Language variety – how to understand it

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Language variety – definition

language variety The term language variety is used to describe the many manifestations of the English language.

redbtn These varieties are derived according to functional principles.

redbtn That is, they stem from an observation of how English is used in a variety of contexts.


redbtn Speech and writing are the two main varieties of English.

redbtn These can then be broken down into sub-varieties as follows:

Occupational medical, nautical, political, legal
Informal chat with friends or family
Formal job interview, dialogue with doctor
Dialects Standard English, American English, regional dialect
Accents Received Pronunciation, Lancashire accent, American accent
Occupational academic, commerce, legal
Informal note to friends or family
Formal job application, letter to doctor
Dialects Standard English, American English
Literature novel, poetry, drama, story


redbtn Many varieties of English are used by everyone in the course of a normal day.

redbtn ‘Style-switching’ is the term applied to the competent use of these linguistic varieties.

redbtn That is, we might use a casual, informal style when speaking to someone at home, and a formal style when writing to the bank manager.

redbtn The concept of language varieties is useful mainly as a tool for stylistic analysis.

redbtn It should be regarded as one of many possible aspects of language study.

redbtn In the context of language study, all varieties of English have potentially equal value or status.

redbtn Analysis of style demands an appreciation of the linguistic features which make up a given variety.

redbtn Written legal language, for example will have some or all of the following features:

  • minimal punctuation
  • use of archaic vocabulary or idioms
  • deviant use of capital letters
  • archaic script style and (sometimes) illuminated initial letters

redbtn These can be seen as the critical stylistic features of the legal variety of written English.

redbtn Identification or definition of a variety is not always a straightforward matter.

redbtn Journalism is considered by some as a variety of English. Others would argue that the term is not usefully applied in this case because of the diverse forms [reports, letters, jokes, pictures, announcements] which go into a journalistic product such as a newspaper.

redbtn This diversity of form and styles negates the usefulness of the application of variety to this particular function.

redbtn Legal language, by contrast, has far fewer possible diversities and therefore is a more clearly defined as a variety.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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