When does a dialect become a language?


It seems so simple on the surface. Around the world, people speak many different languages – English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Swahili, Hindi. Often, speakers of the same language who live in different areas will speak different dialects of the same language, with slight variations in accent and vocabulary. For example, my native language is English, and I speak it using the California dialect. Simple, right?

Then you learn that in 1925, South Africa passed a law declaring Afrikaans, the form of speech widely used by the descendants of Dutch settlers in the country, was NOT a dialect of Dutch, but instead was its own, separate language. Wait, what? Laws can do that?

In the case of Afrikaans, though, there are enough grammatical differences between it and standard Dutch that I would agree it is, indeed, a different language. However, this was not universally accepted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when many still considered it to be a dialect of Dutch (referred to as “Cape Dutch”). A large part of why has to do with the fact that Dutch and Afrikaans are so similar that speakers of the two languages can often understand each other when talking in their native languages.

That’s the litmus test, right? When speakers can understand each other without a translator? Except, that’s not always the case. I speak Spanish, and when I hear someone speaking Italian, I understand something like 90% of what they are saying. Yet Italian and Spanish are definitely different languages. Right?

The concept I’m getting at is what’s known in linguistics as “intelligibility”. This is when speakers are able to understand each other without either of them having to change the language or dialect they are speaking or get a translator. But intelligibility is not the determining factor in whether something is a separate language or a dialect of the same language. If that were the case, there are plenty of English dialects that would have to be classified as languages.

Like, pretty much any British accent that isn't that posh BBC standard newsreader's English.

Like, pretty much any British accent that isn’t that posh BBC standard newsreader’s English.

Here’s another example of where intelligibility gets weird. Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish are universally considered different languages, yet they have a very complicated relationship with each other. These three languages form what is known as a “dialect continuum”, where the local dialects change very gradually as you move from town to town. Neighboring villages will have very similar dialects, while villages father away from each other will have very different dialects. This creates the unusual situation where people in a Swedish town right on the border with Norway will have an easier time understanding their Norwegian neighbors than they would Swedes living on the opposite side of Sweden.

So, where is that dividing line between language and dialect? The fact is, the answer is blurry and can change over time. For example, most people here in the United States probably consider “Chinese” a single language, but linguists now tend to consider it to be many different languages that just happen to share the same writing system. You’ll notice more and more lists of the most widely spoken languages specify “Mandarin Chinese”, instead of simply “Chinese”, holding the #1 slot.

Arabic is even stranger than that. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, “Arabic” is a catch-all term for many, many different forms of speech that are functionally different languages for all practical intents and purposes and are not intelligible at all. However, they all share a Standard Arabic dialect (based on the Arabic of the Koran) that is taught in schools and used for such formal things as news broadcasts and official documents. When Arabic speakers from different countries meet and can’t understand each other, they use Standard Arabic to communicate. Since Standard Arabic acts as a linguistic bridge spanning from Morocco to Iraq, most people, including most Arabic speakers, consider Arabic to be a single language.

On the other hand, someone travelling through India and Pakistan would see the exact opposite effect when it came to the Hindi and Urdu languages spoken there. Or, should I say, language, as pretty much all linguists agree that Hindi and Urdu are simply dialects of one language – Hindustani. Yet most Hindi and Urdu speakers will emphatically insist that this is not the case, that Hindi and Urdu are separate and distinct. The reason is both religious and political. Hindi is India’s national language, and emphasizes the country’s Hindu roots by incorporating many Sanskrit words and using an alphabet based on Sanskrit. Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, and emphasizes the dialect’s ties to Islam by incorporating many Persian and Arabic words and using an Arabic-based script.

When Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s, a similar phenomenon occurred with the Serbo-Croatian language. The warring Serb, Croat, and Bosnian ethnic groups refused to accept that they were all speaking the same language, and declared that their dialects were not dialects at all, but different languages: Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian.

Similarly, there is no reason Moldovan should be considered a separate language from Romanian, other than that Moldova was ruled by the Soviet Union for decades and Moscow demanded that Moldovans think of themselves as Soviet citizens and not as Romanians. Since independence, the country has started to change its laws, now recognizing that Moldovan is really just a dialect of Romanian.

What’s really mind-blowing to me, though, is that Jamaican Patois is considered a language of its own, not a dialect of English. I find that fact fascinating, as I find it to be no more difficult to understand than, say, a cockney or deep southern accent.

