distinguish between language and dialect

Distinguish between LANGUAGE and DIALECT: 5 Astonishing reasons why it is Difficult

dialect, language, mutual intelligibility, variety

Curious about the how language and dialect can be differentiated? Distinguish between language and dialect with this informative post, with additional information why it can be difficult to do so.

Introduction: Navigating the boundaries between LANGUAGE and DIALECT

Throughout my worldwide engagements with language educators, I have occasionally been queried about languages and dialects. From these encounters, it has come to my attention that even some professionals potentially misuse the term “dialect” in a pejorative manner – not exactly the way linguists frame it. Indeed, it appears that a significant number of us may lack a clear understanding of how to distinguish between language and dialect

In clarifying the distinctions between language and dialect, we can provide our learners with a more comprehensive understanding of linguistic diversity. This equips them with the capacity to recognise the nuances embedded within various languages and dialects, while fostering a greater sensitivity and respect for diverse cultural identities. Beyond this, such differentiation confers educators the competence to adapt their pedagogical approaches, aptly tackling the distinct challenges presented by assorted dialects. Understanding why we should distinguish between language and dialect is therefore vital for creating inclusive and culturally-sensitive language teaching environments. 

Nevertheless, even linguists themselves have encountered difficulties in precisely delineating the boundary between language and dialect. How does this complexity arise? And what implications does it hold for us? These are some of the simple questions that I am going to tackle in this article, while endowing us with stronger professional knowledge to talk about such issues.

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Difference between LANGUAGE and DIALECT?

how to identify one language from a dialect
Photo from Envato Elements / Can we distinguish between language and dialect just like fruits?

In the article on “Decoding Language and Dialect: What is the difference between a LANGUAGE and a DIALECT? (your Top 5 questions truly answered)”, I discussed the intricate differences between languages and dialects, where dialects are closely related varieties of a language. I also highlighted that a language that we know as it is, is very much simply “a dialect with an army and a navy” – it is the socio-political power of the particular group of people who speak the dialect (e.g. the standard dialect) that grants it the esteemed recognition as “language”. In fact, two or more dialects that could potentially belong to a single language, can also be identified as languages if their speech communities have enough socio-political power to establish their distinctiveness and enable the dialects in question to earn the badge of “language” separately.

The key message is that the difference between a dialect and a language in our laypersons’ world is usually not determined through measures within linguistics. In the case of languages vs dialects, as “dialects” tend to connotate the perceptions of “incorrectness”, “sloppiness” and “corruptness”, linguists prefer “varieties” as a term to denote the dialects.

Notwithstanding such, how then do linguists distinguish between language and dialect? How do linguists decide if two different languages or dialects can be seen as varieties of one another or as discrete languages (or varieties of different languages)? What are the boundaries between a group of varieties that belong to one language vis-à-vis another? Why are some varieties not seen as varieties of certain languages, such as Italian varieties such as Sicilian and Sardinian not seen as varieties of Spanish or English? Unlike geographical boundaries which are physical in nature (or the fruits in the diagram above) and can be clearly defined, the objective difference criterion to distinguish between languages and dialects may be less obvious.

Mutual Intelligibility as the main criterion to distinguish between language and dialect

Mutual Intelligibility
Photo by Adobe Stock / Group of speech bubbles overlapping one another – how to distinguish one from another?

The most commonly cited criterion in distinguishing between languages and dialects would be mutual intelligibility. When speakers from different backgrounds (e.g. educational levels) or different regions (e.g. Edinburgh in Scotland vs Melbourne in Australia) convene and communicate, they are speaking varieties of the same language if they can understand one another even though there are noticeable differences across the various dimensions of language use (e.g. pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary). Their varieties are assessed to be mutually intelligible and are thus varieties of the same language. If they do not understand one another, such in the case of one speaker only speaking Teochew (a Chinese variety) while another speaking Bavarian (a German variety), both are then considered mutually unintelligible and are either discreet languages or varieties of different languages.

Reason 1: No consensus on linguistic measurements

Linguists have developed complicated instruments to measure the linguistic distance of one language / variety to another across different dimensions (e.g. phonological, grammatical, lexical) to establish a more scientific or objective way of determining the degree of mutual intelligibility. However, even if the differences can be measured or modelled, there is no consensus on the weighting given for each dimension in establishing the overall distance and the threshold in qualification of two linguistic codes as related varieties or discreet languages. Basically, what this means is that there is not one universal scientific framework for us to confidently distinguish between language and dialect.

Reason 2: One-way intelligibility occurs, making it difficult to identify a linguistic code as language or dialect

Photo from Envato Elements / One-way road signs – not all intelligibility are necessarily two-way

Even with good measures and consensus, mutual intelligibility has its own issues as a criterion. When we talk about “mutual intelligibility”, it presupposes a bidirectional relationship in terms of intelligibility, such that speakers of two different varieties of the same language fully comprehend each other.

However, there are varieties that present one-way intelligibility, such that speaker of variety B may not understand variety A even though their variety is understood by speakers of variety A. Bahasa Indonesian and Bahasa Melayu are two such language varieties: Indonesians can understand Bahasa Melayu but Malaysians may not understand Bahasa Indonesian. In that sense, should both be classified as discreet languages or varieties of the same language? The same goes for Mandarin vis-à-vis some of the Northern Chinese language varieties.

Furthermore, mutual intelligibility may also be absent if the exposure to speakers of a specific variety is absent. One may not get used to the phonological patterns (or accent), may not be able to discern the functional meaning of certain unique grammatical forms or be completely unaware of the unique lexical items. This can be especially the case for languages with many varieties that cover a large geographical range.

