Mar 25, 2014

Language or Dialect: a Question for the Army to Decide

written by Jeanette Koenig

A recent article in the Economist reported an incident where the Chinese government claimed essentially that Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese, rather than a language in its own right, much to the indignation of the residents of Hong Kong. This led to a discussion of the difference between language and dialect. Put simply, a dialect is a language variety. When speakers of a given language are isolated geographically or socially from one another, the way they speak it begins to differ, and dialects form. When the differences between two given dialects reach a certain threshold, the varieties are considered to be separate languages.

The line between dialect and language is fuzzy and subjective. The differences between the Romance languages (e.g., Spanish, French, Italian) are about as great as the differences between many of the Chinese languages (e.g., Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese), yet the former are accepted as separate languages, whereas the latter are considered by many to be mere dialects. Part of the reason for this is because socio-political factors play a role in perception of dialects vis-a-vis languages. The Europeans consider themselves to be individual countries, whereas the Chinese government encourages its citizens to think of themselves as one people. Hence, linguist Max Weinreich popularized the adage that “a language is a dialect with an army and navy”—the different European groups command their own armed forces, whereas the Chinese language groups do not.

The trouble with this logic is that it implies that American English and Australian English are different languages. It also implies that Canadian English and Canadian French are merely dialects of one another. More practical is the linguistic criterion of mutual intelligibility: if speakers of two varieties can understand one another, they are speaking different dialects; if not, they are speaking different languages. Hence, Cantonese and Mandarin would be separate languages, not dialects. Turkish and Kyrgyz would be different dialects, because their speakers can understand each other. However, this is really only a rule of thumb, because the speakers could be making all sorts of accommodations in their way of speaking to make themselves understood. Therefore, the mutual intelligibility criterion has to be modified. One person proposed the “gossiping housewives” test. If a speaker of one dialect overhears two speakers of another dialect chatting in the way that they speak in normal conversation, with no accommodations for outsiders, can the eavesdropper understand them?

On the other hand, I frequently have to put the subtitles on when I watch a British movie, because I have so much trouble understanding what is said. This is particularly the case if the speakers are using some regional variety of British English. Does this mean that American and British English are different languages? Or does the fact that the written forms of their languages are the same (by and large) render them as different dialects of a common language? But then, Cantonese and Mandarin, which are mutually unintelligible when spoken, might be dialects of the same language because their written forms are the same, that is, something written in Cantonese is understandable in Mandarin, and vice versa. Meanwhile, Serbian and Croatian, which differ mainly in that one uses a Cyrillic alphabet and the other uses a Latin one (there are other differences, but they are not significant), would have to be categorized as separate languages. Of course, this ignores the crucial difference between the writing systems of Chinese and the West: the western writing systems reflect the sound of the language, whereas the Chinese system does not. In Chinese, a given symbol for a given meaning has completely different pronunciations in Mandarin and Cantonese.

The point is, there is no distinct line between dialect and language, but rather a continuum. The closer the geographical distance between language groups, the more features they tend to have in common. Languages in close proximity to one another tend to merge, while a given language spread over a wide geographical area tends to diverge into different varieties. In fact, the different languages spoken along political borders may have more in common with each other than with the same languages further away from the border. For example, the people living in southern Sweden find it easier to communicate with the Danes right across the border than with the Swedes living in the north, hence the conjecture that Swedish and Danish are actually two different dialects, not two different languages.

Therefore the question of whether Cantonese and Mandarin, or French and Italian, or Lebanese Arabic and Egyptian Arabic are dialects or separate languages is rather murky. Because culture is tied to language, subjective perception and national identity of the native speaker play at least as much a role in determining dialect as objective linguistic criteria.


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