Language vs. Dialect

LanguageLanguage, like “religion” or “poetry” and many other such abstract words, has fuzzy borders revealing its construed nature. In the above diagram I illustrated the components of language. Toying with any of these components makes one person’s language different from the next. But as for how we should classify these resulting different languages is complicated. In the diagram below, I put the above components in the right column, then I put terms used to describe different language variants in the left column.

Language Variants

Changes in vocabulary can be a form of “slang” (an alternative word) or “jargon” (a technical term). Change prosody in a language and you get an “accent”. These sub-classifications are easy to understand. But get enough difference in vocabulary and accent and you’ll get another dialect or language.  Change grammar and almost inevitably you get another language. But the definition border is fuzzy — see this wiki article on “dialect continuum“.

“Mutual Intelligiblity” is a major decision in classifying languages: when two speakers can not understand each other, they are said to speak different languages. But this is not a clear line. It is unclear exactly how much of the other language should be unintelligible before it counts as a different language and not a dialect. And further, we have the problem that sometimes person A can understand person B’s language but not visa versa.

Heck, some call their languages different from their neighbors simply due to national identity or ethnicity, even though they are essentially the same. Examples: Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian (all of the Shtokavian dialect).

Similarly, though essentially mutually understandable, the difference of scripts will be enough for speakers to insist that they have different languages and not different dialects. Examples: Hindi (Devanagari script) vs. Urdu (Arabic script)


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

8 responses to “Language vs. Dialect

  1. @ David,
    Excellent !

  2. louisediva

    Understanding what someone is saying surely has much to do with listening skills – as well as reading between the lines, with all that ‘non-verbal’ that says so much. Sometimes it can’t be written down, but it can be felt – such is our desire, need and ability to communicate with another human being.

  3. @louisediva,
    I agree!

  4. Culture and nationality play a huge roles in determining language variants as well. I speak from personal experience when I say this. This reason Urdu and Hindi are deemed distinct dialects is because Urdu has originated in a Muslim country. For Pakistanis, for instance, it is important that they characterize their culture and language as distinct from Hindu cultures. This is because Pakistan is an Islamic country. Hope that makes sense. Looking forward to more dialogue….

  5. Before someone else corrects my subject verb disagreement: *play a huge role* – thanks, looking forward to more dialogue…

  6. @ Reema,
    I used to live in Pakistan (and India) and spoke Urdu back then. Pakistan is a newly created Muslim country — a big mistake. India’s new conservative government is trying to make India a Hindu country too — another mistake.

    Pakistani muslims made big moves to take Sanskrit words out of Urdu and make it more like Arabic — it is a language that was intentionally changed to make it more religiously exclusive. Something I really dislike.

    That said, I love Urdu — it is a beautiful language.
    I also like Pushto, your Mother’s native language (I think).

  7. How lovely, I speak both Urdu and Pashto and can tell you that the difference between the two languages is also cultural/nationalistic. Pashto originates from tribes that resided in areas now known as Afghanistan and Urdu in areas known as Pakistan.

    Indeed, the partition didn’t just divide Pakistan and India but also created countries like Bangladesh and the hotly contested land of Kashmir.

    I prefer not to make any judgments about whether or not it was a bad political choice. However, I believe that it was an outcome of history that was a product of European colonialism. The British (rather injudiciously) cut and marked the borders between what is now Pakistan and India.

    Thank you for visiting my blog – yes, Pashto is my mother’s native tongue and also mine. I was born in the Northwest region of Pakistan, home to many Pakistanis who are also Pashtuns.

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