A common question in the language-learning world is “What is the difference between a language and a dialect?” There are many dictionary definitions of the term “dialect”.
- a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.
- a provincial, rural, or socially distinct variety of a language that differs from the standard language, especially when considered as substandard.
- a special variety of a language: The literary dialect is usually taken as the standard language.
- a language considered as one of a group that have a common ancestor: Persian, Latin, and English are Indo-European dialects.
These are really good definitions, since each definition considers the word “dialect” from several different points of view, yet the topic remains confusing. To better understand the idea of a language and a dialect, it is necessary to explore it within three different realms: linguistic, political, and socio-economic.
The terms dialect and language are useful within the field of linguistics. It helps linguists understand how, over time, languages evolve depending on cultural, religious, geographical and social factors. Experts have varying opinions when it comes to this topic and use ideas like mutual intelligibility and dialect continuums (below) to make their case. However, determinations of dialects versus languages are often made on a case-by-case basis.
- Mutual intelligibility
For linguistic purposes, one way to determine if languages are dialects of each other is if they are mutually intelligible. For example, Swedish and Norwegian are both Germanic languages so speakers of both languages can relatively understand each other. While they are considered dialects of each other, they are distinct languages with written forms and unique phonology (sounds) and lexicon (vocabulary). Compare this to speakers of Japanese and Hungarian. There is no mutual intelligibility and therefore, they would not be considered dialects of each other.
- Dialect Continuums
Linguists also use dialect continuums to help understand the difference and evolution of languages. To illustrate this point, think of a rainbow. A rainbow has eight distinct colors but putting a defining line between the red and the orange would be difficult, while red and green are more obvious distinctions. If you were to travel to Spain, you would weave your way in and out of multiple colors (languages) some of which are as obvious as the distinction between red and green and others as similar as indigo and violet. The point is that it is often hard to tell where a dialect ends, and a language begins (or vise-versa). A linguist’s job is to observe linguistic changes and explain why they happen instead of saying, “Well Italian is a language and Sicilian is just a dialect.” That would be silly, pointless, and potentially offensive. So linguistically, the words “language” and “dialect” are used to make distinctions.
The terms language and dialect can also have political implications. For example, national borders are often used as a way to distinguish linguistic boundaries. National identity can also play a role in determining what a language or dialect is. During the Spanish Civil War, for instance, Fransisco Franco and the nationalist party sought to wipe out linguistic variation from Spain and make Castilian the dominant language. During this time period, speaking other languages within Spain was either banned or discouraged depending on the area. People place a large part of their identity in the language they speak so to call Basque or Catalan a “dialect” could be offensive and evokes memories of Franco’s dictatorship. Sometimes, using the term dialect implies that it is “substandard” and can negate one’s linguistic experience. Often, elites recognize a national or standard language in order to solidify their prestige and increase their political power. This point ties well into observing language from a social and economic point of view.
A language that is the standard or norm of a particular region is often considered the language of prestige or high society. Those who have more formal education or are in positions of wealth and power usually set the standard for a particular language (politicians, media, professors, spokespeople). Speakers who differentiate in their speech could be considered speaking a dialect of the standard language. However, the dialect in which one speaks does not determine intelligence. For example, a speaker of AAV (African American Vernacular) should not be considered less intelligent than a speaker of Standard American English, yet social and economic class often can play a role in what is perceived as a language or a dialect.
Linguistically speaking, there is no “right” or “proper” language or dialect. No language or dialect is better than another. Next time you are considering the term “dialect” ask yourself if you are thinking about the term from a social, political or linguistic point of view.
I hope I could shed some light on this intricate topic. This is a hefty topic, and I just barely scratched the surface! I hope to write a more comprehensive guide on this topic in the future. If you’re still confused, I included my sources where you can find further reading. Often, this is a convoluted conversation between experts and language lovers alike, so keep a posture of curiosity and go on learning!