Is it a language or a dialect?

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

What's the difference between a language and a dialect? Does everybody define them in the same way?

‘Language’ and ‘dialect’ are commonly used terms, but they are not so often clearly defined. We might think about dialects when discussing great linguistic diversity, such as in the Philippines, while languages are those that hold their own political ground, including any language with a country of a similar name (e.g., Italian in Italy or Russian in Russia). Perhaps you have experienced causing quite a scandal by misidentifying Spain’s ‘other languages’, including Catalan, Basque and Galician, as Spanish dialects. It sounds complicated. On that note, would linguists really consider the English of New Zealand or Canada to be a dialect?

For terms that are so often bandied about, it’s high time we investigate why these two terms are used in such different ways, and why their correct application is so important to speakers of certain languages.

The first thing to be aware of is that ‘languages’ and ‘dialects’ are defined in two different ways. These are the common-usage, used by the average non-linguist, and the technical, linguistic definitions.

The common-usage definition separates prevailing ‘languages’ from ‘dialects’, which seem to function as sub-languages. According to this understanding, dialects are the versions and varieties of languages that fly under the radar of officialdom in linguistically diverse places. In this way, we might say that the ‘languages’ are the key players and the ‘dialects’ are those local and unofficial systems that are allowed to exist in the gaps and overlaps. In the 1940s, the Russian Jewish linguist Max Weinreich publicised the quotation that ‘a language is a dialect with an army and navy’. Indeed, this layman’s system of definitions is steeped in power and politics.

The linguistic definition of ‘languages’ and ‘dialects’ is fundamentally different from the common definition. According to the official understanding, languages are generally distinguished as ‘mutually unintelligible’ from one another. For example, a conversation between monolingual speakers of German and English should not be understandable to the two speakers, even though the languages are historically linked. This unintelligibility shows that the systems are sufficiently distinct to be considered separate languages. However, it can be difficult to find the line between intelligibility and unintelligibility. Spanish and Portuguese share mutual intelligibility of about 50%. Even more surprisingly, Italian and Corsican are very much intelligible yet they are generally considered separate languages. In a moment, we will look further into the question of why mutually intelligible systems might be named as separate languages.

First, on the subject of dialects, these are linguistically defined as unique ‘versions’ of any given language. The Spanish language, for example, is spoken around the world and in many different countries. Each version of Spanish is a distinct dialect with its own set of structural features, such as the Spanish of Argentina, Colombia and El Salvador. The unique features of these varieties can be related to vocabulary, accents, or any other systems that make up language. There is no hierarchy in the identification of dialects. As much as we might call Honduran Spanish a dialect, we would also label the Spanish of Spain in the same way. These many dialects of Spanish are of equal value. None of them can be considered the ‘best’ or ‘most correct’ dialect, outside of recognising the most common or standard forms.

What, then, of Italian and Corsican? If any two systems are mutually intelligible, should they not be recognised as dialects of a single language? The linguistic definition of languages and dialects is also no stranger to pride and power. It is complicated by cultural, historical and political implications. A ‘language’ still holds important recognition that cannot be bestowed on a ‘dialect’. The Corsican language, spoken on the French island of Corsica, was once banned from education in an attempt to phase it out. The current recognition of Corsican as a distinct language is a necessary step in the process of its revival. To identify it as a dialect of Italian would only add further insult at a time when dignity is being restored through the re-establishment of a unique culture and history. The contentious definition of the Corsican language is almost an act of reparative justice. Other languages with even clearer distinction must sometimes work just as hard for recognition.

The Catalan language, spoken in the far east of Spain, is as distinct from Castilian (AKA ‘Spanish’) as is French or Italian. Nevertheless, it was the Castilian language that held the power to repress neighbouring languages and take all the glory, which it maintains today by reserved use of the name ‘Spanish’. The Catalonian region, of which Barcelona is the capital, is now undergoing a fiery movement for independence, with the Catalan language at its head. The Corsican and Catalan languages have arrived in their own ways at being classed as ‘languages’. Nevertheless, to speakers of either language, the differences between ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ are separated by more than a simple slip of the tongue.

As systems grow and change, the distinction of languages and dialects may be subject to revision. There was a time when the divergent streams of French, Italian and Catalan would all have been considered dialects of Latin. However, Latin is no longer a living language and, as French, Italian and Catalan have developed beyond mutual intelligibility, these are now defined as separate languages.

So, in linguistic terms, Australian and US English are both dialects of one language, as are the Englishes of New York and Hawaii. Meanwhile, Castilian, Catalan, Basque and Galician are all separate Spanish languages. Once we know the linguistic definitions, we can see why it matters what we call a language or a dialect.

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