A standard language (also standard dialect or standardized dialect) is a particular variety of a language that has been given either legal or quasi-legal status. It is said to be the most "correct" language of a nation.
Usually, but not always, based on the tongue of a capital city, a standard language is defined by the selection of certain regional and class markers, and the rejection of others. This is the version of a language that is typically taught to learners of the language as a foreign language, and most texts written in that language follow its spelling and grammar norms.
Some of the features that identify a standard language include:
- A recognized dictionary or group of dictionaries which embody a standardized spelling and vocabulary;
- A recognized grammar which records the forms, rules and structures of the language, and which commends some forms and castigates others;
- A standard system of pronunciation, which is considered "educated" or "proper" speech by the speakers, and which is considered free from regional marking;
- An institution promoting the use of the language and given some authority in defining the norms of its use, such as the Académie française;
Statutes or constitutions giving that language an official legal status in a country's system of law;
- The use of the language in public life, such as in the work of courts and legislatures;
- A canon of literature;
- Translations of important sacred texts such as the Bible into that language, which are considered to be authoritative by their believers;
- The teaching of the language's standards of grammar and spelling in schools;
- The selection of this particular dialect of a language as being especially appropriate to be taught to learners of foreign languages.
The creation of a standard language represents the triumph of a certain variety of linguistic prescription; its selection means that the speech of areas with features that vary from the standard so upheld are devalued or "deprecated." This means that in some countries, the selection of a standard language is a social and political issue. The act of seeking to define a language standard can be an act of nationalism or support of political devolution.
In Norwegian, for example, two parallel standard languages exist, one called Bokmål, based partly on the local pronunciation of Danish back when Norway was ruled by Denmark; and a second, called Nynorsk, based on a mixture of dialects from western Norway. While Italian contains dialects that vary from each other even more than the two versions of Norwegian do, there remains a single standard Italian; curiously, standard Italian is not based on the speech of the capital, Rome, but on the speech of Florence. In Spain, Standard Spanish is likewise not based on the speech of Madrid, but on the more northerly province of Valladolid.
Standard German is not based on a specific city or region but was developed over a process of several hundred years, in which writers tried to write in a way that was understood in the largest area. Until about 1800 Standard German was almost entirely a written language. In this time, people in northern Germany, who spoke Low German dialects very different from Standard German, learnt it almost like a foreign language. They tried to pronounce it as close to the spelling as possible. Later this spoken form spread southward; in some regions (such as around Hanover) the local dialect completely died out.
The basic structure and words in standard Finnish are largely based on Western Finnish. One reason is that Mikael Agricola, who conceived the written language in the 1500's, was from Turku, the capital at the time. However, the language was consciously developed further to become a fusion of dialects and a "logical" language for "proper" written text. One aim was national unification, in accordance to the nationalistic principle . Another was regularity and consistency, even if it goes against the general usage. For example, ruoka becomes ruoan in standard language, when the pronounciation is ruuan. The standard language became a homogenizing force on the dialects, when mobility of the work force increased, creating the language of generic spoken Finnish.
Other standard languages present fewer complicating factors. The pre-eminence of Parisian French has reigned largely unchallenged throughout the history of recent French literature. In British English, the standard Received Pronunciation is based on the language of the upper classes in the London area, and is based on the sociolect that comes out of the British private boarding schools. In the United States, there are variations of American English throughout but the General American accent is considered 'unofficial' because it is perceived as accentless by most Americans. Curiously, English has no official legal status in the United States as a whole; however, the languages that do have official recognition include Spanish and Hawaiian; Spanish is guaranteed equal treatment for legal purposes in the territories acquired by the United States from Mexico by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and Hawaiian enjoys similar status in Hawaii