scholars to avoid being too specific about kinds of speech and usage on occasions when being specific is not necessary and/or when there is a risk of being charged with discrimination against a group by calling its usage 'a dialect.' The negative baggage that attaches to this term in English is greater than any occasional positive connotations it may have...

    "Most importantly, however, the term dialect fails when discussing English as a world language. Although it has done sterling service in detailing, for example, regional variations in Old, Middle, and Modern English in Britain, and for regional varieties of English in the United States (notably Northern, Midland, and Southern), it is entirely inadequate in other situations, as for example two of the most vigorous US 'Englishes': African-American English (which has never neatly fitted the traditional dialect criterion of regionality) and the entity not quite covered by the term 'Spanglish': a hybrid of Spanish and English used by Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America in many parts of the country."
    (Tom McArthur, The Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • Language Judgments
    "From a linguistic point of view, there is no basis for preferring the structure of one language variety over another. Judgments of 'illogical' and 'impure' are imported from outside the realm of language and represent attitudes to particular varieties or to forms of expression within particular varieties. Often they represent judgments of speaker groups rather than of speech itself."
    (Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, 5th ed. Thomson, 2008)
  • Language Varieties in the Classroom
    "[T]he topic of language variety needs to be explored in classrooms with the same intensity and focus as issues of class, race, culture, and gender. In the same way, as critically aware teachers tend to disdain school and classroom practices based on narrow class, racial, cultural, or gendered norms, the same teachers need to question policies and practices that privilege one language variety and its users ahead of other varieties and their users. At the same time, schools in local contexts still have to get on with the job of teaching a language-based curriculum that uses some language variety as its main pedagogical vehicle."
    (David Corson, Language Diversity and Education. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001)

Also Known As: variety, lect

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Nordquist, Richard. "language variety (sociolinguistics)." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, September 3). language variety (sociolinguistics). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "language variety (sociolinguistics)." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 21, 2017).