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Review of  Standardsprache und Variation

Reviewer: Vitek Dovalil
Book Title: Standardsprache und Variation
Book Author: Christa Dürscheid Jan Georg Schneider
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Subject Language(s): German
Issue Number: 31.1254

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The publication under review is a booklet which provides students with an introduction to, and a brief overview of, the field of variation and standard language. This complex topic pertains to prominent sociolinguistic research areas. Consequently, writing a brief overview (96 pages) makes sensitive reductions of specific contents necessary. Therefore, both authors must have faced a particular challenge when they needed to carry out such simplifications.

The book is divided into 7 chapters, which goes hand in hand with the cover announcing that readers get “7 important points for a successful start into the topic” in their hands. References and index are added.

The first chapter raises the crucial question for the whole book – what is standard language? The authors try to answer this question by pointing out such conceptual features as ‘normal practice’, ‘being used without doubts or specific deliberation’ (p. 8), or ‘being default case’. Standard is broadly accepted in nationwide and rather formal contexts, and it is believed to be by no means salient. Related more specifically to language, the authors interconnect the standard with a possibility of communicating easily with people coming from different regions (p. 9). The notion of standard language is consistently viewed from the usage-based perspective. Additionally, standard language is put into educational contexts, which makes the normative components of this notion more visible (p. 10). Teaching and using written as well as spoken standard language is a part of school curricula.

Chapter two contains a historical overview of shaping standard German. The authors refer to the prominent role of written language in this process. This is interwoven with the codification of spelling as the most binding part of all codified subsystems of German. However, the authors also deal with the codification of pronunciation, showing numerous differences between these two fields.

Standard language ideologies and their effects are the topic of Chapter Three. It begins with the issue of correctness derived from written language bias, which manifests itself in the popular language criticism. One of the problems consists in the fact that the written standard is usually misconceived as a benchmark for the spoken standard (p. 27). Hence, various inadequate evaluations of spoken variants can often be found. Moreover, standard language ideology with its homogenizing effects gives rise to discrimination. Regardless of such undesirable phenomena, the authors admit that standard language is endowed with significant social capital. This pushes speakers to adapt towards language norms (p. 33).

The fourth chapter is devoted to written and spoken standard German. First, the question as to what extent the written standard can be taken for a “leading variety” is discussed. The authors hark back to the written basis of standard German. They also refer to the fact that modern technologies and electronic corpora containing large amounts of texts with billions of words make written data sources easily available. Sophisticated software tools enable various kinds of analyses. Due to the language corpora, empirical evidence of grammatical and lexical structures as well as spelling has become easily attainable since the 1990s, particularly as far as the written language use is concerned. Dealing with peculiarities of the spoken standard, the authors consistently argue against the simplistic position according to which the written standard could (or even should?) be considered the benchmark for the spoken standard. High frequencies of specific structures occurring in the spoken language are the main criterion for classifying such structures as standard.

Chapter Five concentrates on the concept of norm. Language norms are defined as rules which are recorded in grammars, dictionaries, or other guidebooks (p. 49). Norms may have prescriptive character. A distinction between subsistent and set norms (“subsistent” vs. “statuiert” in German) is drawn, and a close tie between norms and codification is sketched. Codices are explained as reference books which help language users solve disputes concerning what is, or is not, a part of standard language (p. 52). An important part of this chapter is devoted to the relation between the norm and the system.

Variation, variants and varieties are the core of the sixth chapter. In a preliminary note, the authors raise a question if there is a difference between ‘linguistics of varieties’ (Varietätenlinguistik in German) and ‘variationist linguistics’ (as well as sociolinguistics). The conclusion is not unequivocal. However, what is clear is the authors’ conceptualization of sociolinguistics as variationist sociolinguistics only (p. 67). Referring to Labov as the distinguished expert of this paradigm, the authors point out the correlative approach with its interconnections between linguistic (dependent) and extralinguistic (independent) variables. Afterwards, various dimensions of language variation are presented.

