Types of Language

Many languages have a "high" or classical version and a "low" or colloquial or common version e.g. High German (Hochdeutsch) and various other forms like Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch) and Low German (Plattdeutsch). In Arabic there is the distinction between classical Arabic used in Koran and colloquial Arabic used in the market place and the home. Typically a high version of a language is used in formal speech and writing whilst the low form is used in ordinary conversation. The use of the low form is deemed inappropriate and sometimes humorous in the context of a high form.

In many languages there is a distinction made between archaic and contemporary forms. Archaic forms can be preserved in the speech of some groups and legal terms and liturgy and retain status in those functions, whilst the contemporary language is used by most people. In English archaic language is preserved in legal terms, in the hymnody, liturgy and Bibles of many churches, and on state occasions.

In many languages there is a distinction made between language used when addressing people in a polite or formal way and addressing people in a familiar or informal way. Distinctions are made in standard French tu/vous, German du/Sie and Welsh ti/chwi etc. The distinction exists in archaic English with thou/you. Unusually amongst languages modern English has dropped the familiar form of you (thou) and only uses the polite form (you). However the thou form survives in poetry, hymns and dialect.

Typically the polite form is used with superiors, older people, and strangers whilst familiar forms are used with friends, family and younger people. However in what circumstances the polite or familiar forms are used varies from culture to culture and varies with social trends. In recent times many cultures have had a trend towards informality.


All languages change over time. This is caused by the influence of other languages, by fashion and by changes in society. New words arise to meet demand for new inventions, objects or concepts. Language change is unpredictable e.g. some languages lose inflections, whilst other languages gain them. Changes can occur in grammar, spelling, vocabulary, pronunciation or word order. Sometimes rapid language change can lead to unintelligibility, ambiguity and social division, this is most common in changes in slang. Attempts to "fix" a language are seldom, if ever, successful.

Some scholars have felt that the best way to look after their languages is to set up an "academy" to regulate it. Among the first academies were those of the Masoretes at Tiberias in the holy land and Sura in Babylonia. At this time untaught Jews could no longer read Hebrew and the academies were set up to preserve the language of the Scriptures.

The first modern academy was the Italian Academy in 1582. Later others followed e.g. the French Academy in 1635, the Spanish Academy in 1713 and more recently the Hebrew Academy in 1953. There is no language academy for English.

Academies are unsuccessful in stemming the tide of language change although they are sometimes successful in introducing spelling reforms as happened in Dutch and Estonian. Recently the German, Swiss and Austrian governments have passed laws to simplify German grammar and spelling, which is having a mixed response. In 1977 the French banned the use of English loan words for official contexts, if an equivalent word exists in French. Such laws rarely succeed unless they have grassroots support.

Some languages die because their status alters in society e.g. Manx on the Isle of Man in the nineteenth century. Where a language is not used in workplace or education it is seen as a handicap and there is an economic incentive for people to switch language, as happened in nineteenth century Ireland when people switched from Gaelic to English.
Other languages die because the group that spoke that language die out, as happened with some American Indian languages e.g. in the nineteenth century there are though to have been about a thousand Indian languages in Brazil but today it is thought to be about 200.
Some languages continue to be used because they retain a status in a particular context e.g. liturgical languages such as Syriac, Coptic, Church Slavonic or Latin. Occasionally a dead language is resurrected and becomes an everyday language again such as Modern Hebrew or Cornish.


Popular usage often reserves the term 'language' for the major, prestigious speech forms of the world, and uses 'dialect' for everything else. Some people use 'language' to refer to speech forms that share a certain percentage of similar vocabulary, and 'dialect' to refer to speech forms that share higher percentages. Or they may consider varieties to constitute the same language which have similar grammatical and phonologic systems. Many people, including some linguists, use the terms 'language' and 'dialect' without always clarifying the sense in which they are being used.
Belorussian lady

Many languages exist on a dialect continuum where neighbouring languages are mutually understandable to their immediate neighbours but gradually less understandable with geographic distance. In Europe a monoglot Czech speaker has an extremely high mutual understandability within someone speaking Slovak, slightly less with Ruthenian, then slightly less still with Ukrainian, with mutual understandability generally decreasing with geography.

However dialect continua exist within language groups. For example within the Celtic language group Breton and Welsh have a high degree of mutual understandability whilst Welsh and English do not, even though English is spoken within Wales and Breton is not. The Scandinavian languages of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish all have a high degree of mutual undertsandability but none with the Scandinavian languages of Finnish and Lapp because they are not from the same Germanic language group.

In some languages the difference between language and dialect is clear-cut e.g. in English. However conflict exists where issues of national identity and language are mixed up. In some parts of the world national identity is tied up with what language e.g. someone speaking Bulgarian would be identified as being Bulgarian, but someone speaking English would not necessarily be identified as being English. Languages should not be used to establish ethnicity.
Sometimes two or more spoken varieties are mutually understandable but for political or historical reasons they are referred to as different languages e.g. Czech and Slovak. Books which once wrote about the Serbo-Croat language are now more likely to refer to Serbian and Croatian as separate languages because of political sensitivities.