A literary language is a register or dialect of a language that is used in literary writing. This may also include liturgical writing. The difference between literary and non-literary forms is more marked in some languages than in others. Where there is a strong divergence, the language is said to exhibit diglossia.
Classical Latin was the literary register of Latin, as opposed to the Vulgar Latin spoken across the Roman Empire. The Latin brought by Roman soldiers to Gaul, Iberia, or Dacia was not identical to the Latin of Cicero, and differed from it in vocabulary, syntax, and grammar. Some literary works with low-register language from the Classical Latin period give a glimpse into the world of early Vulgar Latin. The works of Plautus and Terence, being comedies with many characters who were slaves, preserve some early basilectal Latin features, as does the recorded speech of the freedmen in the Cena Trimalchionis by Petronius Arbiter. At the third Council of Tours in 813, priests were ordered to preach in the vernacular language — either in the rustica lingua romanica (Vulgar Latin), or in the Germanic vernaculars — since the common people could no longer understand formal Latin.
Literary language is a register that is used in literary criticism and general discussion on some literary work. For much of its history there has been a distinction in the English language between an elevated literary language and a colloquial language. After the Norman conquest of England, for instance, Latin and French displaced English as the official and literary languages and Standard literary English did not emerge until the end of the Middle Ages. At this time and into the renaissance, the practice of aureation (the introduction of terms from classical languages, often through poetry) was an important part of the reclamation of status for the English language, and many historically aureate terms are now part of general common usage. Modern English no longer has quite the same distinction between literary and colloquial registers.
English has been used as a literary language in countries that were formerly part of the British Empire, for instance India up to the present day, Malaysia in the early twentieth century, and Nigeria, where English remains the official language.
Modern Standard Arabic is the contemporary literary and standard register of Classical Arabic used in writing across all Arabic-speaking countries and any governing body with Arabic as an official language. Many western scholars distinguish two varieties: the Classical Arabic of the Qur'an and early Islamic (7th to 9th centuries) literature; and Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), the standard language in use today. The modern standard language is closely based on the Classical language, and most Arabs consider the two varieties to be two registers of one and the same language. Literary Arabic or classical Arabic is the official language of all Arab countries and is the only form of Arabic taught in schools at all stages.
The sociolinguistic situation of Arabic in modern times provides a prime example of the linguistic phenomenon of diglossia—the use of two distinct varieties of the same language, usually in different social contexts. Educated Arabic speakers are usually able to communicate in MSA in formal situations. This diglossic situation facilitates code-switching in which a speaker switches back and forth between the two varieties of the language, sometimes even within the same sentence. In instances in which highly educated Arabic-speakers of different nationalities engage in conversation but find their dialects mutually unintelligible (e.g. a Moroccan speaking with a Kuwaiti), they are able to code switch into MSA for the sake of communication.
Standard Bengali has two forms:
- Choltibhasha, the vernacular standard based on the elite speech of Kolkata
- Shadhubhasha, the literary standard, which employs more Sanskritized vocabulary and longer prefixes and suffixes.
Grammatically, the two forms are identical and differing forms, such as verb conjugations, are easily converted from one form to another. However, the vocabulary is quite different from one form to the other and must be learned separately. Among the works of Rabindranath Tagore are examples of both shadhubhasha (especially among his earlier works) and choltibhasha (especially among his later works). The national anthem of India was originally written in the shadhu bhasha form of Bengali.
Literary Chinese, Wényánwén (文言文), "Literary Writing", is the form of written Chinese used from the end of the Han Dynasty to the early 20th century when it was replaced by vernacular written Chinese, or Baihua (白話). Literary Chinese diverged more and more from Classical Chinese as the dialects of China became more and more disparate and as the Classical written language became less and less representative of the spoken language. At the same time, Literary Chinese was based largely upon the Classical language, and writers frequently borrowed Classical language into their literary writings. Literary Chinese therefore shows a great deal of similarity to Classical Chinese, even though the similarity decreased over the centuries.
The Finnish language has a literary variant, literary Finnish, and a spoken variant, spoken Finnish. Both are considered a form of non-dialectal standard language, and are used throughout the country. Literary Finnish is a consciously created fusion of dialects for use as a literary language, which is rarely spoken at all, being confined to writing and official speeches.
