In sociolinguistics, language variety-also called lect-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, register, jargon, and idiolect.
To understand the meaning of language varieties, it's important to consider how lects differ from standard English. Even what constitutes standard English is a topic of hot debate among linguists.
Standard English is a controversial term for a form of the English language that is written and spoken by educated users. For some linguists, standard English is a synonym for good or correct English usage. Others use the term to refer to a specific geographical dialect of English or a dialect favored by the most powerful and prestigious social group.
Varieties of language develop for a number of reasons: differences can come about for geographical reasons; people who live in different geographic areas often develop distinct dialects-variations of standard English. Those who belong to a specific group, often academic or professional, tend to adopt jargon that is known to and understood by only members of that select group. Even individuals develop idiolects, their own specific ways of speaking.
The word dialect-which contains "lect" within the term-derives from the Greek words dia- meaning "across, between" and legein "speak." A dialect is a regional or social variety of a language distinguished by pronunciation, grammar, and/or vocabulary. The term dialect is often used to characterize a way of speaking that differs from the standard variety of the language. Sarah Thomason of the Linguistic Society of America notes:
"All dialects start with the same system, and their partly independent histories leave different parts of the parent system intact. This gives rise to some of the most persistent myths about language, such as the claim that the people of Appalachia speak pure Elizabethan English."
Certain dialects have gained negative connotations in the U.S. as well as in other countries. Indeed, the term dialect prejudice refers to discrimination based on a person's dialect or way of speaking. Dialect prejudice is a type of linguicism-discrimination based on dialect. In their article "Applied Social Dialectology," published in "Sociolinguistics: An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society," Carolyn Temple and Donna Christian observe:
"… dialect prejudice is endemic in public life, widely tolerated, and institutionalized in social enterprises that affect almost everyone, such as education and the media. There is limited knowledge about and little regard for linguistic study showing that all varieties of a language display systematicity and that the elevated social position of standard varieties has no scientific linguistic basis."
Due to this kind of dialectic prejudice, Suzanne Romaine, in "Language in Society," notes: "Many linguists now prefer the term variety or lect to avoid the sometimes pejorative connotations that the term 'dialect' has."
Register is defined as the way a speaker uses language differently in different circumstances. Think about the words you choose, your tone of voice, even your body language. You probably behave very differently chatting with a friend than you would at a formal dinner party or during a job interview. These variations in formality, also called stylistic variation, are known as registers in linguistics.
They are determined by such factors as social occasion, context, purpose, and audience. Registers are marked by a variety of specialized vocabulary and turns of phrases, colloquialisms, the use of jargon, and a difference in intonation and pace.
Registers are used in all forms of communication, including written, spoken, and signed. Depending on grammar, syntax, and tone, the register may be extremely rigid or very intimate. You don't even need to use an actual word to communicate effectively. A huff of exasperation during a debate or a grin while signing "hello" speaks volumes.
Jargon refers to the specialized language of a professional or occupational group. Such language is often meaningless to outsiders. American poet David Lehman has described jargon as "the verbal sleight of hand that makes the old hat seem newly fashionable; it gives an air of novelty and specious profundity to ideas that, if stated directly, would seem superficial, stale, frivolous, or false."
George Packer describes jargon in a similar vein in a 2016 article in the New Yorker magazine:
“Professional jargon-on Wall Street, in humanities departments, in government offices-can be a fence raised to keep out the uninitiated and permit those within it to persist in the belief that what they do is too hard, too complex, to be questioned. Jargon acts not only to euphemize but to license, setting insiders against outsiders and giving the flimsiest notions a scientific aura.”
Pam Fitzpatrick, a senior research director at Gartner, a Stamford, Connecticut-based research and advisory firm specializing in high tech, writing on LinkedIn, puts it more bluntly:
"Jargon is waste. Wasted breath, wasted energy. It absorbs time and space but does nothing to further our goal of persuading people to help us solve complex problems."
In other words, jargon is a faux method of creating a sort of dialect that only those on this inside group can understand. Jargon has social implications similar to dialect prejudice but in reverse: It is a way of making those who understand this particular variety of language more erudite and learned; those who are members of the group that understands the particular jargon are considered smart, while those on the outside are simply not bright enough to comprehend this kind of language.
Types of Lects
In addition to the distinctions discussed previously, different types of lects also echo the types of language varieties:
- Regional dialect: A variety spoken in a particular region.
- Sociolect: Also known as a social dialect, a variety of language (or register) used by a socioeconomic class, a profession, an age group, or any other social group.
- Ethnolect: A lect spoken by a specific ethnic group. For example, Ebonics, the vernacular spoken by some African-Americans, is a type of ethnolect, notes e2f, a language-translation firm.
- Idiolect: According to e2f, the language or languages spoken by each individual. For example, if you are multilingual and can speak in different registers and styles, your idiolect comprises several languages, each with multiple registers and styles.
In the end, language varieties come down to judgments, often "illogical," that are, according to Edward Finegan in "Language: Its Structure and Use":
"… imported from outside the realm of language and represent attitudes to particular varieties or to forms of expression within particular varieties."
The language varieties, or lects, that people speak often serve as the basis for judgment, and even exclusion, from certain social groups, professions, and business organizations. As you study language varieties, keep in mind that they are often based on judgments one group is making in regard to another.