Project Strands

Strand 2

Standard languages, norms and variation: comparative perspectives in multilingual contexts

A standard language (SL) is closely tied to individual and group identities, can enhance social cohesion and democratic citizenship, and is a vehicle for cultural expression. According to established wisdom, SLs, codified in reference works, tend towards minimal variation and maximal uniformity. Mastery typically confers social capital, whilst changes to ‘good usage’ may be strongly contested. Research to date has focussed on SLs in notionally monolingual nations, notably in Europe.

We will explore how multilingualism has shaped and challenged SLs, past and present, in speech and writing, old and new media. Historical and synchronic analyses will draw comparisons between languages at different stages of standardization/de-standardization, in varied political and cultural contexts. We will examine the cultural status of SLs of different kinds: national and transnational (e.g. France/Francophonie), pluricentric (e.g. German), and languages vying with other languages/varieties on cultural, political and ideological grounds (e.g. Ukrainian, Irish, Mandarin).

We will create expertise in the comparative analysis of (de)standardization in multilingual contexts and so build ML research capacity in comparative historical and contemporary sociolinguistics. We will integrate work on European and non-European languages, including minoritized languages; this may require new theoretical paradigms. We ask:

  • What is a SL, especially in multilingual contexts? What historical, cultural, literary and social factors determine how SLs are understood by different constituencies, e.g. educators, learners, policymakers, professional and lay language users? How can SLs serve as a symbol of, or vehicle for, the expression of cultural, political or ideological identities in multilingual societies?
  • How important are SLs to minoritized languages? How can a standard help or hinder the promotion of such languages, especially where speakers are overwhelmingly multilingual (e.g. Punjabi, Irish - cf. S3)? How far does the imposition of SLs create cohesion or threaten diversity?
  • What role do SLs and non-standard varieties play in language education?

Our approach combines humanities methods (historiography, the history of ideas, close textual readings) with sociolinguistic and historical sociolinguistic methods (qualitative and quantitative). Sources will include interviews, surveys, policy documents, lay linguistic publications (e.g. netiquettes), grammars and language advice manuals. The core team will focus on European and Chinese contexts; conferences will allow comparison with other parts of Asia and Europe, generating a handbook on standardization. Laura Wright (Cambridge) will lead a workshop on the emergence of standard English in multilingual Britain; colleagues in Girona will run parallel studies on Catalan.

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