I remember a few years back, soon after Hurricane Katrina, being in a restaurant in Columbus, Ohio, full of Gulf Coast expatriates. An elderly woman at the next table struck up a conversation with me about her time in Columbus, and how expensive she found the city. We spoke for about ten minutes, until her daughter came back and told her to stop talking to strangers. After they left, my table-mate (a fellow Canadian) confessed that he hadn’t been able to understand her side of the conversation at all.

Van Herk, 2012 (What is Sociolinguistics: Chapter 2)

When I announced of my enrolment in a postgraduate programme at the University of Edinburgh a few years back, many of my friends warned me about the incomprehensibility of the English spoken in Scotland. To be frank, I did not experience much of that like my friends did, but I sure experienced difficulty in understanding Tyneside English or Newcastle English when I happened to interact with travelers from Newcastle when I was at touring at Lake District. They appeared asking for directions to a certain town (till date, I could only assume that). While I could perceive that they were speaking English (or were they??), I could hardly comprehend many parts of speech from their way of speaking. In the end, the communication broke down and I could only reply that I am also a tourist and have no idea of directions. While this may relate to complex issues pertaining to dialects and accents, the key point is that mutual intelligibility can fail for linguistic codes we have established to be different dialects of the same language.

Reason 3: Mutual intelligibility criterion passed, but still identified as separate languages

same same but different
Photo from Envato Elements / Are we confident that all the fishes in this photo belong to the same species?

Mutual intelligibility may also fail as a qualifying criterion at another level. Taking German and Dutch as classic examples, many speakers of German varieties and Dutch varieties on the Germany-Netherlands border understand one another even when they claim to speak German varieties vis-à-vis Dutch varieties. Linguistically, these varieties are very much similar if we use the instruments devised by linguists to unpack the linguistic characteristics

In fact, it is unsurprising that the speakers at the borders understand bordering varieties from the neighbouring country more than the varieties further inward in one’s country, such as German variety speakers understanding the bordering Dutch varieties more than German inland varieties. This thus provides the basis for the notion of a dialect continuum, where varieties that are more similar can be considered in adjacency, while another dialect – even if recognised as one – may be placed at a larger distance away. Such continua are generally quite common, especially where one language community borders another, consider Spanish and Portuguese in the frontier in South America. The question then comes: where do we draw the line between languages?

And so, we realise that objective linguistic criteria may still not be the main deciding factor, even for linguists. For instance, some mutually intelligible German and Dutch varieties are classified as either German or Dutch based on whether they’re spoken within a specific country’s border – even by linguists – creating an intriguing division. In a sense, sociopolitical and sociocultural forces are still the key drivers of the identification.

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Reason 4: Interference from sociopolitical forces making it challenging to demarcate language vs dialect by purely linguistic means

political force
Photo by Envato Elements / A group of protestors – what if they were lobbying for a dialect to be declared as a language?

Let us look at two further extreme examples which defy the criterion of mutual intelligibility through sociopolitical forces. In China, Mandarin is upheld by the government as the lingua franca across speakers of different varieties within China. Within the language world of Mandarin (scholars have also adopted the term of “Macro Chinese-Mandarin” 大华语 to frame this phenomenon), there are also varieties of Mandarin that are well established in their regions of usage (e.g. Taiwanese Mandarin, Singapore Mandarin, Malaysian Mandarin). Yet within China, or even in the global Chinese community, traditionally known varieties spoken by Chinese are all identified to be “dialects” of the Chinese language, such as Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, Hakka.

Although speakers of these different varieties do not understand one another (e.g. Cantonese speakers would not understand Hokkien speakers unless they know Hokkien; and vice versa), these varieties are regarded traditionally as Chinese language varieties or Chinese dialects, so much so that linguists would hardly name them otherwise. Try declaring Mandarin and Cantonese as two languages or two varieties of the same language can invite debates among many. Mutual intelligibility saw an epic fail here.

While the case of Chinese languages and varieties illustrates how mutual unintelligible varieties can still be identified as related varieties of a common language, the cases of Scandinavian languages present how mutual intelligible varieties are still identified as discreet languages. We shared earlier that Scandinavian languages of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish could possibly be identified as varieties of one another with the construction of a superordinate term (e.g. Scandinavian?) for the “language”.

However, these languages are now regarded as different languages as they have evolved socially over time to maintain distinctive systems of standardised forms, unique orthographies for their writing systems, specific grammar books and literatures. Most importantly, speakers of the three languages identify with their corresponding nation states separately. As such, mutual intelligibility falters again.

Reason 5: Dialect and language always subject to change

Last but not least, it is also important to note that mutual intelligibility is not a criterion that is free from the dynamic changes in languages and varieties over time. Where languages and varieties evolve, varieties that used to be mutually intelligible may become more and more unintelligible along the continuum. For example, Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian languages are traditionally known to be even closer than the Scandinavian languages, where the main differences are usually lexical. However, speakers of these languages insist that they are different languages. Over time, the three languages have become somewhat more different from one another, even at the phonological levels. In addition, language planners have also made additional efforts in further distinguishing the languages from one another. Over time, these may be indeed considered discreet languages based on mutual intelligibility. Sociocultural and sociopolitical forces prevail again.

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Conclusion: so are we able to qualify the difference between a language and a dialect?

In this article, we have unpacked the challenges when we need to distinguish between language and dialect, even for linguists. As language educators, we may want to sensitise ourselves to these intricacies and be very mindful of the uniqueness of the language / variety we are teaching, while appreciating its interaction with other languages / varieties. While we may not be able to definitely “qualify the difference between a language and a dialect”, we can definitely augment our awareness of the value judgements given to different dialects – as much as the way we view a language spoken by minorities in relation to another official language or national language.

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