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What is the Difference between a Language and a Dialect?

September 23, 2011

Serbo-Croatian language flagAs 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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