Translation: Still pretty hard to understand

Translation: Still pretty hard to understand

So, I guess the answer to “When does a dialect become a language?” is “When the speakers of that dialect decide they are speaking a language.” Or, as one astute observer once put it, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

Where did Labor Day come from?

Labor Day image from Twin Owls Steakhouse

For most holidays, it’s pretty obvious what they are celebrating and where they came from. Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, St. Patrick’s Day celebrates the patron saint of Ireland and Irish culture, Columbus Day celebrates the first arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World, and the Fourth of July celebrates the Declaration of Independence. Yet on the first Monday in September, millions of Americans have a day off of work to go on one last summer vacation or fire up the grill. Why? Where did Labor Day come from?

To answer this question, we need to go back in time to the late 19th century. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and technology was rapidly changing everyone’s lives. In many ways, the standard of living was improving for many, yet for the common industrial worker, life was absolutely terrible in many ways. Workers were forced to man dangerous machines for 10-16 hours, six days a week for crummy pay or risk losing their jobs, and often working-class children were forced to take jobs instead of attend school in order to support their families.

Cotton mill image from the National Archives and Records Administration

It was only natural, then, for workers to start banding together to demand change. Labor unions became a growing force in both the workplace and politics, demanding better working conditions and better pay, in spite of the fact they were illegal at the time.

It was in this context that a machinist from New Jersey who was active in the still-young labor movement named Matthew Maguire spoke before the Central Labor Union in 1882 and proposed a “Labor Day” to celebrate the American worker. This idea started to catch on, as labor unions in New York started holding an annual workers’ parade in early September.

Then, in May 1886, the Haymarket Affair went down in Chicago. What started as a peaceful strike turned violent when police officers fired on the workers on May 3, killing two, and the following day a bomb was thrown at police by radical activists seeking revenge, killing seven officers and four civilians. These shocking events led to an outpouring of public sympathy for industrial workers, as well as fear that without reforms, there would be an armed revolution. After all, socialism, communism, and anarchism all emerged within the labor movement and were growing forces among many workers and intellectuals of the time.

Little by little, new laws were passed in many countries around the world to protect workers and reduce the appeal of more radical political movements. Demands such as child labor bans, minimum wages, eight-hour workdays and occupational safety and health laws were put in place to protect workers, and the labor unions themselves were legalized. In the United States, the Haymarket Affair led state after state to declare the first Monday in September a public holiday for workers, starting with Oregon. By 1894, thirty states honored Labor Day.

In the meantime, the Second International, a political federation of socialist and communist movements in countries around the world (the “Second” in its name refers to the fact it saw itself as the successor to the defunct International Workingmen’s Association that had once included such notable figures as Karl Marx and Mikhail Bakunin) decided to honor the victims of the Haymarket Affair by declaring May 1 to be “International Workers Day”. In Europe, the May 1 holiday caught on, in part because that day was already an important spring festival. Country after country around the world started adopting May 1 as a public holiday honoring workers, and today it is celebrated by the majority of countries around the world.

We Americans just had to be different, though. While there was some support for switching our Labor Day to May 1st so we could line up with the international celebration, our Labor Day tradition was actually older (even if just by a few years), and America’s leaders were not exactly inclined to look like they were supporting a radical organization that included communists among its members.

In any case, the Haymarket Affair would not be the last headline-grabbing violent incident between striking workers and law enforcement. In 1894, the Pullman Strike by railroad workers threatened to shut down vital railroad traffic in Illinois. President Grover Cleveland authorized the U.S. Army to break up the strike and get the trains moving again, but in the process, the soldiers ended up killing 30 and wounding 57. Again, there was mass public outrage at the violence. To appease angry labor unions, Congress unanimously voted only six days later to declare Labor Day a federal holiday, and President Cleveland signed the law.

Today, 222 years later, it is easy to forget just how far we have come since those days, and how much of a struggle it was to get here. We take for granted the fact that we have laws protecting our rights as employees, wherever we may work. We are used to having one of the highest standards of living in the world. In our minds, Labor Day is a day of sports on TV and special sales at our favorite stores. Yet we often don’t stop to remember those who protested, who suffered, and who died to give us these privileges. This year, I will be remembering them.