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What is the difference between a language and a dialect? Show more Show less
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Are Mandarin and Cantonese individual languages, or are they dialects of Chinese? Questions like these would be easier to answer if dialects and languages were easy to define, but linguists still disagree on the difference between the two.

There is too much variability in the way each is described to divide them Show more Show less

There are too many exceptions to the definitions of languages and dialects to clearly distinguish them.
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The excessive variation in definitions means they cannot be differentiated

Languages and dialects cannot be neatly categorized as separate phenomena because none of the popular, scholarly, or sociopolitical definitions are sufficient.

The Argument

There are several definitions that have attempted to capture the distinction between a language and a dialect, but there are too many linguistic varieties that do not neatly fit into these definitions for them to be valid. One criterion that supposedly defines two or more linguistic varieties as languages and not dialects is that they are not mutually intelligible--that is, the speakers of one language should not be able to understand the speakers of another without training. By this definition, two people who speak different dialects of the same language should be able to understand one another without any issue, but this is not always the case. Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish are all widely considered to be separate languages, yet all three are mutually intelligible.[1] And Mandarin and Cantonese are often classified as dialects of Chinese, but the speakers of one cannot understand the other.[2] The other main criterion used to distinguish languages and dialects is best expressed in a quote by sociolinguist Max Weinreich: "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy."[3] Essentially, this means that languages are official, standard, written, and prestigious while dialects are not. However, there are several problems with this viewpoint. This definition perpetuates the belief that the standard variety (language) is inherently better and that vernacular speech (dialect) is less sophisticated. Also, many nonstandard dialects are written down, both in linguistic research and even on social media platforms like Twitter. Since none of the previously established criteria can differentiate between languages and dialects, we can only say that language does not exist--only dialects.[1]

Counter arguments

This view erases the fact that both the linguistic and sociopolitical definitions can account for much of the differences between languages and dialects although more research in this area is needed to fully distinguish the two. Also, saying that only dialects exist and not languages is unhelpful in many ways. For one, it would be difficult to analyze and discuss language families and how different languages are related, especially for a language like English that has many dialects. It is much easier and more efficient to unite all a language's dialects for the purposes of analyzing large-scale language change through time, for example. This "solution" would also not necessarily change the fact that some dialects have more social power and prestige than others, and many dialects would likely remain stigmatized. Finally, current research suggests that human brains process bilingual code-switching differently than dialectal code-switching. Since the mind recognizes language as a valid phenomenon separate from dialect, linguistic theory should do the same.[4]

Proponents

Premises

Rejecting the premises

References

  1. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/01/difference-between-language-dialect/424704/
  2. https://www.babbel.com/en/magazine/accents-and-dialects
  3. https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/02/what-s-the-difference-between-a-dialect-and-a-language.html
  4. https://www.dundee.ac.uk/news/2018/new-study-finds-dialects-and-languages-are-processed-differently.php?utm_content=buffer2f4ff&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

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This page was last edited on Monday, 5 Oct 2020 at 15:07 UTC