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What is a Prestige Dialect?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 September 2016
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A prestige dialect is a dialect spoken by people with the most prestige in a language community. The term “language community” is used to classify groups of people who speak a single language and its closely related dialects. For example, Britons are all part of the same language community, because they all speak English. Someone who speaks such a dialect is perceived to be of a higher social class than people who speak other dialects.

As a general rule, prestige dialects are associated with greater political, social, and economic power, and people who speak them are typically well-educated. While someone who does not speak this type of dialect is not necessarily poorly educated, he or she may face difficulties in the academic community, thanks to prejudicial attitudes about people who speak “regional” or “lesser” dialects.

One reasonably well-known example of a prestige dialect is Modern Standard Arabic, the form of Arabic which is spoken and written by educated Arab speakers. Modern Standard Arabic is also the dialect typically used on Arabic television and radio, with the goal of being accessible to the greatest number of viewers and listeners. However, for people who speak regional dialects of Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic can seem almost incomprehensible at times, because it is such a markedly different dialect.

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Other examples of prestige dialects include Standard Mandarin Chinese, and Parisian French. Often, these types of dialects are associated with an urban area, especially a capital. This is common in Latin America.

Linguistics researchers generally agree that the United States, rather remarkably, does not have a single prestige dialect, although numerous dialects of English are spoken in the United States, and some appear to be associated with higher social status than others. Some dialects of English do come close to having prestige status in the United States, but Americans do not universally accept a single dialect of English as particularly prestigious.

In classes where foreign languages are taught, teachers generally provide instruction in a prestige dialect, rather than another dialect. However, regional accents or turns of phrase sometimes creep in, or an instructor may provide information about regional dialects as a note of interest for curious students.

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