Language and Dialect

Decoding Language and Dialect: What is the difference between a LANGUAGE and a DIALECT? (your Top 5 questions truly answered)

accent, dialect, englishes, jargon, language, slang, variety

What is the difference between language and dialect? Uncover the shades of meaning behind these terms as we explore the diverse definitions and debates surrounding language variation in this illuminating article.

Introduction: The fuzzy relationship between LANGUAGE and DIALECT

People frequently employ the terms “language” and “dialect” to depict varying manifestations of similar entities; nevertheless, comprehending the differentiation between them remains pivotal for comprehending the intricacies within linguistic diversity. Despite their frequent interchangeability, it is imperative to recognise that the terms language and dialect possess discrete connotations.

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Many Englishes, Much Difference

When I was learning English during my secondary school days, my teacher used to comment a lot about learning the Queen’s English. It was held as the pinnacle of standards in the language, for which all of us should aim. In Singapore, English is one of the official languages and the dominantly used one, alongside three other official languages – Chinese-Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. The wide use of English is due to its position as the main administrative language and is generally the lingua franca for communication among the different ethnic communities in Singapore.

It was not very obvious to me back then as to what constituted a “Queen’s English” and why it was held as the model of language learning. In fact, many questions flew in my mind. How is this different from the English we use? Are there other “Englishes”, such as “King’s English”, “Knights’ English”? How do they differ from one another and why is the “Queen’s English” held in esteem in contrast to the rest?

It was only years later, or rather decades later, when I came to realise the questions I asked back then were some fundamental issues addressed in sociolinguistics – on languages and dialects or varieties. Based on record from, a platform which mission is to document profiles of languages around the world, there are specifically 7,151 known living languages as of 2 July 2022. According to Professor Kirk Hazen, renowned professor of linguistics at the West Virginia University of the USA, these languages can be further grouped into over hundred families. Among the languages, there are numerous variants of a sizeable number of languages (Yes, welcome to the Multiverse of Madness, featuring “Languages”).

A safe guess is that we have at least 10,000 varieties of human language, but that is probably a ridiculously low estimate.

Hazen, 2015 (An Introduction to Language)

Coming back to English, the older me was very much enlightened to the questions raised by my younger self when I immerse more into the world of applied linguistics. There is not just one monolithic version of “English”, but a world of “Englishes”. This concept of “World Englishes” emerged in the 1960s, largely attributed to the late Jubilee Professor of Linguistics at the University of Illinosis, Professor Braj Bihari Kachru. It represents the complexities of the different variants of English used around the world, each with its characteristics, legitimised in its specific context of use, demonstrates the nature of variation in language use and provides an important concept to discuss related issues and perspectives. The Queen’s English is but one of the many varieties of English, and even Singapore have two to three varieties of English arguably.

What about other languages? In our article “What is LANGUAGE? Cracking the code with 5 definitions of language that matter according to research in linguistics”, we combed through various canonical definitions and explore the different language conceptualisations. What we did not touch was the issue on the “boundaries” of languages.

From where does one named language start, and till where does it end? When is a named language a language, and not a dialect or variety? And vice versa? How do we distinguish between language and dialect? The discussion of language versus dialect is important in the sense that it pushes us to engage in a face-off with our unseen biases and ideological assumptions about language and the standards we are upholding.

Face-off between LANGUAGE and DIALECT

face off
Photo from Envato Elements / Two fists pressed against one another, just like a clash between confusing concepts

We might have used the word “dialect” in our daily conversations at different moments. However, the way we use it and the meanings denoted in its use can be very different from the way it is defined by linguists. In popular usage, a language is one relatively held in a position of prestige and used in formal contexts, such as the medium of instruction in schools, the subject of grammar books, and the ones used administratively by governments while a dialect is one which can only be used in informal contexts, such as during daily conversations with family and friends or transactions at the neighborhood stores; a language is also usually delineated by specific standards and have written forms whereas a dialect usually exist only as a conversational form; a language is generally described as “correct”, “pure” and “proper”, while a dialect is characterised as “incorrect”, “corrupt” and “sloppy”.  In other words, there is a strong positive connotation and value judgement to using language in contrast to dialect.

