Language or dialect: the war of similarities.

Jun 10, 2010 6:32:55 AM / by Rachel Reardon

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According to ethnologue.org, there are 6,909 languages in the world, from Mandarin Chinese, with 870 million speakers, to moribund languages with one or two aged speakers. What counts as a language though? Let’s see some examples:

Let’s say that “language” is the standard language of a country. This would mean that Romani, a language that has more or less 1.5 million speakers, is not a language. Neither is Kurdish, with 16 to 35 million speakers. Let’s also take a look at the Balkan languages: in the former Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croatian was one of the standard languages, as Serbian and Croatian differ from each other as much as American English differs from British English. In the same area today we find Serbian and Croatian--two languages. What happened? We realize that once new countries were established, former dialects became standard languages. Hence, "language" cannot mean "standard language," since what qualifies as a dialect or as standard language depends on geographical and political changes and factors, and not just on the grammar or the vocabulary of the dialect.

Another example like the one of Yugoslavia is Danish and Norwegian. Both languages are standard languages but they are almost identical regarding grammar and vocabulary. And so a Dane and a Norwegian can talk to each other, each speaking their own language, and be mutually understood. The reason is that Norway was under Danish occupation for centuries and at that time Norwegian was just a dialect of Danish.

The opposite situation is happening in China: there are many dialects in China and those with the most speakers are Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese. However, these two dialects have deep differences in grammar and in vocabulary. The differences are like those we have between Romance languages, like Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, etc., which are called “languages.” So again, grammatical and lexical differences do not constitute the characteristics that would differentiate a dialect from a language. Talking about the Romance languages, it is obvious that there are many common elements in grammar and vocabulary, but based on these attributes, couldn't one say that they are dialects of Latin?

There are many, many examples like these: think about the Arabic dialects, some of which are mutually unintelligible, or Venetian, spoken in Venice, which is cognate with Italian but quite distinct from the standard language. Or Sicilian...

We see then that there are languages that could be dialects of other languages and dialects that could be languages. So, what is the difference between a dialect and a language after all?

The answer can be what the Yiddish linguist Max Weireich said, “Language is a dialect with an army and navy” or simply “… a dialect supported by influential people.” When a community wants to become independent from another community, as it happened in Denmark and Norway, they make their dialect a language. When they do not want to become independent and their dialect has some sort of similarity with the standard language, then they say that they speak a dialect of the standard.

Can you think of a good example of what is a language or dialect? Please share by writing a comment.

Also, if you'd like to learn a new language (or should we say dialect?), click below to see if you have free access to Mango Languages through your library. 

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Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Rachel Reardon

Written by Rachel Reardon

Rachel works with some of the coolest marketers, designers, and writers around to help Mango look and sound its best. She loves bold colors, old books, the Montréal metro, and Star Trek. She has conflicting feelings about the Oxford comma.

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