There are quite a few words out there that refer to language. There’s language, of course, but also dialect, jargon, lingo, slang, patois, argot and vernacular. Sometimes, the terms are used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. There’s quite a bit of overlap between certain terms, but there are also important (if sometimes subtle) differences for both linguists and laypeople alike.
Picking apart what each of these words mean is a good way to appreciate the diversity of language. It also shows you how many of these neutral terms are used to disparage “non-standard” forms of language.
Defining Language And Language-Related Terms
Language — the word “language” is the most flexible of all the terms on this list, and also the hardest to define. You can use “language” to refer to the entire spectrum of human communication. Truly, any method of communication through spoken, gestured or written words is a language. Sometimes “language” is used to mean “standard language” — so when people say “English language,” they really mean the English they view as “correct” — but it’s better to think of language as the big umbrella under which all these other terms fall.
Dialect — parsing the differences between languages and dialects is a subject worthy of its own article. Used most generally, a dialect is a subset of a language. It’s often used to refer to regional ways of speaking — the Castilian dialect of Spanish, the Parisian dialect of French — but it doesn’t have to be based on geography. There can also be class dialects, gendered dialects and more. Often, non-linguists think of dialects as a non-standard or “incorrect” version of a standard language, but the word itself shouldn’t carry negative connotations. Everyone speaks a dialect of some sort.
Vernacular — the word “vernacular” as an adjective means something like “native” or “home-born.” It’s the language spoken or used by the people in a specific region. Vernacular is sometimes used to contrast with lingua franca; the lingua franca is the standard language people learn to communicate with other groups, while the vernacular is the language people use in their day-to-day life. “Vernacular language” is also sometimes directly contrasted with “standard language,” meaning it’s a less “prestigious” way of communicating. One of the most common uses of the word today is referring to African American Vernacular English. The word “Vernacular” is included here to specify that this is the native dialect for many African Americans, and is distinct from the other varieties of the language that might be spoken by this group of people.
Jargon — the word “jargon” comes from an Old French word meaning “a chattering of birds.” In some of its older uses, jargon referred to incomprehensible speech. Today, it refers to the special vocabulary used by a certain group of people. Most often, it refers to job-specific vocabulary — the technical terms used by lawyers, pilots, politicians, etc. — but non-professional groups can also have their own jargon.
Argot — an argot is similar to a jargon, in that it’s a language specific to a certain group of people. The difference is that while a jargon is difficult to understand because it’s technical, an argot is difficult to understand because the people using it don’t want you to understand. The word argot in French originally referred to the language used by Parisian criminals. Other terms for the same concept are “cant” and “anti-language.”
Lingo — the word “lingo” comes from the Latin lingua, and it originally meant “foreign speech.” Today, lingo is almost as flexible a word as “language” itself, and it can refer to a foreign language, a group’s jargon or even the way one specific person speaks. It’s not a scientific term.
Slang — while this word at first meant “the special vocabulary of tramps and thieves,” it’s expanded to mean any non-standard vocabulary used by any group of people. In particular, it’s used to refer to the new words and phrases invented by young people. “Slang” is often used derogatorily — particularly when used to describe the vocabulary invented and used by minority groups — but the invention of new terms has forever been a way for language to shift and evolve.
Patois — this word comes to English by way of French, where it referred to the regional dialect of a people, particularly the “uneducated.” The meaning has expanded to the point where pretty much any language, dialect or vernacular that isn’t the standard can be called a “patois,” though this still sometimes carries elitist connotations. The word also appears in the term Jamaican Patois, which is the name of an English-based creole spoken in Jamaica.
Pidgin — pidgins and creoles are also complex topics that need a full article to explore, but they’re worth including here because they’re often lumped in with other linguistic terms. A pidgin is a rudimentary language used when there is no shared language between various groups of people. They tend to have a small vocabulary and simple grammar.
Creole — if a pidgin used by a group of people lasts for so long that it’s passed down to the next generation, it becomes a creole. When a pidgin “creolizes,” the vocabulary expands and the grammar becomes more complex, so that the creole is able to communicate in more complex ways than a pidgin. Because a creole is created through the merging of two other languages, they’re sometimes treated as derivative of or lesser than their parent languages, but creoles are full languages.