A pluricentric language has multiple interacting standard varieties. Examples include English, French, Portuguese, German, Korean, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swedish, Armenian and Chinese. Monocentric languages, such as Russian and Japanese, have only one standardized version.
A standard variety is developed from a group of related varieties. This may be done by elevating a single variety, such as the local variety of a center of government or culture. Alternatively, a new variety may be defined as a selection of features from existing varieties. A fixed orthography is typically created for writing the variety. It may be codified in normative dictionaries and grammars, or by an agreed collection of exemplary texts. Whether these dictionaries and grammars are created by private individuals (like Webster's Dictionary) or by state institutions, they become standard if they are treated as authorities for correcting language. A fixed written form and subsequent codification make the standard variety more stable than purely spoken varieties, and provide a base for further development or ausbau. This variety becomes the norm for writing, is used in broadcasting and for official purposes, and is the form taught to non-native learners.
Through this process, the standard variety acquires prestige and a greater functional importance than local varieties. Those varieties are said to be dependent on, or heteronomous with respect to, the standard variety, because speakers read and write the standard, refer to it as an authority is such matters as specialist vocabulary, and any standardizing changes in their speech are towards that standard. In some cases, such as Standard English, this process may take place over an extended period without government intervention. In others it may be deliberately directed by official institutions, such as the Académie française or Real Academia Española, and can proceed much more quickly.
Language standardization is often linked to the formation, or attempted formation, of nation states, as language is seen as the vehicle of a shared culture. Different national standards derived from a dialect continuum may be regarded as different languages, even if they are mutually intelligible. The Scandinavian languages, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, are often cited as examples.
In other cases governments or neighbouring populations may seek to deny a standard independent status. In response, developers of a standard may base it on more divergent varieties. Thus after Norway became independent at the start of the 20th century, the Bokmål standard based on the speech of Oslo was felt to be too similar to Danish by Ivar Aasen, who developed a rival Nynorsk standard based on western varieties. Similarly, when a standard was developed in the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia from local varieties within a continuum with Serbia to the north and Bulgaria to the east, it was deliberately based on varieties from the west of the republic that were most different from standard Bulgarian. Now known as Macedonian, it is the national standard of the independent Republic of Macedonia, but viewed by Bulgarians as a dialect of Bulgarian.
Chinese consists of hundreds of local varieties, many of which are not mutually intelligible, usually classified into seven to ten major groups, including Mandarin, Wu, Yue, Hakka and Min. Before the 20th century, most Chinese spoke only their local variety. For two millennia, formal writing had been done in Literary Chinese (or Classical Chinese), a style modelled on the classics and far removed from any contemporary speech. As a practical measure, officials of the late imperial dynasties carried out the administration of the empire using a common language based on Mandarin varieties, known as Guānhuà (literally "speech of officials").
In the early 20th century, many Chinese intellectuals argued that the country needed a standardized language. By the 1920s, Literary Chinese had been replaced as the written standard by written vernacular Chinese, which was based on Mandarin dialects. In the 1930s, Standard Chinese was adopted, with its pronunciation based on the Beijing dialect, but with vocabulary also drawn from other Mandarin varieties and its syntax based on the written vernacular. It is the official spoken language of the People's Republic of China (where it is called Pǔtōnghuà "common speech") and of the Republic of China governing Taiwan (as Guóyǔ "national language"), and one of the official languages of Singapore (as Huáyǔ "Chinese language"). Standard Chinese now dominates public life, and is much more widely studied than any other variety of Chinese.