Language, dialect or jargon?

Jun 23, 2010 by

Linguists generally struggle with defining language versus dialect (we’ll take up this issue in later postings), but not everything a layman might call a language or a dialect would qualify as either for a linguist. Here’s an example: Boontling.

It is spoken only in Boonville in Northern California. Wikipedia calls it alternatively a “folk language”, an “extremely esoteric dialect” and a “lingo”. So which is it, a language or a dialect?

The answer is neither. It is true that it has over a thousand unique words and phrases, such as applehead ‘young girl; girlfriend or wife’, bahlness ‘very attractive woman’ and cocked darley ‘man with a gun’. While most Boontling words come from English, its vocabulary has been influenced by Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic, as well as Spanish and Pomoan (a local Native American language).

But what Boontling lacks to be a true language (or dialect, for that matter) is its own grammar. Grammatically, it is just plain old English. Thus, Boontling is neither a full-fledged language, nor even a dialect of English. Lingo or jargon are more appropriate terms for it.

There are many other such linguistic varieties around the world created by various groups to ease in-group identification and prevent outsiders from understanding insiders. Take, for example, the thief jargon (vorovskoj zhargon) in Russian; secret jargon employed by some Řom communities, especially in Britain, the Iberian Peninsula, Scandinavia; or Verlan, the secret language of teenagers in France. All of these linguistic varieties have unique vocabularies (mostly based on the host language), but no unique grammar. Borderline between such lingos and language games are secret languages such as “Pig Latin” in English, fufajskij jazyk in Russian, šatrovački in SerboCroatian and many others. Even Cockney rhyming slang fits the same category. All of these are dictionaries without grammar.

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: