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.”

One Response to When does a dialect become a language?

  1. John says:

    Hello, If you study country patois in Jamaica, and not the street-cred “patois” that is standradised outside the island in USA and UK you will see differences. Jamaican country patois has a unique and complex grammar unlike standard English, it also incorpoarate words never used in English, taken from mostly untraceable “African” words, such as “nyam” in many African languages = nyama = meat = “food or to eat food”

    Overseas patois as you cite has lost it’s roots to some extent and reblended black English onto patois!!!

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