The diatopic dimension is presented in the last chapter. Dialects as varieties based on the territorial criterion are contrasted with standard varieties. Importantly enough, the authors do not claim that there would be only one standard variety of German. The pluricentric and/or pluriareal nature of standard German is discussed, which shows the relevance of the diatopic dimension for this variety as well, not only for dialects as non-standard varieties. In the second part of this chapter, empirical data showing the distribution of several grammatical and lexical variants in the German-speaking area are offered. As a challenge for future research, diatopic variation in communication routines (coined as pragmatic standards) is discussed on the last pages.


The reader gets a practical and transparent introductory format, the purpose of which is to inform those interested in variation and standard language. Admittedly, this format necessarily requires complex topics to be simplified. The authors succeeded in part, by covering the quantitative approach to this field. One would get an impression that high frequencies are almost the sole criterion for a variant to be considered as standard, or that standard languages and their norms can be found in the corpora (or more specifically in the relevant genres of texts) objectively. Passage 3.2 approaching (standard) language as symbolic capital, which hints at the qualitative perspective, is too brief to let the reader know that norms have to do with agency, including unequal power relations of speakers with their various social roles. Mentions of negotiating norms – in interactions – are missing, including the decision-making processes. The undoubtedly legitimate introductory question “what is standard language” could have been reconsidered critically from the methodological point of view at least in one separate chapter. Admittedly, this framework question looks understandable and “objective” at first glimpse, just like the results drawing upon the quantitative approach with the empirical evidence coming from large corpora (e.g. on p. 38). However, a more specific question “who decides about what is standard language, in interactions with whom, how, in which social contexts, and with which consequences etc.” should also have been raised.

From the sociological point of view, this complementary question is more differentiated and it contains the elements which make the dynamic nature of standard languages in social contexts more apparent. Such an alternative perspective would not have caused confusion. Rather, it would have bolstered the desirable sensitivity to this important issue, which appears very relevant for arguing against the one-sided standard language ideology and its discriminatory effects (e.g. in terms of König’s recommendations in Chapter 3). At the same time, this complementary question would indicate that language corpora, no matter how practical and important they may be, can hardly represent the exclusive data source when standard languages – and even less standard language ideologies – are explored.

Actually, the concept of ‘standard’ based on frequencies corresponds to what was designated as language use, or ‘usus’ many decades ago (e.g. in the Prague School, but not only there). There is no special advantage in overlaying or even replacing the language use with standard, because standard languages are not entirely free of evaluative components (unlike usus). Similar to corpus frequencies, many other social phenomena also occur frequently, e.g. using cell phones when driving a car, biking through a red light, shoplifting etc. However, they are by no means classified as standard. In other words: mere facticity does not bring about normative effects under all circumstances. More differentiated qualitative questions are required when norms as social phenomena are supposed to be analyzed adequately.

One point concerning the authors’ work with some references appears remarkable in connection with this issue. Discussing language norms (Chapter 5) from the quantitative point of view, the authors refer to Gloy’s (2004 and 2012) approach among others. Interestingly enough, Gloy does NOT prefer the quantitative approach based on frequencies. Just on the contrary: he argues that high frequencies are to be interpreted only as a reference to a potentially underlying norm, not to the norm as such yet (Gloy 2004: 396). These high frequencies allow the linguists to formulate only a preliminary hypothesis which remains to be proven. Instead of preferring the frequencies, which may miss the target, Gloy (2004: 392) conceives language norms as deontic contents (= obligations) which effectively regulate language use as well as language expectations – especially the normative expectations, which are not given up even though social reality does not correspond to them. Hence, language norms as contents of consciousness cannot be derived from the language use immediately. Regulatory effects must be observable in the actors’ behavior. In other words: standard languages as well as language norms are both metalinguistic in nature. It means that norms of standard languages neither exist, nor can be found in (written as well as spoken) texts of the object language. Both subsistent, and set norms (“statuierte Normen” in German) do depend on social actors’ behavior towards language, i.e. on their metalinguistic activities. This also has to do with the other reference to Gloy (2012, in the publication under review on p. 48 or p. 50), which is not quantitatively oriented either. Here, norms correspond to ‘interpretative processes of reception’ (“interpretierende Rezeptionsprozesse” in German, see Gloy 2012: 32). Adequately to this way of thinking, decision-making processes conducted by social actors with unequal power are a necessary data source to analyze standard languages (Gloy 2004: 394; Dovalil 2015).

