The Difference Between Language and Dialect: Who decides and why does it matter?

April 05, 2022
By Sophia Williams
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What Is the Difference Between Language and Dialect

When we talk about languages spoken around the world, people often use the words language and dialect interchangeably. There is a clear difference between the two terms, but you might be surprised to learn that the distinction isn’t always clear cut.

What Is A Language?

Most people share a general understanding of what we mean when we say ‘language’, but how do word professionals actually define the word? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.” That’s a good start, but linguists push for a deeper definition.

According to linguists, a language is an abstract system of symbols and meanings governed by grammatical rules. There are generally two main aspects of a language: spoken and written. This is not always the case, though, as many languages do not have a written form. Other ancient or ‘dead’ languages now only exist in text and have no living native speakers. Speaking is the primary aspect of most languages since the functions of writing and reading follow behind speaking and listening.

So Then What’s A Dialect?

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A dialect is sometimes viewed as a subset or ‘type’ of a particular language. It is broadly defined as “a version of a language spoken in a particular geographical area or by a particular group of people.” If the broader language is the parent, then the dialect is the child. Dialects are social or regional variations of a language that are distinguished by grammar, pronunciation, and/or vocabulary. Dialects often differ from the standardised version of the language. One example of this relationship are Cantonese and Mandarin, which are considered dialects of a broader language, Chinese.

Based on these definitions, the differences between the two terms seem simple. Languages are broader, and dialects are smaller and more specific, and often regional. Languages are thought of as more formal and clearly defined, whereas dialects can be looser and more fluid in use. Oftentimes, languages are adopted as “official” by countries and states, but dialects rarely are. As linguist Max Weinreich once wrote, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” Once we start digging down, things become even more complicated.

Then Is An Accent A Dialect??

People from different countries usually sound very different from one another. However, this is often the case for people from different regions within the same country, too. These differences can be so distinct that native speakers of a language can easily guess where someone is from based on their accent alone. Someone from London and someone from Liverpool can guess where the other is from, as can people from Texas and New York, or Spain and Mexico; are these considered different dialects?

While an accent is a distinctive part of what defines a dialect, it’s not the only factor. A dialect also has distinct vocabulary and may have its own grammatical forms or uses. Oftentimes, geographical areas with their own accent also come with their own slang, phrases, or vocabulary in common use. For example, a ‘bloke’ in London is a ‘guy’ in New York, a ‘lorry’ is a ‘truck’, and a ‘lift’ is an ‘elevator’. With both accent and vocabulary differences, is this enough? English clearly has dialects, and perhaps more than you think. There are literally hundreds of dialects, from the UK and US to Canada, Australia and the Caribbean, and even smaller delineations between Scots, Welsh, and “The Queen’s English.” Dialects are commonly found in other widely international languages such as Spanish and French.

Are Similar Languages Just Dialects?

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A person from Madrid and a person from Peru speak different dialects of the same language, Spanish. They can understand each other because the types of language they speak come from a common root of Latin. But then, what about Portuguese? There are many similarities between Spanish and Portuguese, and both share a common root. Speakers of the two languages may, with difficulty, generally understand each other. So are Spanish and Portuguese just dialects of one another? What about the other Romance languages, such as French and Italian? Are they all just dialects of Latin?

The answer is a firm “no”, but linguists are unclear on exactly why. This is where even the professionals disagree, and the definitions of the terms start to break down. Where does that leave us with Mandarin and Cantonese? The two dialects are so different from one another that there is no understanding between the two, and yet they’re considered dialects rather than distinct languages. Some people say that the difference is cultural, that because Spain and Portugal, or Peru and Brazil, have distinct cultures, then they have different languages rather than dialects. On the other hand, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers both come from China and share a similar culture.

One of the biggest talking points in the linguist community is the idea of “mutual intelligibility.” This is the idea that in order to be considered a dialect, two ways of speaking must be understandable by listeners of both dialects. Therefore, all of the English dialects are considered to be part of the English language, but Mandarin and Cantonese are different languages because they lack shared intelligibility.

There Is No Clear Answer

When even linguists don’t agree, we know we’re in a tricky area. Even professionals and academics take more of a “I know it when I see it” approach to the terms rather than settling on a distinct definition of dialects. The boundaries between the subjects are too blurred to differentiate, as some languages are defined as dialects while some dialects seem to have all the aspects to be considered a language. This is the beauty of human language, and the upside to this is that without clear definitions, no one can tell you that you’re wrong! Where you draw the line between the two is really up to you.

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