All languages are dialects

January 28, 2012 at 4:07 pm Leave a comment

Listen to this interesting discussion here:

Following write-up is taken from:

Strange as it may seem, there’s no really good way to distinguish between a “language” and a “dialect.” Because they’re not objective, scientific terms. People use the words “dialect” and “language” to mean different things. “Language” can often refer to your own linguistic variety and “dialect” to the variety spoken by someone else, usually someone thought of as inferior. Or “language” can mean the generally accepted “standard” or radio-talk language of a country, while dialects are homely versions of it that vary from region to region and may not be pronounced the way the so-called “language” is. Language varieties are called “dialects” rather than “languages” because they’re not written, or because speakers of that variety don’t run the country, or because their language lacks prestige. In short, the distinction is subjective. It depends on who you are and where you sit.

From a linguistic perspective, no dialect is inherently better than another. For example, the emergence of Parisian dialect as the standard in France, was just a matter of history. When the 10th century king of France set up his residence in Paris, the language of his court became the “standard.” If things had gone differently, the dialect of Poitiers or Dijon might be the national language of France today.

Dialects can be socially determined, as Eliza Doolittle learned in My Fair Lady.

Or they can be politically determined. The linguist Max Weinreich is often quoted as saying, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” His point was that politics often decide what dialect will be called a “language.” Powerful or historically significant groups have “languages”; smaller or weaker ones have “dialects.”

Or the status of a language can be arbitrarily determined, by a person or a government. In southern Africa a missionary declared three separate languages to be a single tongue. He decided they were dialects of the same language and created what is now known as “Tsonga.” On the other end of the scale, the government of South Africa arbitrarily declared Zulu and a language called Xhosa to be different tongues, even though there’s no clear boundary between them.

Dialect differences are often relatively minor — maybe just a matter of pronunciation: “You say tomayto, I say tomahto.” There can be differences in words such as American English “elevator” and British English “lift”– which reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quip that America and Britain are: “two countries separated by a common language.” But dialects can also differ so greatly from one another — I’m thinking of German in Cologne versus the German of rural Bavaria — that speakers of the same language can barely understand one another, if at all.

One of the tests people use to differentiate “language” from “dialect” is mutual intelligibility. You can say that people speak the same language — or a dialect of the same language — if they understand each other. If they don’t understand one another, they must be speaking different languages. That seems like a good rule. So why, in a case like the Cologne and Bavarian dialects, which aren’t mutually intelligible, don’t the Germans call them separate languages? Or why are Swedish and Norwegian separate languages, when Swedes and Norwegians have no trouble understanding one another? It’s really pretty confusing.

It becomes even more muddled when speakers of Dialect A just don’t want to understand speakers of Dialect B. Dialects of the same language aren’t mutually intelligible, even though there’s no linguistic basis for that. The two groups insist that they speak separate tongues, even though they don’t.

So, do you conclude from all this that the terms “dialect” and “language” are politically and socially loaded? If so, you’re absolutely right.

Now let me ask: do you speak a language or a dialect? That’s a trick question, because ultimately, all languages are dialects. You no doubt speak one of each.

That’s the linguistic thought for today, which comes from Dr. Tucker Childs, professor of Linguistics at Portland State University. And this is the Five-Minute Linguist at the College of Charleston, in cooperation with the National Museum of Language. Visit us at And in the meantime, keep in mind that wherever you are, and whatever you do… language makes a difference.


Entry filed under: Athmallik, Balangir, Bargarh, Boudh, Deogarh, Jharsuguda, Kalahandi, Kosli language and literature, Language, Nuapada, Region watch, Sambalpur, Subarnapur, Sundergarh.

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