German differentiates between Hochdeutsch/Standarddeutsch (Standard German) and Umgangssprache (colloquial language). Amongst the differences is the regular use of the genitive case or the simple past tense Präteritum in written language. In colloquial language one replaces genitive phrases ("des Tages") with a construction of "von" + dative object ("von dem Tag") - comparable to English "the dog's tail" vs. "the tail of the dog" - and the Präteritum ("ich ging") with the perfect ("ich bin gegangen") to a certain degree. Nevertheless the use of neither the Präteritum nor especially the genitive case is totally unusual in colloquial language, just quite rare, yet also depending on a region's dialect and/or the grade of education of the speaker. People of higher education use the genitive more regularly in colloquial language and the use of perfect instead of Präteritum is especially common in southern Germany, where the Präteritum is considered somewhat declamatory. The German Konjunktiv I / II ("er habe" / "er hätte") is also used more regularly in written form being replaced by the conditional ("er würde geben") in colloquial language, although in some southern German dialects the Konjunktiv II is used more often. Generally there is a continuum between more dialectical varieties to more standard varieties in German, while colloquial German nonetheless tends to increase analytic elements at the expense of synthetic elements.
From the early nineteenth century until the mid twentieth century Katharevousa, a form of Greek, was used for literary purposes. In later years, Katharevousa was used only for official and formal purposes (such as politics, letters, official documents, and newscasting) while Dhimotiki, ‘demotic’ or popular Greek, was the daily language. This created a diglossic situation until in 1976 Dhimotiki was made the official language.
When Italy was unified, in 1861, Italian existed mainly as a literary language. Different languages were spoken throughout the Italian peninsula, many of which were Romance languages which had developed in every region, due to the political fragmentation of Italy. Now it is the standard language of Italy.
Until the late 1940s, the prominent literary language in Japan was Classical Japanese language (文語 "Bungo"), which is based on the language spoken in Heian Period (Late Old Japanese) and is different from contemporary Japanese language in grammar and some vocabulary. It still has relevance for historians, literary scholars, and lawyers (many Japanese laws that survived World War II are still written in bungo, although there are ongoing efforts to modernize their language). Bungo grammar and vocabulary are occasionally used in modern Japanese for effect, and fixed form poetries like Haiku and Tanka are still mainly written in this form.
In the Meiji period, some authors started to use the colloquial form of the language in their literature. Following the government policy after the World War II, the standard form of contemporary Japanese language is used for most literature published since the 1950s. The standard language is based on the colloquial language in Tokyo area, and its literary stylistics in polite form differs little from its formal speech. Notable characteristics of literary language in contemporary Japanese would include more frequent use of Chinese origin words, less use of expressions against prescriptive grammar such as "ら抜き言葉", and use of non-polite normal form ("-だ/-である") stylistics that are rarely used in colloquial language.
Tagalog language was the basis of the Filipino. The Modern Tagalog language was derived from Archaic Tagalog During the Classical period, it was the language of the Mai State, Tondo Dynasty (according to the Laguna Copperplate Inscription) and the Southern Luzon, It was also the spoken language of the Philippine Revolution. Filipino and Tagalog share the same vocabulary and grammatical system and are mutually intelligible. However, there is a significant political and social history that underlies the reasons for differentiating between Tagalog and Filipino. It has a writing system called Baybayin, a syllabary which is a member of the Brahmic family.
The current constitution of the Philippines maintains that Filipino is the country’s national language as well as one of its official languages, alongside English. Today, Filipino is considered the proper term for the language of the Philippines, especially by Filipino-speakers who are not of Tagalog origin. Many Filipino-speakers acknowledge Filipino’s roots by referring to the Filipino language as “Tagalog-based" Native Tagalog-speakers continue to make up one of the largest linguistic and cultural groups of the Philippines, numbering an estimated 14 million native speakers. The Tagalog-based Filipino language is taught in schools throughout the Philippines and is the official language of education and business. 
Maltese has a variety of dialects (including the Żejtun dialect, Qormi dialect and Gozitan amongst others) that co-exist alongside Standard Maltese. Literary Maltese, unlike Standard Maltese, features a preponderance of Semitic vocabulary and grammatical patterns, however this traditional separation between Semitic and Romance influences in Maltese literature (especially Maltese poetry and Catholic liturgy on the island) is changing.