Linguists tend to suspend the value judgement in the identification of languages vs dialects. Similar to popular usage, the term “dialect” is also used in contrast to “language”. However, linguists aim to use “dialect” as a neutral term to technically refer to distinct forms of “language”. These distinct forms usually differ from one another along three levels: phonological, where the pronunciation of words and sentences can be evidently different (e.g. think about eleven in Scottish English vs British English vs American English); grammatical, where the syntactic and morphological manifestations can also vary (e.g. word order of African American Vernacular English vs American Standard English); and lexical, where obviously different words are used (e.g. “pants” in American English vs British English denote different garments).

Under such a definition, a dialect is considered as one variant or subset of a larger concept of language. For example, Scottish English, British English, Singapore English, American English, Australian English and Indian English and all the different “World Englishes” are the many dialects of the same language – the larger concept of “English”. In this sense, language can be seen as the superordinate category for related dialects. And now, the language educator in you might be thinking: “Am I teaching a language or dialect?”

When is a language a dialect? When is a dialect a language?

when is one something
Photo from Envato Elements / Different species of trees clearly demarcated by a wall – if only language and dialect can be differentiated in this manner

While such a definition of “dialect” and “language” generally hold for most applications within linguistic discourses, reality is much messier than we hope for them to be. Many separate languages that we know today are very much similar to one another based on purely linguistic criteria. Classic examples include the Scandinavian languages of Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. Linguists could identify them as “dialects” of one another. However, what would be the superordinate category of “language” here?

This brings us to the next question: when does a “dialect” become a “language”? Can a dialect become a language? As famously put forward in a quote, attributed to Max Weinreich, a linguist who specialises in Yiddish and sociolinguistics: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. In other words, a dialect can be legitimised as a language when speakers of the dialect have enough political power to construct its distinctiveness and bestow it the crown of “language”.

Increasingly, linguists prefer the use of “varieties” in contrast to “dialects” to avoid any negative connotations. In this manner, even the standard variety which has been bestowed the label “language” can also be referred to as a variety, alongside its many related varieties. You could have notice that I tried to do the similar thing earlier in this article. Otherwise, linguists may also try to declare the non-judgemental approach by highlighting how they modify the term dialect to denote the prestige or standard variety and the less socially favoured one (e.g. standard dialect vs non-standard or vernacular dialect, while emphasising that non-standard does not imply substandard).

Every variety is a dialect, including the standard variety, and there is an increasing trend toward discussing discrete languages as ideologically constructed rather than linguistically real entities.

Wardhaugh & Fuller, 2015 (An Introduction to Sociolinguistics)

What are the different types of dialects?

In my earlier discussion, I used examples from various regions to illustrate what dialects or varieties are, especially with the many dialects of English. Undoubtedly, English is used as a classic example because most of us would not regard the different varieties of English as separate languages (e.g. British English and American English not viewed as two different languages). We easily perceive them to be different versions of English as associated with defined geographical spaces. In this case, we see that dialect is a regional variation of a language. Linguists group such dialects as regional dialects, where the distinct forms of a language are spoken in different regions within a country or around the world (e.g. Yorkshire dialect in England, Bavarian dialect in Germany).

Another type of dialect that is of interest to sociolinguists is the social dialect. Social dialects are distinct varieties of a language spoken by members of a specific social group, and may also be known as “sociolects”. The specific social groups could include groups differentiated by social factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic class and occupation. Common examples of social dialects that have been studied widely include working-class dialects in England and ghetto languages in the USA.  In particular, social dialects based on ethnicity have also been of particular interest. These include examples such as Yiddish English (associated with speakers of Eastern European Jewish ancestry), African American Vernacular English and Chicano English.

