Pluricentric Languages – What are they?

Pluricentric Languages

Written by Kristina Temelkova

I'm from Stara Zagora, Bulgaria and I'm currently pursuing an English degree at the University of Vienna. My lifelong passions are languages and writing. I speak English, Bulgarian, German and Russian.

September 1, 2021

Have you ever heard of pluricentric languages?

Languages are like living creatures – they don’t simply exist. Instead, languages constantly evolve – the wider a language is spoken, the more it changes.

Interestingly, this is how different varieties of the same language have developed.

For instance, the French spoken in France is not the same as the French spoken in the Canadian province of Quebec.

Does that make them two separate languages, though?

No, not really. Two French varieties mean that French (as many other languages) is a pluricentric language.

Not sure what pluricentric languages are? Keep reading, and by the end of this blog, you will be an expert on the topic!

1. What does “pluricentric languages” mean?

The term “pluricentric languages” is used to describe “languages with several interacting centres, each providing a national variety with at least some of its own (codified) norms“.

In other words, pluricentric languages are languages that have at least two different varieties in different places. However, despite having developed on their own, these varieties have kept certain features (also called “codified norms“) in common.

American and British Flag

An example of a pluricentric language would be English with its British and American varieties.

These are two different varieties of the English language which have a common interacting centre (the UK).

It was the British people who brought English to America centuries ago. Thus, the variety we now call American English has developed independently from its British variant through the years.

Still, these two varieties have many codified norms in common – grammar, script, vocabulary (to some extent), etc.

2. Criteria for pluricentric languages

Linguists use the following criteria to assess whether a language is pluricentric. It is important to point out that pluricentric language should meet at least one criterion.

If all these criteria are fulfilled, one can claim that full pluricentric has been achieved.

  1. Occurrence. A language should exist in more than one locale.
  2. Linguistic distance. The variety should showcase certain linguistic features that distinguish it from the other varieties.
  3. Status. The language must have official status as a state (e.g. German in Germany) or co-state language (e.g. German, French and Italian in Switzerland), or it should be at least a regional language (e.g. Italian in the region of South Tyrol in Austria).
  4. This official status (rather than a status of a minority language, for instance) implies that a language has a greater influence and is spoken over wider territories by a larger number of speakers. All these are decisive factors in determining a norm-setting centre.
  5. Acceptance of pluricentric. Speakers should regard their language as a variety of a pluricentric language and as part of their national (or/ and social) identity.
  6. Relevance for identity and awareness about its function for identity is available. The variety should be accepted as a national norm relevant to the community’s national identity. What’sWhat’s more, this national identity is strongly attached to the variety and thus, has led to its own codified or standardized norms.
  7. Codification. The variety should be standardized through state institutions. Codification also happens through the publishing of official grammar books, dictionaries, etc.
  8. Taught at schools. The variety is promoted and disseminated in the community.

 3. What are the Pluricentric languages?

You will be surprised how many languages are classified as pluricentric according to the criteria mentioned above. Here is a full list:

 Pluricentric languages


The Tamil language is a very interesting case of pluricentric. The language is spoken in India, Singapore, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. In all of these countries, Tamil has an official status and is taught at schools.

Pluricentric Languages - Tamil Speakers


However, two main varieties can be distinguished – Sri Lankan and Indian Tamil. Both of these varieties differ in spelling, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.

For instance, in Sri Lankan Tamil, there are significantly more loan words than in Indian due to the impact of purism in India (a practice that aims to purify the language from loan words).

Interestingly, the Tamil language was brought to Sri Lanka by the Indian people. However, the development of these two varieties has happened mainly due to political processes.

Since the governments of Sri Lanka and India function independently, these two varieties have developed more or less on their own. Hence, the many differences between them.

4. Implications of pluricentric languages

Pluricentric languages have a very paradoxical nature – they can unify and divide people. These Implications mean that people are unified in a community when speaking a language.

However, the developed national norms and cultural markers through which they identify separate people into different groups.

For instance, Spanish speaking people can be united under the notion of the Spanish-speaking community;

However, the different varieties of Spanish (Spain Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Latin American Spanish, etc.) divide people into separate groups (or, in some cases, nations).

Also Read: An Introduction to Universal Spanish

pluricentric languages - Spanish language


In addition, national identity is strongly attached to the national language or, in pluricentric languages, the national variety of a language.

Indeed, pluricentric has been discussed for a long time by several linguists. Many regard this phenomenon as ” a deviation from the centre”.

This viewpoint implies there has been a single language (centre), and many varieties have developed via the expansion of the language to new territories where it has evolved independently from its centre.

Generally, it can be claimed that pluricentric languages result from economic, historical or/ and political processes.

For instance, Spain’s colonization of South America has made most of the ingenious languages on the continent instinct.

Instead, today we can talk about Mexican Spanish, Latin American Spanish, etc. All these Spanish varieties are deviations from the centre – the Spanish spoken by the Spanish colonizers.

Also Read: The Prevalence of the Spanish Language Within the US

5. Pluricentircity as a challenge for translators and interpreters

Get to know the differences between pluricentric languages before we dig into the challenges which pluricentric languages pose for translators and interpreters:

  • Objectively important and thus, affect comprehension (e.g. earrings in Argentina are called aro vs in Colombia arete vs in Spain pendiente).
  • Subjectively important and hence, does not affect comprehension (e.g. recognize (British English) vs recognize (American English)).

When working with a pluricentric language, the linguist must take into consideration both of these aspects.

In the case of objectivity, the translator should make sure they use the right terminology and vocabulary so that the reader would have no difficulties understanding the text.

They should not use words from the other varieties since these might lead to misunderstanding.

For instance, in European French, chariot means a car, while in Canadian French, char is used to refer to an automobile. This little detail can cause a lot of confusion, so a translator must be careful!

Also Read: Italian vs French: How Different and Similar are these Languages?

How can a translator handle pluricentric languages?

The subjective aspect of translation depends on the attitudes toward the speakers/ the language/ the culture, etc., of a particular variety.

Thus, a translator should be careful about the vocabulary and terminology and the grammar, orthography, and, in the case of interpreters, the pronunciation.

What’s more, and the text should be translated with all the cultural nuances and norms that the speakers have adopted.

To ensure no mistakes, a translator can always rely on glossaries, style guides or pronunciation guides. They can use existing resources, or the client might invest in developing such glossaries and guides for their project.

Such resources can make a world of difference to translators and, thus, positively influence the output in terms of quality and precision.

Also Read: How To Recruit The Right Translator

In conclusion

No doubt, pluricentric languages are tricky! However, to ensure that the client would be fully satisfied with the translator’s services, one very important yet quite simple rule is to discuss everything!

An open and honest discussion can save both sides a lot of time and effort. Before that, however, the client should decide which market they want to expand to.

Then they can proceed to discuss all the details and implications with the translator.

On the other hand, translators are expected to have expertise in the specific variety/ varieties they work with.

This ensures they are well-acquainted with the linguistic features and the cultural norms and beliefs of the locale and hence, can successfully fulfil both the subjective and objective aspects of the translation work.

If you need help with the translating to pluricentric languages, contact us.


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