It cannot be ruled out that a teacher (or any other language norm authority with sufficient power) will negatively evaluate a variant which occurs quite frequently in various newspaper texts. It may simply happen that such a teacher will rely on his/her intuition and act without exact information about the frequency (or codification) of the respective variant in his/her daily practice. Despite this lack of knowledge, s/he will (have to?) make an inadequate decision repeatedly in individual situations anyway. Which consequences might this behavior have for pupils? Specific variants will be imposed on them until these pupils find out some day that another variant is used equally (or even more?) often, or that it is also codified in grammars as standard. Or, they will not find it out at all and will further live with their “teacher’s variant” as the only appropriate one. Notwithstanding any further details – as for the social experience of these pupils at school at the micro-level, they will enjoy success for a period of time with their “teacher’s variant”, no matter how subjective or inadequate this teacher’s original decision may have been. Such patterns of behavior are not rare at all, but they are not covered by the quantitative approach. Hence, metalinguistic data sources should not be entirely neglected. And that is why it makes sense to distinguish between the standard on the one hand, and the language use (usus – as recorded e.g. in the corpora) on the other.

Overall: the methodology of the research on standard language remains the most difficult question, going beyond the book under review, of course. Most researchers cope with the dynamics and the metalinguistic character of discourses in which standard languages are shaped. A tool is needed that would describe these processes and would help to operationalize the qualitative theoretical frames including the micro-macro-linkage (for more details see Fairbrother & Nekvapil & Sloboda 2018, or the web This also applies to the more systematic consideration of the role of various social actors (and their networks) participating in these processes (institutions and norm authorities with their power, the ways of imposing the power on other participants etc., see Dovalil 2013). Apart from these approaches, experimental studies related to language de/standardization are yet another method (see Kristiansen & Grondelaers 2013). Hence, I would plea for employing both quantitative, and qualitative approaches even in the publications of introductory character. The book under review provides the reader primarily with the quantitative approach to this issue at the macro-level only.

On the other hand, this affordable publication contains a transparent and a well understandable presentation of the topic. The authors succeeded in enhancing the value of the book by adding several exercises at the end of each chapter. Solutions are available online. The book also offers important references. And last, but not least – not only students will certainly appreciate the practical and comfortable format of the book that can be put into a pocket and studied not only in libraries.


Dovalil, Vít. 2015. The German Standard Variety at Czech Universities in the Light of Decision-making Processes of Language Management. In Davies, Winifred & Evelyn Ziegler (eds.). Language Planning and Microlinguistics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 83-102.

Dovalil, Vít. 2013. Zur Auffassung der Standardvarietät als Prozess und Produkt von Sprachmanagement. In Hagemann, Jörg, Wolf Peter Klein & Sven Staffeldt (eds.). Pragmatischer Standard. Tübingen: Stauffenburg. 163-176.

Fairbrother, Lisa, Nekvapil, Jiří & Marián Sloboda (eds.). 2018. The Language Management Approach: A Focus on Research Methodology (Prague Papers on Language, Society and Interaction 5). Berlin: Peter Lang.

Gloy, Klaus. 2012. Empirie des Nichtempirischen. Sprachnormen im Dreieck von Beschreibung, Konstitution und Evaluation. In Günthner, Susanne, Wolfgang Imo, Dorothee Meer & Jan Georg Schneider (eds.). Kommunikation und Öffentlichkeit. Sprachwissenschaftliche Potenziale zwischen Empirie und Norm. Berlin & Boston: Walter de Gruyter. 23-40.

Gloy, Klaus. 2004. Norm. In Ammon, Ulrich, Norbert Dittmar, Klaus J. Mattheier & Peter Trudgill (eds.). Sociolinguistics. An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society. Vol. 3. 1. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter. 392-399.

Kristiansen, Tore & Stefan Grondelaers (eds.). 2013. Language (De)standardisation in Late Modern Europe: Experimental Studies. Oslo: Novus Press.
Vít Dovalil deals with German grammar, language norms, processes of standardization and language management theory. He also researches language policy and planning in the European Union including the case law concerning the language-related disputes. He has worked at the Department of Germanic Studies at Charles University in Prague as well as at the Department of German Linguistics at Albert-Ludwigs-University in Freiburg im Breisgau. For more details see and