While linguists try to consolidate different categories of dialects systematically to streamline the process of research scholarly exchanges, the task of identifying dialects does not typically exhibit such precise congruence. In actual fact, many of the dialects are linguistic phenomena arising from a combination of regional and social factors (with interaction across different social factors) and do not neatly go into any pigeon hole.

How do we distinguish language vs dialect using linguistic argumentation?

Perhaps for some of us, we face a more fundamental confusion. How do we know whether two languages are indeed two different languages, and not dialects of one language? For instance, how do we decide that the varieties of English are indeed considered dialects, and not simply different languages? What is the difference between a particular language (e.g. German, Spanish, Mandarin) and these dialects in relation to English?

The most commonly used criterion, albeit a bit blunt, would be mutual intelligibility. Basically, if speakers of two distinct linguistic codes are able to understand one another without prior learning, the two linguistic codes are considered mutually intelligible. The speakers are regarded to be speak the same language and the two linguistic codes are defined as two dialects of the same language. In contrast, if the speakers do not understand one another, the two linguistic codes are viewed as mutually unintelligible and the speakers are perceived to speak different languages.

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Why does mutual intelligibility fail as a differentiating factor?

Unfortunately, mutual intelligibility does not always work in the way we hope for it to (I believe some of us might have concocted examples to dispute this). To be fair, linguists have devised sophisticated instruments for quantify the linguistic distance between different linguistic codes to measure the degree of mutual intelligibility. These instruments take into consideration various dimensions, including phonological, grammatical, and lexical differences. Despite so, there is no universally accepted threshold or weighting on the dimensions to draw the line between language or dialect

To make matters worse, languages or dialects are not static entities. They change with time and can be further shaped by socio-political forces. Even when the instruments are rigorous and accurate, different languages can converge and become more similar while different varieties can evolve to become more dissimilar from one another. Strong extralinguistic forces can also shape and eventually position languages in relation to dialects, with the classic example of the Chinese languages. For a more thorough discussion of this issue, you can read this article

What is the difference between dialect and accent? What about slangs and jargons?

Photo from Envato Elements / Internet slangs – is this also considered a form of dialect?

Related to dialects, sometimes we do encounter questions on how slangs, jargons and accents relate to dialects. Are these terms synonymous? It is thus important to remind ourselves that linguistic codes can differ across many dimensions. While the degrees of difference may vary across different dialects or dialect groups, we can at least confirm that dialects are not unidimensional concepts – they differ across dimensions. In that sense, slangs, jargons and accents can be somewhat subsets of a dialect zoomed in a single dimension.

The term “slang” is usually employed to talk about lexical items or words that exhibit some sort of non-neutral social meaning. Slangs usually have synonyms that are more neutral in tone (e.g. wacky vs strange, Gucci vs good/cool). Unlike variation in lexicon of dialects which are usually long-term and sustained, slangs can be short-lived and are popular for a limited period of time. “Jargons” also belong to the lexical level and are specialised words or expressions typically used by a professional group in a particular domain, such as programming jargons and academic jargons. Last but not least, “accents” specifically refer to the phonological level of variation (e.g. way of speaking, distinctive speech patterns, pronounce words differently), and do not denote variation at other levels. As such, dialects should not be seen to be synonymous with “slangs”, “jargons” and “accents”, even though the latter can be a subset of a dialect.

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Conclusion: Languages and varieties seen as equals

In this article, we have discussed the responses to questions surrounding language in relation to dialect. We acknowledge that there may be variation to the language or varieties that we are teaching, and we also understand that the boundaries between languages and varieties are not that clear. If there is one strong message that I want drive through this article, is that all languages and varieties can be characterised objectively, and not one is inherently superior or inferior to another. That would mean all of them are worth learning and their values are socially constructed. We, as language educators, will play a pertinent role in reinforcing these messages – regardless of whether we are teaching a language or a dialect.

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