What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

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As a linguistics major in college I remember being taught that the question of what is a language versus a dialect is a political question rather than a linguistic one. This is indeed the case. Languages are held in high esteem by their speakers. Dialects are deemed to be less prestigious than the main language. Confusion between the terms arises from the fact that there is no clear distinction into what makes a language a language, or a dialect a dialect. For many American English speakers, regional accents are often considered to be dialects of English. For example, Southern speech is frequently referred to as “dialect” in just the same way as one would refer to British English. From a broader and politically-neutral perspective, a dialect can be considered to be any form of a language that is mutually intelligible to speakers of the same or related language. Therefore, American, British and Australian English would all be dialects of each other since the speakers of these three variations of English can essentially understand each other, apart from localized slang and expressions that often stump the listener.

However, the picture becomes a bit murkier as you consider closely-related languages such as Danish, Norwegian or Swedish. To varying degrees these three Scandinavian languages are mutually intelligible to speakers of the other languages. Political boundaries have defined them as separate languages and different orthographic rules have further modified their written forms.  Often in such cases speakers of one of the languages have much less difficulty understanding the other language. In fact, I used to teach English as a Second Language and would regularly hear Spanish and Portuguese speakers conversely with each other in their own language after class. The Brazilian Portuguese speakers told me that they had no problem whatsoever understanding the Spanish speakers, but the Spanish speakers often struggled to understand the Brazilians.

For political reasons, sometimes languages that are mutually unintelligible are considered to be the same language, as is the case with Chinese. China considers Cantonese and Mandarin to be the same language. In fact, these two languages do share the same writing system and use the same characters, but the spoken form of the languages is so different that the speakers are unable to understand each other without writing back and forth. In other cases, the exact same language is considered to be a separate language. Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are essentially the same language, called Serbo-Croatian during communist rule. Now for political reasons they are considered distinct languages. Serbian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, Croatian in the Latin alphabet and Bosnian in both. As languages and countries continue to evolve, what we now consider to be dialects may become languages or vice versa.

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About Bill Zart
I am a language translator, interpreter and business owner with a passion for all things related to language learning, teaching, translating and interpreting.

2 Responses to What is the difference between a language and a dialect?

  1. Rod Mitchell says:

    An excellent answer. The political use of “dialect”, “language” (and “patois” in French-influenced usage) depends on dominance – the official language(s) of a country aer languages, and everything else is either dialect or patois – even when the so-called dialect or patois is the dialect (linguistic sense) of the language of another country. An example is the Dutch/Flemish of Northwest France, trerated as a “patois” in France. The political division can also mean that (as Bill said), the same language can have two separate political entities, such as Dutch and Flemish, or better, Nederlands, as well as separate languages being lumped together (Mandarin, Cantonese, Taiwanese, etc.). We must always keep this in mind when people bandy statistics around of how many speakers of Chinese there are in the world. It is not actually the total of the population of Mainland China, Taiwan, and other places with significant Chinese minorities. True first-language speakers of Manadarin are a relatively small proportion of these, and probably Cantonese speakers outnumber them.

    The linguistic division is – as Bill said – depends on “mutual intelligibility”, which is a rough but effective guide, not without its problems, but still it works. The important thing to keep in mind, however, is the proviso of “previous contact”. If you hear someone speaking, and you have never heard that person’s way of speaking before is the important key. The English have a higher degree of ability to understand Scouse (Liverpool) partly because they have heard it all their lives, while Americans find this more difficult. If you understand the person reasonably well without having to actually learn how he/she speaks, then it is a dialect. If you have to learn to understand them, then it is a language. Very rough and ready, I know.

    Another “distinction” is that of writing/literature. Basically, by this measurement, if a “tongue” has a written form, it is a language. If not, it is a dialect. This is of course a distinction created by literate people more to give themselves superiority while putting others “down”. Not really political, but it blends very much into the political mould.

    The “politcal” measure potentially means that there are only between 100 to 200 “languages” in the world. The “lingusitic” measurement means that there are over 5000 langauges in the world. The “writing” measurement is getting close to, and mayber even passed, the 5000 mark, as linguists, anthropologists, bible translators, indigenous peropls themselves, and so on, develop literacy.

  2. fizna says:

    very good information

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