N'Ko is a literary language devised by Solomana Kante in 1949 as a writing system for the Mande languages of West Africa. It blends the principal elements of the mutually unintelligible Manding languages. The movement promoting N'Ko literacy was instrumental in shaping the Maninka cultural identity in Guinea, and has also strengthened the Mande identity in other parts of West Africa. N'Ko publications include a translation of the Qur'an, a variety of textbooks on subjects such as physics and geography, poetic and philosophical works, descriptions of traditional medicine, a dictionary, and several local newspapers.
Tamil exhibits a strong diglossia, characterised by three styles: a classical literary style modelled on the ancient language, a modern literary and formal style, and a modern colloquial form. These styles shade into each other, forming a diglossic continuum.
The modern literary style is generally used in formal writing and speech. It is, for example, the language of textbooks, of much of Tamil literature and of public speaking and debate. Novels, even popular ones, will use the literary style for all description and narration and use the colloquial form only for dialogue, if they use it at all. In recent times, however, the modern colloquial form has been making inroads into areas that have traditionally been considered the province of the modern literary style: for instance most cinema, theatre and popular entertainment on television and radio.
Kannada exhibits a strong diglossia, like Tamil, also characterised by three styles: a classical literary style modelled on the ancient language, a modern literary and formal style, and a modern colloquial form. These styles shade into each other, forming a diglossic continuum.
The formal style is generally used in formal writing and speech. It is, for example, the language of textbooks, of much of Kannada literature and of public speaking and debate. Novels, even popular ones, will use the literary style for all description and narration and use the colloquial form only for dialogue, if they use it at all. In recent times, however, the modern colloquial form has been making inroads into areas that have traditionally been considered the province of the modern literary style: for instance most cinema, theatre and popular entertainment on television and radio.
There are also many dialects of Kannada, one major dialect being Dharwad Kannada of North Karnataka.
Standard Yoruba is the literary form of the Yoruba language of West Africa, the standard variety learnt at school and that spoken by newsreaders on the radio. Standard Yoruba has its origin in the 1850s, when Samuel A. Crowther, native Yoruba and the first African Anglican Bishop in Nigeria, published a Yoruba grammar and started his translation of the Bible. Though for a large part based on the Ọyọ and Ibadan dialects, Standard Yoruba incorporates several features from other dialects. Additionally, it has some features peculiar to itself only, for example the simplified vowel harmony system, as well as foreign structures, such as calques from English which originated in early translations of religious works. The first novel in the Yorùbá language was Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale (The Forest of A Thousand Demons), written in 1938 by Chief Daniel O. Fagunwa (1903–1963). Other writers in the Yorùbá language include: Senator Afolabi Olabimtan (1932–1992) and Akinwunmi Isola.
- Classical language
- Official language
- Sacred language
- Standard language
- List of languages by first written accounts
- L. R. Palmer The Latin Language (repr. Univ. Oklahoma 1988, ISBN 0-8061-2136-X)
- Matti Rissanen, History of Englishes: New Methods and Interpretations in Historical Linguistics, Walter de Gruyter, 1992, p9. ISBN 3-11-013216-8
- Elaine M. Treharne, Old and Middle English C.890-c.1400: An Anthology, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pxxi. ISBN 1-4051-1313-8
- Pat Rogers, The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature, Oxford University Press, 2001, p3. ISBN 0-19-285437-2
- R.R.Mehrotra in Ofelia García, Ricardo Otheguy, English Across Cultures, Cultures Across English: A Reader in Cross-cultural Communication, Walter de Gruyter, 1989, p422. ISBN 0-89925-513-2
- David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p104. ISBN 0-521-53033-4
- LANGUAGE & LITERATURE>POETRY [aboutmalta.com]
- Oyler, Dianne White (1994) Mande identity through literacy, the N'ko writing system as an agent of cultural nationalism. Toronto : African Studies Association.
- Harold Schiffman, "Diglossia as a Sociolinguistic Situation", in Florian Coulmas (ed.), The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. London: Basil Blackwell, Ltd., 1997 at pp. 205 et seq.
- Cf. for example the following remark by Adetugbọ (1967, as cited in Fagborun 1994:25): "While the orthography agreed upon by the missionaries represented to a very large degree the phonemes of the Abẹokuta dialect, the morpho-syntax reflected the Ọyọ-Ibadan dialects".