Language or dialect?

Jun 25, 2010 by

In his comment to an earlier posting, Joel Hoffman said that “what seems like a dialect to one person might seem like a completely different language to another”. And this goes right to the core of why it’s so difficult to draw a precise line between a language and a dialect.

A discussion of this issue must start with the famous quote from Max Weinreich:

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

In other words, a backing of a state makes a linguistic variety a bona fide language. And this is probably why we consider Swedish, Danish and Norwegian three distinct languages rather than three dialects (or perhaps many more distinct dialects) of the same language — Mainland Scandinavian.

But this definition certainly does not work for many other linguistic varieties, some of which do not have a state of their own and others which share a state with other (often unrelated) varieties. While examples of such non-correlation between state and language are numerous in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas, we can find examples of this in Europe too. For example, speakers of Basque have no state of their own, and neither do speakers of most Celtic languages (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are parts of the UK, Brittany is part of France). Another famously stateless group in Europe are the Roma (aka Gypsies), speakers of the Romany language. And of course, speakers of the language so near and dear to Weinreich’s heart — Yiddish — have no state of their own.

Moreover, we can find examples of multiple-languages-same-state situation in Europe as well. In addition to the above mentioned UK and France, this situation obtains in Spain (where Spanish speakers live alongside speakers of Catalan and the Basques), Belgium (which has two official languages: Flemish and Walloon), Switzerland (which has four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romantsch), Romania (where speakers of Romanian live alongside speakers of Hungarian, Rusyn and others) and elsewhere.

Of course, another difficulty is that geopolitical realities change: should the division into languages vs. dialects change with them? The case in point is the former Yugoslavia. While Slovenian and Macedonian are and have always been treated as distinct languages (the latter is more similar to Bulgarian than to any other South Slavic languages), the issue of the other linguistic varietie(s) — the ones spoken in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro — is most thorny. While all of these were parts of Yugoslavia, the linguistic varieties were considered dialects of a single language — Serbo-Croatian. With the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the formerly united language broke into four distinct languages, one for each newly formed country.

Furthermore, these sorts of geopolitical complexities do not reflect any sort of linguistic reality, which is why linguists prefer a different definition of a language versus a dialect: linguistic varieties are considered dialects if they are mutually intelligible and are considered distinct languages if they are not. However, this definition is rife with problems to. First of all, mutual intelligibility is not black-and-white but is a matter of degree and depends largely on the type of situation, psychological attitudes of the speakers and many other non-linguistic factors. Besides that, mutual intelligibility measures similarity between texts and not languages — that is, systems of grammatical rules. And often mutual intelligibility criterion goes against the received wisdom of whether certain varieties are languages or dialects. This is the case, for example, with the Mainland Scandinavian varieties mentioned above: we’d have to work hard to convince speakers of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian that they speak dialects of the same language.

That the speakers themselves would consider their varieties to be distinct languages, despite high degree of mutual intelligibility, is even more true when religion is involved. For instance, there is no linguistic difference between Muslim Tat and Judeo-Tat (most speakers of the latter now live in Israel). And yet, people from those two groups would not be caught dead agreeing that they speak the same language or even dialects of the same language. For them, the two are distinct languages.

So should we rely on the speakers’ perception of their linguistic varieties? There might be a difficulty there too: whether some variety is considered a language or a dialect may depend on who you ask. Take, for instance, Rusyn, an East Slavic variety spoken in Western Ukraine. Speakers of Rusyn themselves (as well as most linguists who study this variety) would consider it a distinct language, on a par with Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian. Yet, Ukrainians (and Ukrainian government) consider Rusyn to be a dialect of Ukrainian, alongside for example the Hutsul dialect.

The take-home message: the distinction between a dialect and a language is very much a fluid one and the decision to call a given linguistic variety a language or a dialect very much depends on the criteria one chooses and on who one asks.

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