LANGUAGE AND DIALECT
In the field of sociolinguistics, the distinction between language and dialect can often be murky. Where differentiating the two is concerned, there is no criterion that is accepted everywhere; however, the existing plurality of standards has lead to confusion and dissension. Some linguists have set a boundary of sorts not by providing a definition but by using an illustration. If two speakers using different but related speech can understand each other, then either they are speaking the same language, of which one is a dialect, or they are speaking dialects of the same language. If they can’t understand each other, then they are speaking distinct, separate languages. But even this simple test invites debate, and has lead some linguists to use the term “language variety” for its unbiased, neutral tone.
Another criterion involves linguistic authority. It is based on the premise that if speakers of two varieties of speech consult the same authority to settle a question about usage, then the varieties are understood to be dialects. Based on this definition, speakers of either Bavarian German or East Franconian German, dialects of the German language, would probably refer to a German-speaking expert to settle a usage problem. However, the Yiddish language, which is a variety of German spoken by the Ashkenazi Jews and utilizes the Hebrew alphabet for its writing system, is different for some reason. The language shares vocabulary with dialects of German, but Yiddish speakers would not consult a German expert. By this criterion, Yiddish is not considered a dialect of German despite the fact that Yiddish is essentially a High German dialect, or a variety of German spoken throughout neighboring countries of Germany and in Germany itself.
Some linguists see historical development as significant, viewing any speech form that is derived from an older variety of communication as being a dialect. Therefore, modern Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Italian are considered dialects of Latin. However, although several varieties may have a genetic relationship with an older tongue, these varieties may or may not even be mutually comprehensible. For instance, while Italian and Spanish are more mutually intelligible than French and Spanish, the historical viewpoint sees French and Spanish and French and Italian as being genetically closer.
A system involving the geographical area from which a dialect originated has also been used by linguists. Varieties are categorized into isoglosses, the locational boundaries where a certain linguistic feature is manifest. This measure, however, fails to take into consideration the temporal and geographical factors that contribute to language change and development, such as migrations of peoples, differences in geographical distribution, and the melding of language varieties.
It is clear, then, that languages and dialects defy categorization. If anything, the various criteria merely invite debate, even create conflict at times, particularly when the reputation of a region or a country is at stake. For example, Hong Kong’s education department announced that Cantonese is not an official language of Hong Kong; by law, the special administrative region’s official languages are Chinese and English. That the actual official language of Hong Kong is Cantonese was not an issue to the local government, which labeled Cantonese a dialect. Many Cantonese-speaking Chinese protested and demanded officials to recant, which they did. Language isn’t merely a means of communication; it indicates political and social status. Hence, the protests of the Cantonese-speaking Chinese.
The political standard is widespread. A language variety is called a standard language or a standard dialect if it is supported by the institutions of a state or country. This means that it has government recognition and may even be designated as the “official language”. A correct form of the variety exists, having a published grammar, dictionary and textbooks, and used in schools and other institutions. Some examples are Standard American English, Standard Canadian English, and Standard Australian English. However, this implies that nonstandard varieties also exist, having grammar, dictionary and even textbooks, but don’t have the support of the country or state’s institutions. A case in point is American English, which could refer to the general English spoken by the mainstream, or to any one of several English dialects, e.g. New York English, Coastal Southern English and Black English.
The dispute concerning a standard variety is not limited to regions within a country or among neighboring countries where there are clear similarities in vocabulary, grammar and phrasing. To illustrate, are Canadian English, Australian English, American English and British English dialects? Some say that the English of these lands are one and the same; the only difference is in how words are pronounced. However, linguists point to differences in grammar, vocabulary, speech patterns and even spelling. For instance, Canadians may start a sentence with “as well” to mean “in addition,” or may end a sentence with “eh” to mean “right”. The Americans say, “I have a new car”; the British say, “I have got a new car.” Still, the differences are not so significant as to cause a misunderstanding.
Much of the misapprehension that exists today has to do with how dialects are viewed. People assume that a language that is official and has a written form is more reputable than a language that is spoken and whose written form is non-existent. To linguists, however, the written form of a language doesn’t carry as much weight; speech is considered paramount and universal by linguists, and this is likely because while some 7,000 languages are used worldwide, a mere fraction have a writing system. This is the reason that a shared language (or dialect) is simply a language in which two people can comfortably communicate. Continued research will help linguists understand why languages change, why and how they are innovated, and the variations in languages that occur in time and space. It may also help people to understand why language varieties are so diverse despite their relationship with other languages, and hopefully to view each language without bias.